Qatar, Saudi Arabia: Sport Is Also a Means to Accumulate Power and Build Control
EMERGY - Youths, Work, Sport

Qatar, Saudi Arabia: Sport Is Also a Means to Accumulate Power and Build Control

States have long played a role in sport, sometimes in promoting participation and at other times in helping governments to achieve political ends. This role is often perceived as being positive, for instance in the way it is intended to address public health challenges. Though states’ engagement with sport can be for malign reasons, indeed there are many examples of sport being deployed for propaganda purposes. Such is the potential for states to exert their influence over and through sport that, for example, football’s governing body FIFA explicitly prohibits states from intervening in national associations.

The Many Facets of Sport

A contemporary history of European sport indicates that state interventions have typically had socio-cultural foundations. Today, this remains evident in European Union sport policy, which accentuates the significance of sport as a health and lifestyle intervention. Globally however, last quarter twentieth century sport was dominated by North American influences, which resulted in the commercialization, industrialization and marketisation of sport. As such, the likes of sponsorship, merchandising, and private equity investment have become significant features of the sport ecosystem.

Yet as the first quarter of the twenty-first century concludes, the role of the state has become resurgent in sport. Partly, this is an outcome of a pivot in economic and political power from the Global North to the Global South and is associated with countries such as China and Saudi Arabia. In such instances, states are playing a fundamental role in two ways: firstly, in the way that government shapes sport policy and strategy; and secondly, in the way that sport is used to generate outcomes that extend far beyond socio-cultural or commercial considerations.

The rise of what some refer to as sport’s new geopolitical economy is not, however, confined to the countries of the Global South. Across the Global North, the state is playing a new, wider ranging, and more powerful role in sport. In Britain, government actively deploys Premier League football assets to engage important stakeholders around the world. The likes of Denmark and South Korea have implemented formal strategies designed to position themselves as global leaders in the esports industry. Whilst Australia remains an important event host, leading some observers to conclude that the country is a global event management capital. Moreoever, in recent months Australian government has deployed sport as a means through which to address Chinese power in the South Pacific.

A definition of sport’s geopolitical economy is ‘the way in which nations, states, and other entities engage in, with, or through sport for geographic, political and economic reasons in order to acquire and exert power, enabling them to secure strategic advantages through the control of resources within and via networks of which sport is a constituent part1. Within the scope of this definition, the deployment of sport for policy and strategy purposes extends to nation building, nation branding, soft power, and even diplomacy.

Sport Policy in Qatar : From Nation Building …

Developments in Qatar suitably illustrate the changes and themes identified above, to the extent that the country has rapidly ascended to a position of prominence in global sport. 50 years ago, Qatar had just ceased to be a British protectorate and had gained full control of its considerable oil and gas wealth. Thereafter, its government formulated a national vision (which runs to 2030) and an accompanying set of policies and strategies intended to instigate a process of state-led national transformation, an integral component of which is sport.

Sport event hosting has helped anchor Qatar’s ambitions, the 2022 FIFA World Cup being a principal driver of its nation building programme. Officials in Doha first decided to bid for the right to stage the event back in 2008, eventually winning that right following a vote in 2010. Notwithstanding the controversies that have since manifested themselves following FIFA’s decision, the period since Qatar first decided to bid has been an unprecedented one. In preparing for the 2022 tournament, estimates suggest the country has spent approximately $240 billion dollars. A proportion of this spending has been on state-of-the-art stadiums, though most of the spending has been focused on creating civic infrastructure including a metro network, new roads, public parks, and commercial and residential accommodation. In essence, Qatar has built a nation using sport as the main driver.

For France, other European nations, and many other countries around the world, the scale of Qatar’s spending is probably unthinkable. Even so, the integrated nature of the country’s strategic thinking, alongside its willingness to place sport centre-stage in its plans, is striking. Government in Doha has established some important benchmarks, which the recent isomorphic investments in sport by Saudi Arabia lend credibility to. More indirectly, we are also beginning to see other, similar transformations in thinking and activity in countries such as South Korea. Government in Seoul has deliberately adopted a first mover strategic position in esports, formulating policies intended to build competitive advantage in the creation of hardware and software, as well as the staging and broadcasting of esports events.

… to Nation Branding

Central to the process of nation building in Qatar, creating assets that accentuate and communicate its nation brand has been important. Projecting what Qatar stands for and the values it holds have been paramount, which are readily observable through its state-owned airline, Qatar Airways. Over the last decade, the airline has been voted as airline of the year five times for the quality of service and customer care it provides. This proposition has been enabled via a programme of sport sponsorships, notably in equine sports, which emphasise such qualities. As an additional dimension of this, Qatar’s post-World Cup tourism strategy is oriented more towards high-value, luxury travel, in contrast to rival Dubai’s rather more mass-market approach.

By positioning itself in this way, Qatar is also projecting soft power through sport, something that was very important ahead of the FIFA World Cup. There were initial concerns, exacerbated by the pandemic, that fans may not travel to the country. Hence, Doha government worked hard to establish the country as being an attractive destination, which was ultimately borne out by tournament visitor numbers. Though many spectators from the Global North left the country with positive perceptions of and attitudes towards the country, it was arguably in the Global South where Qatari soft power was perhaps at its most potent. It rapidly became an embodiment of Arab values, helped by the Moroccan national team’s progress to the tournament’s semi-final stage.

The infrastructural legacy of Qatar’s World Cup is undoubted, although critics question what will happen to such large stadiums in a country with fewer than 3 million inhabitants. Qatari government’s initial plans were to dismantle stadiums and donate them to nations in need of such infrastructure. It seems likely that only one venue will be re-purposed like this, probably in a way that helps forge closer diplomatic ties between Qatar and another nation. In its state-led engagement with sport, the country’s deployment of the World Cup as an instrument of diplomacy is a further evidence of sport’s geopolitical economy. Established notions of event legacy have typically addressed concerns about the domestic impacts of event hosting. In Qatar’s case, legacy has been conceived of in terms of using World Cup hosting to establish or strengthen diplomatic relationships with third parties, which has been an important focus for the work of its Generation Amazing legacy project.

Sport As a Way to Address Challenges

Extensive reference here of Qatar is not intended to suggest that oil and gas money alone is a necessary pre-requisite for the scale or effectiveness of sports investments that countries may make. Rather, it serves to highlight the importance that sport now serves geopolitically and economically. Promoting health and well-being or social cohesion is a role that sport has played for centuries and will probably continue to do so in the future. But increasingly, sport is a means through to accumulate power and build control; it is a way of addressing challenges posed by the likes of climate change, digitalization, and the rise of global multipolarity; hence it is also a way of building competitive advantage, enacting strategy, and pursuing nation building, nation branding, and soft power projection. And in playing this game, Qatar is not alone.

If further evidence of this is required, one need only look across Qatar’s sole land border to Saudi Arabia. Over the last eight years, prompted by the ascent of Mohammed Bin Salman, the country has embarked upon a vast investment programme in sport. Many observers have rather simplistically (and naively) framed this as an exercise in sport washing, yet the reality is that it is a massive exercise in state-led national transformation that draws from the experiences of Saudi Arabia’s nearest neighbours. Bin Salman has talked of the contribution that sport is expected to play in boosting his country’s GDP, but there is more to it than this as sport is intended to increase productivity, promote private enterprise, stimulate innovation, and prompt the growth a sport ecosystem. In tandem with this, the intention is for sport to extend the programme of gender reforms which began in 2018. Hence, women and girls can now play sports and become gymnasium members which, in addition to performing a social role, also enables public health and economic benefits. Encouraging sport and exercise helps to address some acute problems for Saudi Arabia, such as high rates of hypertension amongst sections of its population. And, of course, being associated with some of the world’s most famous football players helps to confer image and reputational benefits upon a country seeking to reposition its national brand. Qatar may have been something of a first mover, but Saudi Arabia is currently proving to be a very fast follower.

  1. Chadwick, S., Widdop, P., & Goldman, M. M. (Eds.). (2023). The Geopolitical Economy of Sport: Power, Politics, Money, and the State. Taylor & Francis. ↩︎