Regional Studies

Qatar’s World Cup Goals: Moving from the Periphery to the Center Working Group I

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On March 9-10, 2022, CIRS convened the first Working Group under its newly launched research initiative on Qatar’s World Cup Goals: Moving from the Periphery to the Center. The meeting was held as a hybrid event, allowing for both virtual and in-person participation. The goal of the working group was to bring together scholars from different disciplines to examine the role of the upcoming FIFA World Cup in enabling the state of Qatar to move from the periphery of global sports and politics to the center. Applying both empirical and theoretical lenses, the invited scholars addressed a number of topics including Qatar’s national security, the impact of the pandemic on mega-sporting events, national identity, tourism, and sports sponsorships.

The meeting began with Gerd Nonneman’s discussion on the links between Qatar’s national security and the World Cup. He noted that the Cup was one component of a wider and longer-term security and developmental strategy since the 1990s of raising Qatar’s global visibility, acquiring economic resources, moving to sustainability, and building supportive global networks. Given its small size, limited hard power resources, and powerful neighbors, security has been a key driver of Qatari policies at home and abroad. Liquefied natural gas (LNG) development brought both resources and global economic networks. To the continuing aim of building equally global diplomatic networks was then added the ambition to build a sustainable economy beyond hydrocarbon dependence. Staging the World Cup aimed to serve these goals, by raising global awareness of the “Brand Qatar” and helping to lay the foundations for a more diversified economy. It also helped accelerate not only the building of the infrastructural underpinnings for future development, but equally necessary reforms of migration and labor policies – attempting to match the needs of a viable future economy and global branding with the exploration of an evolving national identity.

The second session of the working group focused on the World Cup 2022 and the pandemic. Kamilla Swart suggested that Covid-19 was almost entirely unique in how it upended the sporting world. While we are currently witnessing the return of competitive sports at various levels, the pandemic still remains a threat. In preparation for hosting the World Cup in winter 2022, Qatar has effectively hosted ‘test events’, such as the FIFA Arab Cup, and implemented restrictions and social distancing during the games.  Swart stated that the compact nature of the World Cup will be a challenge, especially in regards to implementing Covid protocols and managing the influx of the expected visitors. She highlighted that some of the key areas that require research are the nature of Covid protocols, fan management, vaccination administration and statuses, non-communicable disease, injuries prevention, and the burden on health care and medical facilities during the games. Swart suggested that new risks and disaster management during the World Cup is a key area requiring new research.

Continuing the discussion on health-related issues, Andreas Flouris addressed the question of whether serving as hosts to the World Cup leads to the promotion of a healthy lifestyle. Flouris pointed out that, based on existing health data on Qatar, 70% of deaths in the country occur due to chronic diseases, most of which are tied to obesity and low levels of physical activity. Qatar has adopted policies and undertaken new interventions such as tobacco-free policy, building of recreational spaces for physical activity, and the Tamreen education programs in schools that are all geared towards promoting healthy lifestyle. The Ministry of Health in Qatar is engaged in a 3-year collaboration with the World Health Organization for health promotion. Health and nutrition programs have also been developed in the country. However, the core question of whether the 2022 FIFA World Cup has enabled an overall healthier lifestyle in Qatar still needs to be addressed. Are there efforts underway to encourage the aging citizen population to adopt healthier habits? At a global level, there is little evidence on whether mega sporting events such as the World Cup actually have a positive health impact on host countries. Flouris suggested that there is a need to collect baseline and longitudinal data and compare Qatar with other countries that have hosted the World Cup. Additionally, Flouris discussed the lack of school physical education curriculum and the impact of a harsh environment and desert climate as being critical issues affecting patterns of physical activity.

Andreas Krieg examined how Qatar’s engagements in Afghanistan as well the hosting of the World Cup 2022 have both been means by which the state has exhibited its soft power. Post Arab Uprisings Qatar has been translating its financial power into regional and global influence, and the World Cup and Afghanistan have served as sites where Qatar has been able to display its power of appeal and attraction.  Krieg stated that diplomacy, investment, energy and LNG demand, education and developmental policies, and sports are the main tools through which Qatar is trying to achieve its policy goals. Whereas military action is the least influential lever of its soft power. The World Cup has put Qatar and the MENA region on the global map and the Afghanistan moment has helped Qatar build networks and increase regional influence in Asia. Bridging the gap between the western world and Islamic countries and the exploration of Qatar’s potential as a mediator were identified by Krieg as key areas of further research.

Danyel Reiche focused his remarks on the topic of Qatar Airways and its sports sponsorships, with Germany’s leading football club Bayern Munich serving as a case study.  Reiche stated that Qatar Airways, which has been operational for 25 years, has been leveraged by the state to achieve various state objectives including enhancing its visibility in the global realm. Qatar Airways has a history of sports sponsorships which was amplified post the financial crisis of 2008.  The airline was the shirt sponsor for Barcelona from 2013-2017 and is currently Bayern Munich’s sleeve sponsor in an agreement that started in 2018 and goes until 2023. Reiche explained that while these sponsorships give the state of Qatar a lot of exposure, they also show the limitations of soft power approaches. These sponsorships have met with a lot of resistance on the ground in the European states where these teams are based. Reiche suggested there was a need to explore why there is such a persistent critique of this particular sponsor and not of others from non-democratic countries.

Ross Griffin examined Qatar’s national identity in relation to the Qatari-owned French football club Paris St. Germain (PSG). Griffin suggested that Qatar has used sports to shape its national identity while simultaneously positively projecting its identity to the rest of the world. The acquisition of PSG has been part of state efforts to promote a global image of Qatar as a progressive state.  Much of the attention that Qatar has garnered from the global sporting world since being awarded the bid to host the 2022 World Cup Qatar has been negative. PSG has partially served to dissipate some of that negative attention. Griffin outlined that some key questions to explore would be to look at how the ownership of PSG defines Qatar’s national identity. How do PSG fans react to this ownerships and how progressive national identity is being achieved with the hiring of elite and famous football players?

Sebastian Sons led the discussion on the nexus of Qatar’s development assistance and sport. He detailed Qatar’s humanitarian aid portfolio in recent years and stated that Qatar’s development assistance has been closely related to domestics polices, economic diversification, geo-strategic interests and its ideological affiliations. In recent years, there was a fundamental shift in the nature of the aid provided. It shifted from Islamic forms of aid to development assistance, with the focus on financing youth and female developmental projects. Sons specified that the main point of query is to question how do sports come into this story of Qatar’s developmental aid. He narrated that Qatar has been financing sports developmental projects in partner countries and on a domestic level, but it remains unclear what are Qatar’s interests in becoming a hub of exchange and human development in the fields of sports and development. Examining what role sports play in regional integration and cooperation, in identity construction and migration through different development projects, were some key areas identified.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen explored Qatar’s New Development Model and argued that over the years Qatar has built a branding model that is based on diplomacy. Qatari policy making, which is influenced by the Qatar Vision 2030 has aimed to build a unique developmental model. Various construction, infrastructure development projects, and domestic policy changes have propelled the country towards a progressive state. During the blockade of 2017 regional associations and collaborations were affected which now have been revived. Ulrichsen argued that there is a need to examine what tangible legacy this model will have and what measures could be undertaken in regard to migrant labor issues that the country has been facing since winning the bid for hosting the World Cup. 

Irene Theodoropoulou led the discussion on Sports Tourism in Qatar and FIFA 2022 for the next session. She argued that Qatar will be using tourism to rectify its global image and diversify its economy. Qatar Tourism has combined the traditional with modernity to develop a new tourism strategy that aims to put Qatar on the global map in terms of culture, sports, business, and family entertainment tourism. A new airport and visa free arrival policy has been developed to diversify tourism in the country. Theodoropoulou highlighted that further study needs to be conducted in the areas of intercultural communications in Qatar, demographics of tourists expected during the World Cup, improving relations and developing synergies between Qatar Tourism and Qatar Airways, and developing better media relations. 

The discussion then shifted to beIN sports and its global influence. Craig LaMay addressed beIN’s dominance over football broadcasting in the MENA region as well as coverage of other sports in the U.S. and UK. He stated that since beIN was a private entity, publicly available records of its operations do not exist. beIN’s regional and global operations have been severely affected during the pandemic, and the company will need to innovate in order to be competitive and to retain its broadcasting rights. Its model of pay-TV is being challenged by streaming services and even free-to-air alternatives. beIN’s traditional bundled service not only faces competition from new models and a variety of cheaper services but also has to deal with issues such as piracy and non-live content provision for its customers across the globe.

Uday Chandra and Aisha Al-Kuwari initiated the conversation on Qatar 2022 and Popular Culture. Chandra argued that there is a need to understand the nature of fandom in Qatar and how the preparations for the World Cup have remade popular culture. Aisha explained that fan culture in Qatar is associated with a fireej or neighborhood, and fans had loyalties to the local clubs established by community elders in these neighborhoods. She added that fandom was also associated with the culture of majlises, in which people gather to watch games and root for teams. Women’s increasing participation in football fandom in Doha, including in stadiums in the recent Arab Cup, and the limitations of gender stereotypes in journalistic accounts also came through in Aisha’s remarks. With respect to non-citizens, Chandra spoke of their absence from discussions of fandom and popular culture in Qatar and highlighted recent scholarship that shows strong loyalties to host societies in the Gulf. Although migrant workers recurrently appear as mute victims in Western European commentary on the World Cup, labor activism by these workers remains understudied. 

The next session looked at Aspire Zone and its rise to become a Global Benchmark for Talent Development and Sports Medicine. Paul Brannagan explained that small states tend to find niche industries that are culturally different and sets them apart from their neighbors. For Qatar, sports is the niche industry through which it is making a mark on the global stage. Aspire Zone and Sports Academy are part of Qatar’s sporting strategy and aids the State in building its sports portfolio. Brannagan identified that there is the need to examine how and where Aspire fits in Qatar’s sporting investments and global political agenda. He also highlighted that through Aspire, Qatar is producing a stream of athletes and is showing its ability of overcoming the disadvantage of its population size. The legacy of Aspire post-2022, the role of Aspire in sports humanitarianism, and global sports medicine were some other key research areas identified. 

Johan Granberg discussed community building and the Education City Stadium. He stated that identity doesn’t make people stay and that people required environments that they could co-exist with. Building a stadium in a city is a good project for the city and helps build its image but there are very little examples of these buildings being good for the community. The stadium in Education City might be a good example of a good stadium but lacks the communal aspect and engagement required by society. He stressed that often stadiums become beautiful object that has very little use for the community after the games. Granberg expressed that the questions of how the Education City community can use the arena and what can be gained from it requires further exploration and research.

Th last session of the meeting looked at Sport Security and the Role of the International Center for Sports Security (ICSS). Magda De Lange expanded on ICSS’s role in addressing safety and security in global sporting events. She stated that while work has been done to address issues of safety and security in traditional sports, research on esports remain limited. An athlete-centered esports ecosystem is developing as a new trend. Of critical concern is that there are sparse, decentralized resources for collegiate esports players and limited regulation or fact-checking for practices. Gaps in the existing scholarship which could benefit from academic exploration and new research are: research on how to provide consistent guidelines to support young esports players; dual careers of esports athletes; the use and promotion of esports as an added value for P/CVE interventions to increase societal resilience and empowerment. Esports research’s key barriers and key considerations include understanding the ecosystem of esports, sampling by device, then by game genre, examining the positive impacts of esports, and emphasizing equity in players.

In conclusion, Dean Clyde Wilcox, Director of CIRS, thanked the participants for identifying key gaps in the literature. It is worth noting that invited participants will contribute empirically grounded papers addressing questions and gaps identified during the meeting, among others, to be published in an edited volume under the auspices of CIRS. The second working group for the project will be held in Fall 2022.

In conclusion, Dean Clyde Wilcox, Director of CIRS, thanked the participants for identifying key gaps in the literature. It is worth noting that invited participants will contribute empirically grounded papers addressing questions and gaps identified during the meeting, among others, to be published in an edited volume under the auspices of CIRS. The second working group for the project will be held in Fall 2022.

Participants and Discussants: 

  • Aisha Al Kuwari, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Hend Al-Muftah, Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, Qatar
  • Mariam Al-Thani, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Kathy Babiak, University of Michigan
  • Misba Bhatti, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Paul Brannagan, Manchester Metropolitan University, UK
  • Uday Chandra, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Rice University
  • Magda de Lange, International Center for Sport Security (ICSS), Qatar
  • Andreas Flouris, University of Ottawa
  • Johan Granberg, Virginia Commonwealth UniversityQatar
  • Ross Griffin, Qatar University
  • Andreas Krieg, King’s College London
  • Craig LaMay, Northwestern University in Qatar
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Gerd Nonneman, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Danyel Reiche, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Sebastian Sons, Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO)
  • Kamilla Swart, Hamad bin Khalifa University (HBKU)
  • Irene Theodoropoulou, Qatar University
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University Qatar
  • Clyde Wilcox, Georgetown University in Qatar

Article by Misba Bhatti, Research Analyst at CIRS