Qatar: Football as Soft Power

Wikimedia Commons In 2010, FC Barcelona ended more than a century of tradition by giving in to commercial shirt sponsoring. They replaced their UNICEF logo, paying $190 million in a deal with the Qatar Foundation. Shortly after, Qatar won a bid to host the 2022 World Cup. And in 2011, Qatar completed its slow takeover of world football through the purchase of Paris Saint-Germain, an iconic yet unsuccessful Parisian football club. These interventions have been marred by controversy and suspicion. The reality, however, is that tiny Qatar, tapping its vast resources into this cash-strapped but immensely popular global sport, is tactfully increasing its global standing. Football is essentially another form of diplomacy.

Qatar’s policy is unique because its football investments are the human face of its wider foreign policy. For example, the purchase of Malaga Futbol Club by Sheik Abdullah bin Nasser al-Thani, a member of the royal family, was accompanied by massive investments in Andalucía and especially Marbella’s port. Other investments include stakes in LVMH, Lagardere, Barclay’s, Credit Suisse, and many others.

Nowhere have the political investments been more visible than in France. In fact, former President Nicolas Sarkozy, often seen at the stadium sitting next to Crown Prince Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, is close to the Qatari royal family and participated in selling them the Parisian club. Qatar also owns stakes in many major French companies, Parisian buildings, the equestrian Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, the sports channels “beIN Sport” and many others. Qatar was even a major partner in France’s intervention of Libya in 2011.

The change of president in France doesn’t seem to have affected these good relations. Qatar was accepted last October as an associate member of the “Francophonie,” the association that seeks to defend the French language and culture. Other countries, which have been waiting patiently as “observing members” for years, have protested the speed of Qatar’s admittance process, given its lack of Francophone speakers.

One particular scandal, however, has put the France-Qatar relationship in jeopardy. Indeed, there have been rising concerns, especially among the xenophobic French far right, about Qatar’s massive investment plans in low-income “banlieues” (French for outskirts). Marine Le Pen, president of the Front National, who scored close to 20% of the vote in the last presidential election mostly by exciting xenophobic fears, has called such a measure the “Islamic Trojan Horse.”  Surprisingly, in the midst of a tense political and economic situation, her call has been met with some approval from French citizens.

There is no doubt that Qatar’s investments are not charitable; however, it is preposterous to think that they are part of some conspiracy to “Islamize” Europe. In fact, it is much more probable that Qatar, a small country in an unstable region, is very aware that the source of its wealth –– oil –– is not eternal. Investing in Europe, and specifically in France, is an investment for the future and a tactful move to make sure that Qatar has friends it will one day need.

Football, therefore, is serving a similar purpose to that of Hollywood. Sports, like movies, are extremely popular in all ranks of society. Just like the world learned to love America through Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe, so too will the world learn about Qatar through Paris-Saint Germain and David Beckham. The French, so fearful of being “Qatarized,” must also remember that they owe much of their global influence to their own intense cultural lobbying. Recently, France staged a friendly game with Germany to mark 50 years of the Élysée Treaty and celebrate their friendship. Similarly, Qatar is pumping money into football to express its willingness to befriend the fans of the world’s most popular sport.

Nevertheless, the “beautiful game,” though financially costly, should not sell its integrity. Qatari investments are more than welcome, especially if they will positively affect the poorer clubs and amateur leagues. However, the allegations that Qatar bribed its way to the 2022 World Cup, in a new scandal known as “Qatargate,” are very serious. It is understandable that playing a World Cup in Qatar has met with skepticism. Some doubt whether Qatar can air condition stadiums when the temperature there can reach 122°F. Others question the fairness of hosting the games in a country that has never even qualified for the FIFA World Cup. The reputable French magazine France Football has kindled further skepticism by publishing a 20-page report that seriously puts into question the bidding process. In fact, some go as far as to argue that the purchase of David Beckham by PSG, a few days after the scandal erupted, was meant to divert public opinion away from the allegation.

Football, the world’s most popular form of entertainment, is about passion, creativity and fair play. For all the David Beckhams and World Cups it is willing to purchase, Qatar will end up nowhere if it ruins the meaning of the beautiful game.