Sport business and geopolitics expert Professor Simon Chadwick explains the economic, security-related and nation-building reasons why Qatar is hosting the World Cup.
With the start of the men’s World Cup in Qatar imminent, fans are looking ahead to the action starting. Some will be anticipating Harry Kane retaining his Golden Boot, though others may feel Gabriel Jesus or Serge Gnabry is the top scorer in waiting.
Yet rather than in attack, it is in defence that this World Cup has already started – decades ago – though we’re not talking about Harry Maguire making the England starting line-up or the majesty of Virgil van Dijk.
Instead, Qatar’s hosting of international football’s most important competition is borne of the small Gulf nation’s security concerns.
Though pre-tournament controversies around migrant worker and LGBTQ+ rights have suggested otherwise, it is the diminutive nature of Qatar that is the most significant backstory to what is just about to happen.
Smaller in size than West Yorkshire, for a large part of the 20th century Qatar was under British protection. Qatar’s geography is precarious, jutting like a thumb out of Saudi Arabia, a major regional power to the west.
To the east is Iran, a Shia adversary to the Saudi kingdom’s Sunni orthodoxy. To the south is unstable Yemen, currently beset by war. To the north are other regional powerhouses such as Turkey, as well as more unstable neighbours like Iraq.
In return for providing military protection, the British – as well as the Americans and French – were instrumental in scaling-up Qatar’s oil and gas industry, and for exerting considerable influence over Qatari government policy.
In 1971, with Great Britain in decolonising mode, Qatar ceased to be one of its protectorates and suddenly found itself vulnerable, without an established or significant place in the world, though with considerable gas and oil resources at its disposal – and therefore vulnerable to attack, the first Gulf war symbolising the threat level perceived by Qatari government officials.
The country’s strategy for protecting itself in this post-British era has therefore been to seek legitimacy by positioning itself as a trustworthy, dependable ally, often based upon hedging between adversaries.
Evidence of this was seen in the decade up to 2021, when Doha played home to both the Taliban’s leadership and the United States’s biggest military facility in the Middle East.
Qatar’s bid to host the World Cup was a play entirely in keeping with this strategy, a way of engaging with the world, building relationships, and creating interdependencies with other countries.
Such relationships now exist; for example, the United States is the biggest investor into Qatar, a significant proportion of which has been devoted to the hotels and malls that many football fans will shortly be visiting.
Similarly, through its active World Cup-related courting of other countries, Qatar can now call upon Italian naval vessels, British air force jets, French cyber security specialists and Turkish police officers to guarantee its safety.
No longer just a sandy outcrop, Qatar has become a legitimate and important member of the international community, partly due to its World Cup hosting.
Whatever the truth about bribery and corruption surrounding Fifa’s bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, Qatar needed to win hosting rights – not necessarily for the sake of world football, but as a matter of its own national security.
By locking overseas investors into its security plans, Doha also used this as a means through which to engage in nation building. British protection of the peninsula left a legacy of oil and gas exploration but not much else. The World Cup has therefore served to turbocharge Qatar’s national development plans.
Even back in 2010, Doha ended where it met the desert – still relatively small and parochial. Nowadays, it has become a sprawling metropolis that has long since consumed huge tracts of that desert.
The most visible manifestation of how the nation has been built is the physical infrastructure now associated with staging international football’s biggest tournament.
FIfa has specific requirements in terms of the number of stadiums, their size and their facilities which prospective hosts must commit to providing.
Qatar has delivered in this regard, though new stadiums require supporting infrastructure, and this is where Qatar’s ambitions to build a brand new 21st century city have become reality.
The eight stadiums are connected by a series of eight-lane highways and a brand-new metro network, as well as shopping malls, cultural attractions, and civic amenities such as public gyms and sports pitches.
Even a new city – Lusail – has been built to ease pressure on Doha. Many of us will know all about Lusail very soon, as it will host the World Cup final.
By 19 December the circus will have left town and attention will shift elsewhere. Qatar will nevertheless be left with a legacy of high-quality infrastructure that will form the basis of everyday life in Doha.
Yet there are already plans to utilise it: the country wants to attract 6m new visitors to the country in the five years following the World Cup.
Furthermore, Qatar will host the 2023 men’s Asian football championship and in 2030 the Asian Games. There are strong rumours too that it will bid to stage the 2036 Olympic Games, as the country seeks to cement its position as an important event destination.
This is not only about security and legitimacy but is also about employment, export earnings and contributions to national output.
Qatar’s hosting of Fifa’s showpiece has been called a lot of things – corrupt, immoral, sportwashing and so forth – but such interpretations fall a considerable way short of what the country has always intended.
It now feels safer, more secure and better about itself. All of this is built upon a strategy of sound defence, something that Maguire and van Dijk would presumably endorse.
Simon Chadwick is Professor of Sport and Geopolitical Economy at Skema Business School in Paris.