Qatar World Cup, football and politics


For the first time in history, an Arab country has entered the global sporting arena. The 2022 World Cup in Qatar could boost the Gulf region as a global sports hub, hosting major events in athletics, motorbikes and golf, among others. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have also already expressed interest in hosting an Olympic Games.

These major sporting events do not seem crucial. In comparison, traditional oil and gas projects have clear returns on investment based on hydrocarbon revenues. But the aim is to develop new sectors and diversify the region's economy. As they open their economies to global scrutiny, local industries have to reform and improve their standards.

Because of their scale, major events have numerous links to other sectors of the economy, with tourism, transport and finance among other beneficiaries. 

Since being selected to host the World Cup, Qatar has invested $5.3 billion in contracts for facilities directly related to the tournament. But this represents only 3% of the total value invested in construction or transport projects that supported the World Cup indirectly: some $195 billion.

Since the earliest sporting displays in ancient Greek cities, competition has not just been between athletes. Other hidden agendas, so-called soft power, have used sports as a field of geopolitics under totalitarian or military regimes, also some democracies, or to build relationships, increase popularity or improve a country's image.  

Competitions bring together national teams composed of players from different ethnic backgrounds, all defending the same jersey and colours with passion. In the case of football, despite the contradictions, sport helps integration, promotes diversity, and creates frameworks of encounter at a time when misunderstandings are multiplying. Millions of fans and followers want to vibrate with emotion with their favourite football players and teams, regardless of colours, nations or religions. This is the message that should be sent out at a time of growing tension between extremists on all sides.

On a social level, football has achieved more than politics both in terms of integration and in highlighting the richness and possibilities of diversity in societies

For Qatar, hosting the World Cup has been a challenge on several fronts and criticism of respect for human rights has not gone away. But from an economic perspective, by joining the global communities linked to these events, countries must commit to international norms and responsibilities.

The Qatari model assumes a high risk in an area where alliances and enmities change at a rapid pace, both politically and economically. The small state in size, but large in projection, needs to develop a coherent, long-term strategy that cannot be based solely on infrastructure or events without a balance at the human and social level. 

There is a stark contrast between the great oil wealth and development opportunities, combined with the lack of transparency of a very traditional region trying to push for change surrounded by uncertainty and a growing clamour for social and political rights. Internal and external criticism can be valuable; no one can make progress in a bubble.

Positioning itself as a major knowledge hub, partnering with the best and building an international reputation is the goal - we will see if Qatar can win this game.