For the people of Qatar, December 18 will be a special day. In the morning, they will gather together to celebrate the country’s national day. And in the evening, they will tune in to watch the final match of the FIFA men’s football World Cup, which kicks off in Doha this coming Sunday. This happy coincidence is the coronation of Qatar’s football strategy: to make football the stepping stone of its international ascent—and national security.
In the last two decades, football has become a soft power tool for many wealthy states, from those in the Persian Gulf to Russia to countries of Southeast Asia. It’s easy to understand why: football is the world’s most popular sport, watched by billions of fans in all continents. Football investments, which require huge amounts of cash, guarantee global visibility and astounding financial revenues.
But for Qatar, football is not only about projecting a positive international image, boosting tourism, or diversifying the economy away from natural gas. It also is a guarantor of the country’s security, shielding it from the undesired attentions of hostile neighbors.
This is a strategy that Qatari leaders started devising in the early 1990s, shortly after the end of the first Gulf war. They worried that their country, endowed with almost unlimited natural resources but surrounded by powerful enemies, could suffer the same fate as Kuwait—invasion by a larger neighbor. After his accession to power in 1995, the country’s then ruler Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani moved on different fronts to secure Qatar’s future.
To guarantee hard security, in 1996 he inaugurated the Al-Udeid air base—which is today the largest U.S. base in the Middle East. With regard to soft power, the emir launched Al-Jazeera, which has become one of the most recognized Qatari brands and a formidable influence tool in the region and beyond. In the years that followed, Doha made investments in highly visible global companies, such as Harrods, Miramax Films, Royal Dutch Shell, and Porsche. The calculation was that the more the world spoke about Qatar, the less its neighbors would be tempted to stage an act of aggression against it.
International sports quickly became a prime tool of this strategy. Qatar purchased the London 2012 Olympic Village, which has been turned into luxury apartments, and was the first-ever sponsor of the Royal Ascot horse racing event in 2014. The country also became a prime venue for international sporting events. Qatar has hosted over 20 first- and second-order events since the early 2000s, including the 2006 Asian Games, the 2016 World Cycling Championships, and the 2019 World Athletics Championships.
Football, with its soaring popularity and massive revenue generation, has brought this strategy to a different level. The rest of the sporting events hosted by Qatar pale in comparison to the 2022 World Cup, a truly global event that will be watched on television by a projected audience of 5 billion people. Qatar has spent $220 billion in preparing for the tournament, building new stadiums, hospitals, hotels, airports, and transportation networks. The World Cup is expected to generate $9 billion in revenue for Doha—in addition, of course, to worldwide celebrity and glory.
Since Qatar was assigned the World Cup hosting rights in 2010, amid widespread allegations of corruption, the Gulf country has become a global football powerhouse. It has done so by means of an elaborate strategy that has developed in three directions.
First, Qatar has associated itself with the world’s best football clubs—either by means of lucrative sponsorships or direct control. Fans are nowadays used to seeing the name of Qatar on the jerseys of their most successful national clubs, from FC Barcelona in Spain to Bayern Munich in Germany to Boca Juniors in Argentina. French top division club Paris Saint Germain (PSG) is Qatar’s football crown jewel. The government-controlled Qatar Sports Investments acquired PSG in 2011, turning it into one of the most successful European clubs. The man chosen to lead the club, Nasser al-Khelaifi, is the former tennis instructor and a confidante of Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who succeeded his father, Hamad bin Khalifa in 2013. With his leading roles in the UEFA Executive Committee and the European Club Association, Khelaifi is one of the most powerful actors in world football today.
The control of international broadcasting rights has been a second avenue for Qatar’s global football expansion. Today, hundreds of millions of football fans watch football on BeIN Sports, Qatar’s sports network, which reaches 43 countries in five continents, with channels in Arabic, English, and French and which is chaired by none other than Khelaifi. Similarly to Al-Jazeera, BeIN is a powerful tool of regional influence—at least, that is what Qatar’s enemies think.
Finally, enormous domestic investments have been a third way for Qatar to improve its international football standing. The Aspire Academy, established in 2004, is one of the world’s most celebrated football talent development programs. It scouts 5,000 Qatari children aged eleven every year, offering the most talented education grants until the age of eighteen. By giving priority to Qatari-born players as well as non-Qatari-born youths—typically, children of socioeconomic migrants who lived most of their life in Qatar—the Aspire Academy has vastly improved the quality of Qatar’s football movement. It has also redefined what it means to be a Qatari.
But is Qatar’s football strategy ultimately paying off? Looking at the way PSG, BeIN Sports, and the Qatari national team have been embroiled in geopolitics in recent years, one will conclude that yes—it is. In the early days of the Gulf blockade of Qatar, PSG was a formidable communication tool. A few weeks after the start of the blockade, the team signed record-breaking deals to acquire Brazilian captain Neymar and French rising star Kylian Mbappé. The size of the investment, over $450 million for the two players, brought unprecedented attention to Qatar and its almost unlimited financial might at a time when the country was supposed to be internationally isolated. At the nadir of its regional relations, Qatar was at the peak of its global fame.
The Gulf feud soon spilled over into football broadcasting rights, too. In late 2017 a pirate channel called beoutQ, whose origins were quickly traced to Saudi Arabia, started to illicitly air BeIN’s content, causing considerable damage to Qatar’s image and finances. After a few years of controversy and with support from the major European football leagues, Qatar had the last word on the matter. In 2020 the World Trade Organization ruled that Saudi Arabia had breached global rules on intellectual property rights by failing to prosecute the pirate broadcaster.
Tensions between Qatar and its neighbors have translated on the football pitch, too. To this day, the victory over the United Arab Emirates in the semi-final of the 2019 Asian Cup remains perhaps the proudest moment in Qatar’s football history. The politically charged match was played in Abu Dhabi in front of a crowd completely hostile to Qatar—with only local supporters being allowed into the stadium. With a team almost entirely developed at the Aspire Academy, Qatar thrashed the UAE 4-0 and proceeded to win the tournament in a final against Japan. Emirati officials stayed away from the award ceremony and contested the result afterward.
Many observers have also claimed that the 2022 World Cup played a role in ending the Gulf blockade in early 2021. After unsuccessfully trying to strip Qatar of the tournament, its neighbors eventually had to end the embargo in order to partake in the revenues the tournament would bring to the region.
Doha’s initial calculation—that the more the world speaks about Qatar, the smaller the risk of an aggression—is holding true. But football has brought Qatar a lot of bad press as well. The poor safety and welfare conditions of workers building the World Cup infrastructure, the tournament’s high environmental impact, and the insufficient protection of women’s and LGBTQ rights in the Gulf country have been put under the spotlight. But Doha can just shrug off all criticism: The World Cup’s biggest reward—global celebrity—has already been earned.
But if the World Cup is the crowning moment of Qatar’s football strategy, it is also a turning point for the country’s foreign policy. When the tournament is over, Doha will need to think of new ways to foster its international ambitions. A “post-FIFA strategy” will require that Emir Tamim give new substance to the country’s global posture—from balancing its position between China and the United States to helping fix European energy shortages and becoming a green energy regional hub. While this might mark a turn toward more hard security matters, recent decisions assigning Qatar the hosting rights of the 2023 Asian Football Cup and the 2030 Asian Games suggest that the country’s keen interest in the soft power of football—and sports—will remain.