FIFA World Cup Series, Regional Studies

Qatar Airways’ Football Sponsorships as a Foreign Policy Strategy

natasha

For many people, Qatar Airways is the first instance in which they hear about Qatar and from which they derive initial impressions of the country. Qatar’s national airline operates as a multinational corporation with numerous long-haul offerings, connecting continents and providing an essential service to millions of international travellers. Qatar Airways has also consistently marketed itself on high-visibility platforms, one of which is sports sponsorships. Alongside sponsoring domestic tournaments held in Doha and top European football clubs, such as Paris Saint Germain and Bayern Munich, Qatar Airways signed a sponsorship deal with FIFA in 2017. This is one of the airline’s highest profile sports sponsorships, garnering it the title of Official Partner and Official Airline of FIFA until 2022.

The deal entails high visibility for Qatar Airways at the 2018 and 2022 World Cup events. Qatar Airways’ deal with FIFA is a prime example of the airline’s relevance to Qatari foreign policy and efforts to build its soft power. The Qatar Airways’ national branding contributes to the international reputation of the state, especially its increasingly prolific status as a key node in the global football network.

The airline’s prominence as an official sponsor and partner of major football events has made Qatar Airways a ubiquitous name among international football fans. In this way, Qatar Airways’ sponsorships have significantly contributed to the globalization of football. It has also contributed to characterizing Qatar as a key node in the international network of football hubs, especially as the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar approaches. Such visibility also serves to normalize Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 tournament, which is often criticized and patronized as a controversial bid, owing to corruption allegations and Qatar’s tarnished track record of its treatment of migrant workers.

Similar to Emirates airline’s relationship to Dubai, Qatar Airways is strongly linked to Qatar’s core identity and hence constitutes an indispensable pillar of the Qatari state’s efforts at international branding. The strength of the Qatar Airways brand is thus a key element of the projection of Qatari soft power. In football, this soft power is evident in the prominent placement of the Qatar Airways logo across official football jerseys of top clubs in Europe, the world’s historical stronghold of football, and in tournament sponsorships.

A prime example of corporate branding is the FIFA Fan Zones in Moscow and St. Petersburg during the 2018 World Cup in Russia, which were sponsored by Qatar Airways. The Qatar Airways logo and its burgundy corporate branding were prominently displayed, reflecting the color of the Qatari national flag and thereby alluding to Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup in 2022. That Qatar Airways had a publicly eminent foothold in Russia then demonstrates the continuity and strong association between the Qatari flag carrier and the 2022 World Cup.

Although the successful World Cup bid in 2010 appears to be a watershed moment for Qatar’s sporting profile, Qatar Airways’ football sponsorships did not singularly emerge as a result of the bid. Sports investments backed by the state’s sovereign wealth fund as a foreign policy strategy are a more appropriate explanation for Qatar-led football sponsorships. The Qatar Investment Authority has made high-profile sports acquisitions since 2010, one of the most notable being the 2011 buyout of Paris Saint-Germain and the subsequent whopping €222 million transfer of Neymar to the same club—the most expensive transfer in football history. Prior to Qatar Airways’ sponsorship of FC Barcelona in 2013, Qatar Foundation was the main sponsor from 2011 to 2013—a sponsorship that was transferred between national entities under the Qatar brand.

Football sponsorships are especially intriguing because they are transnational, with such a scale made possible by leveraging football’s global appeal. It is not just the players in Camp Nou who wore jerseys with the Qatar Airways logo when the airline sponsored FC Barcelona from 2013 to 2017, but also the teams’ fans worldwide who advertised the logo on their jerseys. Hence, football sponsorships allow the Qatar Airways brand to be mobile and thereby exported on a global scale.

This is what makes football sponsorships extraordinary and worth investing in, since they leverage the global popularity and universality of football for high brand visibility. Airlines that engage in such sponsorships thus distinguish themselves from other competitors in the industry as well, especially against the backdrop of financial challenges experienced by American and European carriers whose businesses are being threatened by the dominance of transnational Gulf airlines, mainly Qatar Airways, Emirates, and Etihad.

While the 2022 World Cup is a catalyst for sports sponsorships and investments, such strategies are better understood as a means to place Qatar in the global football network as a proactive investor, which in turn allows for greater visibility of Qatari corporate entities, such as Qatar Airways, and Qatar as a whole. Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Qatar Airways has continued to fly internationally while other airlines have grounded their fleets. The continued operations of the airline has enabled it to surpass its competitors and become the current largest long-haul airline. Qatar Airways has thus surpassed the reputation and performance of other airlines, enabling it to accelerate its efforts at promoting next year’s World Cup as global anticipation for the tournament builds.

Article by Natasha Vincent, an incoming Investment Banking Analyst at J.P. Morgan in London

Natasha Vincent is an incoming Investment Banking Analyst at J.P. Morgan in London. She graduated from Georgetown University in Qatar with a degree in International Politics, and minors in Arabic and Economics. She authored an honors thesis examining the significance of Qatar Airways and Emirates to small state foreign policy in the Persian Gulf.

Read more about the Building a Legacy: Qatar FIFA World Cup 2022 project here.