How Qatar’s Soft Power Won the World Cup
Qatar successfully used the World Cup to advance its political goals, markedly advancing its soft power and epitomizing how the small state has become an influential player in global affairs.
The FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 was historic. It was the first World Cup held in the Middle East, the first played in a majority-Muslim country, and the third most highly attended in history, with a recorded attendance of 3,404,252 fans. More than 1.4 million fans from across the globe visited Qatar for the event.
Qatar’s purpose was to seek global prominence, further promote its image, make the country into a tourism and business hub, and cut economic dependence on oil and gas by creating other sources of growth. The event took twelve years of planning and between $200-300 billion in infrastructure spending in new stadiums, world-class museums, and a public transportation system. The event is expected to contribute $17 billion to Qatar’s economy, while its GDP is estimated to grow by 4 percent in 2022. The World Cup will also breathe new life into the tourism sector. Qatar is targeting 6 million international visitors annually by 2030, almost three times the number in 2019. Qatar’s efforts to continue diversifying and growing the non-hydrocarbon sectors of its economy were dramatically boosted by its hosting of the event.
The ripple effect of the World Cup in Qatar will be felt for years. Indeed, it will be a major catalyst in accelerating the growth of its rapidly developing economy. The country’s global influence has risen. In the next three years, Doha will host prestigious competitions such as the world judo, swimming, and table tennis championships. There is now significant interest in Doha becoming the venue for the 2036 Olympic Games. Formula One returns to Qatar in 2023, and a major renovation of Qatar’s racetrack went ahead during the World Cup shutdown.
Yet, it has not all been good news. The World Cup was mired in controversy over Qatar’s human rights record. As expected, Qatar faced relentless criticism from human rights groups over its position on LGBTQ+ rights (same-sex relations, for one, are illegal in Qatar) and its treatment of women and the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who live in the country. Reports of harassment against visitors based on their LGBTQ+ expression only magnified the Qatari human rights record. Freedom House, a global human rights watchdog, maintained that Qatar’s broader human rights situation has worsened during the last twelve years.
There were also many accusations that Qatar had exploited migrant workers, who comprise close to half of the country’s population. Qatar admits that 500 workers died during the construction of the World Cup. Rights groups say the death toll is far higher than reported and condemned the conditions endured by migrant workers.
In November 2022, the European Parliament formally condemned Qatar for suspected human rights abuses against migrant workers. The Parliament also demanded that Qatar fully implement a series of passed (though not fully applied) labor reforms, denounced Qatar’s criminalization of same-sex relations and anti-gay rhetoric, and appealed to Doha to increase female representation in its professional sector.
Qatar, however, has taken steps to improve the rights of migrant workers after the public backlash. It introduced reforms: a minimum wage; ended kafala, a labor regulation system that gave private citizens and companies what was seen as excessive control over migrants’ employment/immigration status; and restricted work time in extremely hot weather. These reforms were commended by the International Labor Organization, even though rights groups like Amnesty International declared that weak regulations and a lack of enforcement mean that far more needs to be done. Rights groups have also called for a special fund to compensate workers who died while building the World Cup projects, which Qatar ultimately rejected. Nevertheless, Qatar plans to distribute $350 million from an existing fund as compensation for injuries and deaths. This controversy has led even some of Qatar’s closest allies to seek reassurances that recent reforms will be permanent. The United States, for example, has encouraged Qatar to demonstrate its commitment to labor reforms and human rights beyond the event.
Notwithstanding the sharp criticisms regarding Qatar’s human rights abuses, the event was a spectacular success. Certainly, the World Cup was very professionally managed, unique and memorable, ensuring its status as one of the greatest World Cups in living memory. Qatar has highlighted the Arab fervor shown at the World Cup to claim its success. Thus, for Qatar, the real achievement of the World Cup was in politics, business deals, and international recognition, which may bolster its national security.
Qatar’s single most important attainment was in politics. Qatar, a tiny country that sits across the border from Saudi Arabia and across the Gulf from Riyadh’s arch-rival, Iran, is situated in a tense region. Most importantly, Qatar had just emerged from a three-and-a-half-year diplomatic and transport blockade led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and wanted to end its isolation and improve its relations with its neighbors. The event provided the political space to do just that.
For example, UAE leader Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan made a surprise visit to Qatar on December 5, while Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman attended the opening ceremony. Later, Saudi officials and Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the crown prince of Dubai, congratulated Qatar for organizing the event. Even Germany, a vociferous critic of Qatar’s human rights record, entered into a historic gas deal with Doha in late November.
These concrete displays of friendship could pave the way for even greater economic and diplomatic cooperation between Qatar and its neighbors and partners. Although most Western officials skipped the opening ceremony, U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken also arrived in Doha to watch his country’s opening game against Wales. As expected, Blinken criticized Qatar over its human rights record, but he also praised its progress in those areas leading up to the tournament. French president Emmanuel Macron also watched the final alongside several other regional leaders and dignitaries.
Qatar successfully used the World Cup to advance its political goals, markedly advancing its soft power and epitomizing how the small state has become an influential player in global affairs. Undoubtedly, the world’s attention will be more focused on Qatar from here on out.
Dr. Sohail Mahmood is an independent political analyst based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.