Qatar: invertir en escaparate deportivo para ganar talla geopolítica

Qatar: investing in sports showcase to gain geopolitical stature


22 | 11 | 2022


Holding the World Cup puts the emirate at the center of criticism for its human rights record, but will also bring it international political benefits

In the picture

Qatar 2022 promotional image

The Qatar World Cup, which has just begun and will be held throughout the months of November and December 2022, is the edition with the highest economic and human cost in the history of the competition. The economic investment, some 230 billion dollars, is almost 15 times higher than the next most expensive World Cup, and the cost in lives is only comparable to the 1978 World Cup, which was held in Argentina during the military dictatorship of Videla. Despite certain negative aspects, the World Cup will also have positive benefits for the country's geopolitical interests.


Faced with such a large investment by Qatar in the organization of the World Cup, it is important to understand that economic returns are not what drives the emirate to host this competition, as it is estimated that it will "only" recover 20 billion dollars with the tournament. Qatar expects two major non-economic benefits from hosting the World Cup: on the one hand, to whiten its image as an authoritarian state with a long history of human rights violations, and on the other hand, to use the World Cup as an international forum in which regional security issues in the Middle East are likely to be central.

Economic and human costs

In 2010, following a selection process that continues to be investigated for numerous allegations of corruption, FIFA awarded the organization of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar, respectively.

The accusations of corruption did not stop Qatar, which has invested around $230 billion in the organization of the tournament, making the 2022 World Cup the most expensive in history, ahead of Brazil 2014 ($15 billion) and Russia 2018 ($11.6 billion). The very high figure and the huge difference with the cost of other editions actually has a simple explanation: the strictly sporting expense is around 10 billion dollars, but Qatar has taken advantage of the World Cup to make huge investments in transport infrastructure and accommodation throughout the country that, without being strictly sporting, were essential for it to be viable to hold an event of the caliber of the World Cup.

Both the hosting of the World Cup and the huge investments in infrastructure are part of the Qatar National Vision 2030, established in 2008 to modernize the country and turn it into a major regional power, with a strong focus on sports.

On the other hand, the human cost of preparing for the World Cup is one of the aspects that has drawn the harshest criticism. 'The Guardian' revealed in a research that around 6,500 workers, mostly migrants from India, Nepal and Bangladesh, have died in the country since Qatar was awarded the World Cup. The figure is due in part to the brutal "Kafala" system which gave employers inordinate power over workers, and which, although officially abolished, remains in place at internship in many respects. The number of fatalities in proportion to the issue number of athletes participating in the World Cup is 7.8 workers killed for every footballer on the pitch.

Sports whitening

In its 2008 modernization plan Qatar established sports as a pillar of the country's modernization process, and the numerous investments made since then in sports show the seriousness of the plan.

The main use Qatar has made of sport so far is the international whitewashing of its image, known as " sportswashing", which can be defined as the use of sport in various ways by authoritarian countries to whitewash their image of human rights violations and other atrocities in the eyes of the rest of the world. Internally, sport can also be used to justify policies that would otherwise be unacceptable, such as the mass evictions of homeless people in the USA and Japan justified at the time in preparation for the Olympic Games.

Externally, sports whitewashing manifests itself in five different activities, which can be combined in a deliberate strategy, as Qatar has done: ownership of professional soccer teams, sponsorship of teams and competitions, organization of and participation in international competitions, and use of well-known athletes as ambassadors.

Qatar took two big steps in its sporting whitewash strategy in 2010, when, in addition to winning the right to host the 2022 World Cup, the country's airline company paid FC Barcelona $163 million to sponsor its jerseys and begin to make itself known in the soccer world.  

Barely a year later, in 2011, Qatari emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani bought Paris Saint Germain through group Qatar Sports Investment, led by Nasser Al-Khelafi. Although the figure for the purchase of the club was around €100 million, since 2011 the Qatari state has invested some €1.3 billion in PSG, prompting two investigations by UEFA regarding financial fair play rules, and ultimately leading to the club changing model to comply with the rules, but without losing the close relationship with Qatar, which simply changed form to one more acceptable to UEFA.

All of Qatar's moves in the sports arena since the country was selected to host the 2022 World Cup have been aimed at presenting itself to the world through sport and, as the start date of the tournament has approached, efforts in this direction have been redoubled. Qatar has increasingly shown its economic power through soccer, for example, signing David Beckham as the country's sports ambassador for around US$200 million.

Overall, despite the huge investment that has been made, Qatar's strategy to whitewash its image through the World Cup has not been successful. On the contrary, during the twelve years since the tournament was awarded it has put the spotlight on the country's human rights record, as well as allegations of corruption and its interests in hosting the tournament.

Security and "box diplomacy".

Although the World Cup is part of Qatar's soft power and whitewashing strategy, it is much more closely linked to security issues than it seems. Indeed, a large part of the country's defense strategy involves soft power. Therefore, even if Qatar's image is not going to improve as much as it would like, holding the World Cup could still be very beneficial for the country.

Through its positioning as an energy provider , regional mediator, international logistics hub, and now as an actor in the global sports scene, Qatar has sought to build an image of partner reliable for the different geopolitical actors. In that sense, Qatar has used sport to showcase its economic power by making multi-million dollar investments, record signings and contracts, and organizing a super event like the World Cup with an outlay never seen before in that field. It has also taken advantage of the tournament to reinforce its position in the regional security architecture, with the presence of the British Royal Air Force at project "Thariyat" under the pretext of reinforcing security during the World Cup, but which will last half a year.

Given the complicated security architecture in the region, where Qatar is surrounded by rival powers, the country has historically relied on security guarantees from its partners, as was the case with the Ottoman Empire, Britain and, later, the United States. Today, it is still imperative for Qatar to have important partners in subject security, and equally important to show the world those good relations for deterrence purposes, as is the case with the deployment of British aviation mentioned above.

In addition, sporting super events such as the World Cup or the Olympic Games play a role, which often goes unnoticed, as international forums where high-level meetings are held, but in a much more relaxed atmosphere than that of international summits. "Box diplomacy" has historically served to bring together leaders who would not be seen in other settings, as was the case with Vladimir Putin and Mohamed Bin Salman at the opening match of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. For Qatar, this subject of informal meetings may be essential in its strategy to position itself as a regional player core topic and exchange impressions with representatives of other countries in the tranquility of an informal setting.

The issues that matter most to Qatar and will undoubtedly be discussed at the impromptu summits in the boxes and beyond are energy and regional security. And when these issues are discussed in the next month, Qatar will have ensured that it will be an important part of the conversation.


Qatar's strategy to whitewash its image through the World Cup has not been successful so far. For the time being, it has served only to focus international attention for years on the country's human rights status , generating an enormous amount of criticism. However, despite this criticism, Qatar has emerged as a major player in the energy sector and in the regional security architecture.

Given the importance of its role, it is very unlikely that the rejection generated by the human rights status will lead to international isolation or a withdrawal by its partners and allies. On the contrary, the World Cup will serve Qatar to show the world its friendships and its economic and military power, something very valuable for a small country surrounded by rivals, in addition to the event's role as an international forum. At final, the World Cup in Qatar is more than a sporting whitewash, it is a matter of state security.