By James M. Dorsey
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Former Qatari emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the father of the Gulf state’s current ruler, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, learnt a lesson from the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
A US-led military coalition liberated Kuwait while many conservative Kuwaitis fled to Saudi Arabia. Less conservative Kuwaiti nationals sat the war out in the casino of the Cairo Hilton hotel.
Mr. Al Thani recognized that, like Kuwait, his country with a citizenry of 300,000, sandwiched between two regional behemoths, Iran and Saudi Arabia, would never be able to fend off a conventional military attack on its territory, no matter how much and how sophisticated the weaponry is that it acquires.
To ensure that Qatar was relevant to the international community and had the necessary public empathy to support intervention on the Gulf state’s behalf in a time of need, Mr. Al Thani concluded that Qatar’s defence strategy would have to focus on soft rather than hard power.
In more than 30 years since, Qatar, one of the world’s top gas producers, has developed a highly sophisticated, multi-pronged soft power policy.
It involves ensuring a diversified customer base for its gas; a fast-paced, mediation-driven foreign policy; and the Al Jazeera television network that competes with the likes of the BBC and CNN.
Qatar’s creation of an air transport hub with an award-winning airline and airport, the opening of world-class museums, and high-profile investments in real estate in world capitals and blue-chip companies were also part of the strategy.
But none of these building blocks attracted more attention and more controversy than the sports leg of the Qatari strategy, with next month’s World Cup at the top of the list.
The positioning of sports as part of defense strategy shines a different light on controversies over the integrity of the Qatari bid, conditions of predominantly Asian migrant labour that built World Cup-related infrastructure, and potential risks for members of the LGBT community visiting a country where same-sex relationships and pre-marital sex constitute criminal violations of the law.
As a result, the stakes for Qatar, against the odds, in endearing itself to soccer fans, are high. It hopes to do so by being lenient towards violators of Qatari law, including activists wanting to make a point during the World Cup.
This week, in an indication of what that could mean, Qatari police stopped British activist Peter Tatchell from protesting the country’s anti-LGBT laws but did not detain him.
Mr. Tatchell said in a video clip on Twitter that he had been interrogated for 49 minutes.
The activist stood outside Qatar’s national museum for at least 35 minutes wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “#Qatarantigay” and holding a placard that read “Qatar arrests and subjects LGBTs to conversion” before uniformed and plainclothes policemen arrived.
The police folded up Mr. Tatchell’s placard, took photos of his passport, questioned him, shook his hand, and left him standing on the sidewalk.
The handling of Mr. Tatchell contrasts starkly with the treatment of LGBT Qataris as described in a Human Rights Watch report, denied by Qatari officials.
The report asserted that at least six LGBT Qataris had been arrested and abused since 2019 and as recently as last month, two months before the World Cup. The six Qataris interviewed by the human rights group included four transgender women, one bisexual woman, and one gay man.
The group said they were held in an underground prison in Doha and forced to sign pledges indicating that they would ‘cease immoral activity.’
The transgender women detainees were ordered to attend conversion therapy sessions at a government-sponsored clinic. A Qatari official insisted that the Gulf state does not “license or operate ‘conversion centres.’”
From a Qatari and Kuwaiti perspective, the stark reality is that little has changed in their hard power defence capabilities in the more than 30 years since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
“Unfortunately, as Gulf countries, we do not have options. Our capabilities do not deter Iran, do not deter other powers… We do not have other practical solutions,” Kuwaiti international relations scholar Abdullah al-Shaji told a recent conference in Doha.
Speaking against the backdrop of the worst crisis in US-Saudi and potentially US-UAE relations since the 1973 Arab oil boycott, Mr. Al-Shaji noted, “Russia is not going to be here, neither China. They do not have the intention or the capability. The US knows that the US is the only kid in town. Take it or leave it.”
This is where Qatar’s image among soccer fans takes on national security and geopolitical significance.
How Qatar handles issues such as activists seeking to capitalize on the opportunity to make a point, potential fan rowdiness, and culturally sensitive issues such as intoxication, public expressions of affection, and sexual diversity will shape how fans perceive and remember the 2022 World Cup, the most controversial in the history of world soccer body FIFA.
In a world of rising nationalism and popularism, in which Americans are war-weary after two decades of fighting in the greater Middle East, fan attitudes could make or break public support if Qatar ever needed the international community to come to its aid.
An analysis by social media and mis-and disinformation expert Marc Owen Jones illustrated the centrality of the World Cup in reporting on Qatar in British media in the 12 years between Qatar’s winning of its hosting rights in 2010 and the tournament itself in 2022.
Forty per cent of 1,735 Qatar-related headlines in newspapers such as The Guardian, The Times, Daily Express, The Sun, Daily Mail, The Telegraph, and Metro UK referred to the World Cup.
Of the approximately 685 World Cup-related articles, 454, or 66 per cent, were critical, 201, or 29 per cent, were neutral, and 33, or five per cent, were positive. Most of the negative articles focused on human rights.
By contrast, at most three per cent of articles about Russia in the period between Russia’s winning of its hosting rights alongside Qatar in 2010 and the Russian World Cup in 2018 focused on the tournament. In Russia’s case, the country’s 2014 intervention in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea dominated media coverage.
If public opinion surveys are anything to go by, Qatar is losing the battle for the hearts and minds of fans in the United States and Europe, despite having enacted far-reaching reforms of its erstwhile labor system that put workers at the mercy of their employers and seeking to assure fans and activists that all irrespective of sexual orientation or marital status would be welcome.
Qatar may also have a mixed reputation in labour-supplying nations, although there is a dearth of data available from those countries. Equally, there is a lack of data on fan attitudes toward Qatar in much of Africa and a large swath of Asia.
However, a recent US survey suggested that 41 percent of Americans, 51 percent of American sports fans, and 61 percent of avid fans said Qatari human rights violations reduced their interest in the World Cup.
In addition, a YouGov poll commissioned by Amnesty International found that 67 per cent of the 17,477 participants in the survey in Europe, Central and Latin America, the United States, and Kenya wanted their national soccer associations to speak out publicly about human rights issues associated with the Qatar World Cup.
To counter negative perceptions, Qatar has invested heavily in making its World Cup an unforgettable experience.
However, New York Times soccer correspondent Rory Smith cautioned that the Qatari investment might miss the plank.
“It is not the soccer that makes the World Cup, not really… The World Cup, at heart, is a feeling… What made Russia 2018…was Nikolskaya, the street in central Moscow that became a hub for fans from all over the world, full of flags and bunting and song. It was the sight of thousands upon thousands of Peruvians on the streets of Saransk, a red sash across their hearts. It was the sense that, even in a vast land of steppe and mountain and forest, you were never more than six feet from a Colombian,” Mr. Smith said.
That feeling that touches not only those who travel to the World Cup but also those who follow it on screens at home “cannot be forced. It cannot be commanded into an existence. It has to gestate, develop, ferment.”
That is where Qatar’s apparent targeting of a high-end audience with its emphasis on pricy, luxury accommodation during the tournament could backfire and undermine its goal of engendering empathy for the Gulf state.
Many of those sitting at home, particularly in Europe, Africa, and Asia, may feel that cost and regulated access prevented them from attending.
“It is hard not to worry that many of those fans will have been priced out of Qatar or excluded by virtue of not being allowed into the country without a ticket for a game and that with them, the feeling will change, turning the tournament into an ersatz version of itself, a tribute to all the things money can buy…and all of the things that it cannot,” Mr. Smith warned.
In the final analysis, the litmus test of Qatar’s sports strategy will be whether the World Cup helps Qatar reproduce its geopolitical success, achieved as much on its own steam as with the unintended help of its erstwhile detractors, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia when it defeated a 3.5-year-long economic and diplomatic boycott. The UAE and Saudi Arabia lifted the embargo in early 2021.
Ultimately, to fully benefit from the tournament’s reputational value, Qatar will, post-World Cup, have to push forward with social, economic, and political reform, even if activist attention moves on and focuses on countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt that are likely to bid for forthcoming sports megaevents such as the 2027 Asian Cup and the 2030 World Cup.
Qatar’s ability and willingness to move ahead with reforms may make the difference in how the tournament is remembered, particularly in the United States and Europe, which are likely to be crucial to the Gulf state’s military defence when the chips are down.
The problem is that human rights, labour, and LGBT groups may lose leverage. Qatar may not remain as receptive to criticism as it was in the run-up to the World Cup.
In a speech this week, Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim, lamented that since winning hosting rights, Qatar had been “subjected to an unprecedented campaign that no host country has faced.”
The emir went on to say that “we initially dealt with the matter in good faith, and even considered some of criticism as positive and useful… (But) it soon became clear that the campaign tends to continue and expand to include fabrications and double standards that were so ferocious that it has unfortunately prompted many people to question real reasons and motives behind this campaign.”
An earlier version of this story appeared as a RSIS Commentary
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
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