FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 – the world’s biggest PR stunt

This week, the first European qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup 2022 will be played in Qatar, which without comparison is the most controversial international sporting event since the 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Germany. At present, only Qatar as World Cup host have secured a place among the 32 nations that in the period November 21 – December 18, 2022 will fight for the title of world champions in football. Since the small Gulf state was hosted by FIFA’s World Cup Executive Committee in 2010 in a vote riddled with bribery and corruption, there has been occasional public debate among politicians, leaders and fans about the pros and cons of boycotting the FIFA World Cup Oatar 2022. The debate has by and large been exclusively a Nordic issue and in the largest European football nations – France, Germany, Spain, England and Italy – the debate has so far been totally absent. This is due to several cohesive conditions.

A dictatorial regime with laws and punishments from another era and culture

Qatar, one of the richest countries in the world, is an autocratic kingdom ruled by the Al Thani clan. The country has 2.3 million inhabitants, but only 300,000-400.00 have rights as full citizens of Qatar. The rest are guest workers with temporary residence permits, the vast majority of whom come from poor countries in Asia and Africa. In addition, there is a small percentage of highly educated specialists from Europe and North America. The Al Thani clan holds the vast majority of Qatar’s economic wealth, which is primarily generated through the production of oil and natural gas. The political power is actually placed with the head of the clan: the Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. The country has no political parties or elected parliament, but an advisory assembly whose members are appointed by the emir. Sharia, which is based on the ethical and moral rules of Islam, forms the basis of the law in Qatar. One of the rights is that men have the right to more than one female spouse – the same conditions do not apply to women. It is therefore not uncommon for male full citizens in Qatar to have 4-6 wives. Sharia is used especially within the Family, Penal and Inheritance Act. Stoning, whipping and the death penalty are common forms of punishment. In family cases, the woman’s account counts only to an extremely limited extent, just as homosexuality and conversion from Islam are «crimes» punishable by death. The same is infidelity when it is between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man. Sexual “offenses” or alcohol consumption are typically punished by whipping or stoning. The form of government and human rights in Qatar are thus miles away from the principles of democratic societies as we know them from Europe and Western civilization.

Many enemies as neighbors – but the United States as a “military friend”

Qatar is a small peninsula – smaller than Jutland – which is connected to the Arabian Peninsula. The relationship with the largest neighbor and dominant superpower in the region – Saudi Arabia – is everything else friendly, which also affects relations with the nearest neighbors: the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Iran. The enmity to the nearest neighbors means i.a. that the borders into Qatar since 2017 have been blocked by a trade blockade. Qatar’s closest ally in the perpetual struggle for independence is the world’s strongest military player: the United States, which has located its military headquarters and main air base in the Middle East outside Qatar’s capital Doha. It is not least for security policy reasons that the Al Thani clan has chosen to use sport as “soft power” to acquire close and strong relations outside the Middle East.

International sporting events as a strategic PR tool

Over the past two decades, Qatar has systematically and strategically used international sporting events to gain political goodwill and, not least, to develop commercial networks within the global sports industry. The largest international sporting events held in Qatar in recent years include Asian Games (2006), World Championship in handball (2015), World Championship in cycling (2016) and the World Championship in athletics (2019). The FIFA World Cup 2022 is the next showcase, but the “crown jewel” for Qatar will certainly be to host the Olympic Games 2032. An essential element of Qatar’s international sports strategy is the state-owned television company beIN SPORTS, which has television channels in the United States and Canada, but is primarily known for activities in the Middle East and large parts of Asia. The TV company is also strongly on its way into Europe, i.a. through a TV deal with the French Football League. TV contracts are today the “key” to being awarded international sports events and in this connection beIN SPORTS, which was created with the TV company Al-Jazzeera as a model, is one of the largest and strongest global TV companies specializing in sports.

Qatar Sport Investments – a new “player” in European club football

In the last decade, Qatar has also, through the state-owned companies – Qatar Sport Investments and Qatar Airways – become financially involved in European club football, e.g. in the French top club Paris Saint-Germain, where the current beINSPORTS president Nasser Al-Kehlïfi is president and owner. In addition, Qatar has major financial interests in the current Champion League champions – the German top club Bayern Munich. The oil state thus posts billions in European top clubs and a few weeks ago Qatar Airways entered into one of the largest sponsorship agreements with UEFA, as the state-owned airline will be the main sponsor at the upcoming EURO 2021 finals this summer.

Money closes the mouths of most… and the strongest

Over the past two decades, Qatar has invested billions in sports that no other major sports nation – the United States, China, Russia, Germany, France or England – comes close to. It is estimated that the oil state will spend 1.4000 billion on stadiums, roads, railways, hotels and infrastructures in connection with the FIFA World Cup 2022. In addition, Qatar has – strategically and deliberately – spread state investment across the globe – from Heathrow Airport and Harrod in London, Volkswagen, Deutsche Bank and Siemens in Germany, the oil company Rosneft in Russia, the investment fund CITC Group in China to properties in New York and Washington DC. Ahead of the FIFA World Cup 2022 in 20 months, independent organizations such as Amnesty International is undoubtedly, with more or less success, trying to focus on the thousands of migrant workers who have lost their lives on construction sites in Qatar. However, despite repeated assurances about reforms and improvements in the conditions of the poor workers, only very modest improvements have taken place over the years. Money closes the mouths of most and…. the strongest. This is how it is (also) in international sports.