Sports and politics

by Liudmila Kotlyarova

Poorest nation, richest nation (Issue III+IV/2018)

Allegations of bribery, inhumane working conditions on stadium building sites and brutal heat: Those are just some of the criticism which has swirled following Qatar’s selection as the next host country for the 2022 World Cup. But in Qatar itself, the work behind the scenes for this massive international event is well underway. And there are good reasons why this sports event is being supported at the highest level. After all, it is about defending the small Gulf state’s reputation. And Qatar is prepared to spend millions to look good.

The country’s prosperity hinges on oil and gas, which are finite resources. This has triggered investment in other economic sectors and also explains why sport has become increasingly important in recent years.  “As opposed to oil and gas, tourism is a stable and inexhaustible economic activity,” the country’s tourism strategy for 2030 states, adding that sport also plays a central role.

Since the early 2000s, Qatar has been working on countless projects related to infrastructure for sporting events. It has adopted the motto “Qatar welcomes the world,” eliminated the need for visas and created incentives, making it an attractive location for sporting contests, from golf to camel racing.

Qatar has hosted the Qatar ExxonMobil Open for tennis, the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters for golfers, as well as international swimming and boxing competitions. The signs are that its strategy is working.

One thing that is helping its position on the international sporting stage is the Aspire Academy, a sports school in Doha that began with the aim of supporting local, male sporting talent with international potential. The facility has become one of the largest training centres in the world for top athletes.

The chief marketing and promotion officer at the Qatar Tourism Board, Rashed Al-Qurese, has high hopes for the World Cup 2022 too. “Training camps and games played by world-famous football teams bring Qatar major economic benefits, as well as the attention of millions of people to our tourism and sports facilities,” he says.

Raising the country’s profile in the sports arena is not just happening inside Qatar. Between 2011 and 2016, the football team, FC Barcelona, was sponsored by the Qatar Foundation and Qatar Airways. Since 2012, Qatar Sports Investments has owned 70 percent of the well-known French soccer club, Paris Saint-Germain. The notorious Neymar deal, that saw Qatar spending the highest amount ever to contract a soccer player, was part of that. And at the beginning of 2018, Qatar Airways signed a sponsorship deal with another club, Germany’s FC Bayern München. The latter left a previous deal with Lufthansa airways to take up the offer.

It’s often said that football connects people and that sport is not political, which would suggest that the World Cup is the perfect vehicle for Qatar to burnish its image. The Qatari organizers are well aware of their societal obligations and they want to be taken seriously on the international stage. But the uncomplimentary title: “World Cup of Shame”, is sticking to the tiny desert nation. That label came from the human rights group Amnesty International, which observed that conditions for migrant workers in Qatar were not improving.

In 2016, the infamous “kafala system” was abolished. It had been used to monitor migrant workers in the country and to allow their Qatari employers to prevent them from leaving the country. Despite this, in early 2017, Amnesty International still found many issues with the treatment of migrant workers.

In October 2017, Qatar agreed on a three-year technical cooperation programme with the International Labour Organization, with the goal of aligning working standards, including the recruitment of foreign workers, with international norms.

Whether that will satisfy Qatar’s critics - and whether the 2022 World Cup will live up to Qatar’s big dreams - is yet to be seen. 

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