Even as a million people poured onto the Champs-Élysées to fete France’s 4-2 victory over Croatia, it seemed the real winner of the World Cup final was Russian President Vladimir Putin. So far as Russia’s position on the world stage was concerned, “Putin’s World Cup” was by most measures a major success. The games themselves provided a month’s worth of compelling intrigue. Off the pitch, international interest in visiting Russia has spiked and Putin’s government earned lavish praise for its job hosting the competition.
That post-tournament glow stands in sharp contrast to the provocations that have torpedoed Moscow’s global standing since it won World Cup hosting rights in 2010. The Kremlin has dragged itself into isolation by annexing Crimea, downing Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, interfering in the 2016 American elections, and attempting to assassinate one of its former spies on British soil. Russia was an international pariah when the tournament began, expelled from the G7 and reeling under European and American sanctions.
For a month, at least, football pushed those crises into the background. Russia’s successful hosting stint gave Putin a reputational boost at a critical juncture for his administration. Moscow made the 2018 tournament a well-orchestrated public relations operation for projects like his $300 million Kaliningrad football stadium.
The World Cup helped normalize Russia again on the world stage. France’s Emmanuel Macron met Putin on the day of the final and then sat alongside him at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. Those watching the now-infamous Putin-Trump presser in Helsinki a day later saw a poised and confident Russian leader enjoying fawning treatment from another major geopolitical adversary.
The 2018 World Cup and the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics both ultimately forced the international community to interact with Russia, in spite of internal repression and external aggression. While the $50 billion Sochi Olympics turned into a corruption-ridden “boondoggle,” Russian officials still hope the $14 billion they spent on the World Cup will generate much-needed economic benefit.
While another leader might parlay this respite into an opportunity for renewed dialogue with Western counterparts, Vladimir Putin’s governing style is almost certain to instead squander the “World Cup” dividend both at home and abroad. At the start of the tournament, his government took the opportunity to try and slip an unpopular change to the retirement age under the radar. Russians took notice and are now publicly challenging the Kremlin. The Helsinki summit offered Putin a short-term propaganda victory but has also sharpened anti-Russian sentiment in the United States even further, accelerating bipartisan momentum for further sanctions.
While Russia’s time back in the sun will be short-lived, Qatar seems better positioned to capitalize on the geopolitical opportunities afforded by its own World Cup in 2022. Initially, FIFA’s decisions to award the 2018 competition to Russia and the 2022 edition to Qatar seemed equally controversial. Events since have taken very different directions for the two countries. Russia transformed into a global aggressor; the Gulf emirate has instead become a geopolitical underdog, fighting for its sovereignty in the face of a belligerent campaign led by its larger neighbors.
Over the past year, Qatar has been holding out against a blockade from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Planes and cargo ships heading for Qatar have been blocked, diplomatic links severed, and Qatar’s sole land border with Saudi Arabia scoped out as the future location of a dual-use canal and nuclear waste dump. Qatar’s regional foes have pushed hard to make that isolation global, lobbying both the United States and Europe to focus on Doha as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Those efforts have failed spectacularly. Donald Trump has reversed his position and now accepts Qatar is a key partner against terrorism. The United Kingdom, meanwhile, will be receiving Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani for a visit next week. The Qatari emir is slated to meet with PM Theresa May and advocate for Qatar in the face of the Saudi-led blockade. In Britain, he will be preaching to the converted—the UK government has already publically called on Saudi Arabia and its allies to ease tensions between their bloc and Qatar, while Theresa May has pushed the Saudis to lift their embargo.
There is another important distinction in how Russia and Qatar have handled World Cup preparations. The former has steadily descended into repressive authoritarianism just as it came into the global media spotlight, while the latter has implemented key reforms welcomed by human rights groups. The Qatari government has rolled out labor reforms which significantly improve the physical and employment situation of the country’s two million migrant workers, promising the end of the exploitative kafala system prevalent throughout the Gulf states.
As part of its drive to modernise its labor code, Qatar has set a minimum wage and now allows workers to leave the country without their employers’ permission. It has also established workers’ committees where workers elect their own representatives, and introduced a draft domestic workers law and legislation to grant permanent residency to children born to Qatari mothers and foreign fathers.
While these internal reforms have already helped reshape the narrative surrounding Qatar’s preparations for 2022, the emirate also hopes the increased international attention brought by the World Cup will weaken the blockade imposed by neighboring Gulf states. That may not be an entirely unrealistic expectation. The other side of the dispute evidentially cares at least enough to demand Doha surrender the World Cup as their main condition for lifting the siege. Countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also ideally placed to receive many of the visitors coming to watch the World Cup matches. Are the economic incentives enough for Qatar’s neighbors to stand down?
If the World Cup contributes even partly to the restoration of normalcy in the Gulf, the 2022 tournament will have had far greater – and far more positive – impact for Doha than Moscow could have ever hoped to see from the 2018 edition.
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