This week, soccer giants Real Madrid and Barcelona meet twice in a matter of days, first in a cup semi-final and then a crucial league match. The two installments of the fabled showdown, known as El Clasico, don’t just pit Spain’s biggest rivals against each other. They also set up an equally fierce grudge match thousands of miles away.
Real and Barça are sponsored by the national airlines of the UAE and Qatar, respectively. Their iconic shirts are also part of a wider power struggle, in which various Gulf states are striving to outmaneuver one another through the soft power of sport. Given recent events, one would forgive the Qataris for fancying their chances this week. After all, it’s only a few weeks since their national football team claimed the Asia Cup in their rivals’ backyard.
This success is just part of Qatar’s wider sporting dream. It wants to build a $20 billion sports industry, one that dovetails with its outsize political goals. As it looks towards its World Cup in 2022, sport offers Qatar the portray itself as a modern state that can be trusted by the West – and eclipse its regional opponents.
Qatar has been using sport to boost its profile for years. It’s hosted a global tennis tournament since 1993, and its vaunted training center, Aspire, is now 15 years old. But recently, the trickle of investment has become a flood: Qatar’s sports investment fund has bought Paris Saint-Germain, while Qatar Airways has inked sponsorship deals with Bayern Munich as well as Barcelona. Al-Jazeera has achieved success in the broadcasting space through its subscription-based sports subsidiary, beIN.
Yet the most concerted activity has gone into bidding for blue-ribbon events. The World Cup is undoubtedly the biggest prize claimed so far, but Doha has already hosted international tournaments in swimming, handball, cycling and gymnastics, and even bid for the 2028 Olympics. Officials have also lobbied the Spanish Football Federation to host the Supercopa, an annual showpiece between Spain’s league and cup winners. The Federation has now revealed plans to move the match overseas, meaning Qatari fans could soon have be savoring El Clasico in the flesh.
To some Western fans, Qatar’s sporting drive might seem like a folly, given the country’s historic lack of on-field pedigree. The Qatari soccer team has never qualified for the World Cup, and its female athletes didn’t compete in the Olympics until 2012. Nor is there much spectator interest, judging by the national soccer league, whose crowd levels remain low.
But this goes way beyond balls, tracks and fields. In the immediate term, sport offers Qatar one way through its neighbors’ boycott, which has throttled several supply routes. Doha has been forced to loosen regulations on overseas investment, both to entice foreign companies and augment the emirate’s luxury tourism industry, a crucial pillar of its diversification strategy. Sporting events provide the ideal conduit on both fronts; while Qatar expects 1 million visitors during the World Cup, the country is also gearing up to attract 150 foreign firms by the time it kicks off.
However, the blockade is also the byproduct of a wider political saga. In recent years, Qatar has been spending billions of dollars on efforts to build its global soft power. It’s bought iconic buildings in London and New York, amassed the world’s biggest modern art collection, even built a giant amphitheater on home soil. But none of these investments offers the same exposure as sport. As one Qatari diplomat said recently, events like the World Cup broadcast Brand Qatar to the entire world.
Hosting global sports events, and earning on-field glory as it did at the Asia Cup, enables Qatar to present a modern, tolerant face, tapping into the feel-good values of athletic triumph. The disability coaching provided by the Qatar Foundation shows Doha is already alive to these possibilities.
At the same time, Qatar is pushing its credentials as an international actor through sport. To complement its hosting of major events, Doha has invested heavily in facilities such as the International Center for Sport Security, designed to provide global hubs for sporting regulation. Officials likely hope these facilities will help solidify its reputation for reliability, which will then trickle through into the political realm. Qatar has recently hosted a raft of international summits, such as the recent U.S.-Taliban peace talks, and its sporting investment can only burnish the country’s reputation as a deal-maker on the global stage.
This renewed bid for global influence is ideally timed, because the UAE and Saudi Arabia are both reeling from a string of embarrassments, centering on their own human rights and democracy failings. This turmoil is reflected in the sporting sphere: the UAE blew its own PR opportunity during the Asia Cup, which was marred first by missiles thrown by Emirati fans during their defeat to Qatar, then the arrest of a British man who wore a Qatari shirt.
Meanwhile, Qatar keeps rolling along, winning victory after victory in the sporting sphere. Some might accuse the emirate of exploiting events like El Clasico, of playing political football with actual football. But, given the success Doha has been enjoying, few would expect it to change the playbook any time soon.
*Malik Ibrahim is a risk analyst currently based in France working for several consultancies on issues relating to political and security risk, primarily in the MENA region.