Leadership in international sports is a central component of Qatar’s political project to overhaul its global image and obtain major geopolitical status. Despite its ill-suited weather, underdeveloped soccer culture, and lacking infrastructure, Qatar has invested heavily in the sport. State-sponsored companies purchased soccer clubs, such as Paris Saint-Germain, struck multi-million dollar sponsorship deals with world-class clubs, and funded a world-class soccer academy. Most notably, in 2010, Qatar successfully bid to host the 2022 World Cup, which will take place during November and December. While the Gulf microstate sought to bolster its reputation by hosting the popular event, the bid also attracted unwarranted global attention to human rights abuses taking place in Qatar. Ultimately, the 2022 Qatar World Cup demonstrates the unpredictable and multifaceted nature of soft power, and underscores the limits of the state’s attempt to positively shape its image.
With the rise of soft power literature, scholars began to recognize the political potential of sporting events; mega sporting events attract the world’s attention to the host country and provide it with a meaningful opportunity to modulate its perception. The world examines the behavior of the state and how it responds to challenges. Qatar, for instance, sought to tackle concerns about high-temperatures during the games by constructing stadiums with cooling technologies, consistent with their desire to be perceived as a leader in emerging technologies. The political potency of mega sporting events is enhanced by the interconnected digital nature of our world, as they may reach a far greater audience than before. Specifically, countries can use mega sporting events to utilize the transnational networks of the modern world indifferiening their identities within the globalized discourse. Countries can tackle unwanted stereotypes and foster a desired destination image.
Qatar is not new to hosting mega sporting events. Qatar hosted the Asian Games in 2006 and the 2011 Asian Cup; it also hosts the annual Qatar Golf Masters and the Qatar Open Tennis Tournament. By hosting international sporting events, Qatar aims to transform its global perception from an oil-dependent microstate to a technologically-advanced, attractive modern state. In 2008, the Qatari government issued the “National Vision 2030,” a document outlying the nation’s political ambitions, stressing the need for economic diversification, social justice and environmentally-sound policies. Hosting international sporting events, particularly the 2022 World Cup, serves those goals in numerous ways. The 2022 World Cup will enable Qatar to differentiate itself from stereotypical notions of an under-developed and war-torn Middle East, projecting an image of Qatar as an innovative technological leader and a peace-builder in the region.
However, while Qatar’s motivations to host the 2022 World Cup are clear, an analysis of the relationship between Qatar’s image and the 2022 World Cup is incomplete without accounting for the harm Qatar’s image suffered due to the mass-publicity invoked by the World Cup. The 2022 World Cup in Qatar is an exemplary case study that demonstrates the amorphous nature of soft power and the state’s inability to completely tame it. Since 2010, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International, among various other human rights organizations, have published reports documenting the inhumane conditions of migrant workers in the 2022 World Cup infrastructure projects. They targeted the “Kafala system” in particular, which designates a migrant worker with a sponsor, essentially deeming the worker helplessly reliant on their employer. Wage-theft, work in the scorching heat with limited access to food and water, unpaid overtime, and other abuses were reported. A joint report by numerous NGOs calls on FIFA to allocate at least $440 million to compensate for workers’ human rights abuses in Qatar.
Discussion over the plight of migrant workers goes beyond activist circles. While reliable public opinion data on the 2022 Qatar World Cup is lacking, scholarly analysis of the discourse on Twitter reveals that in countries such as Australia, the U.S. and Spain, discussion over migrant workers and FIFA bribery speculations for the bid are dominant. World-class soccer players with millions of social media followers, such as Joshua Kimich, Tony Kroos and Harry Kane, drew attention to Qatar’s human rights record. Meanwhile, numerous football federations vowed to raise attention to Qatar’s human rights record during the World Cup, with Denmark, for example, announcing that it will have human rights messages on its training shirts.
International attention spilled to other human rights abuses in Qatar as well, separate from the abuse of workers’ rights. In 2010, FIFA President Blatter announced that the LGBTQ+ community should “refrain from any sexual activities” during the World Cup, which drew significant backlash and attention to Qatar’s prohibition of homosexuality. Rumors of planned medical screening tests to detect members of the LGBTQ community worsened the outcry and led prominent gay activists such as Peter Tatchell to call for a boycott of the event. In June 2022, the Football Association of Wales came under pressure to boycott the 2022 World Cup due to Qatar’s prohibition of homosexuality, and some staff will reportedly not join the team for the games.
Indeed, it appears that workers’ rights in Qatar have improved in recent years. Notably, in September 2021, Qatar introduced a national non-discriminatory minimum wage and vowed to protect worker’s right to change jobs without employer permission. However, the mild reforms failed to overshadow the damage wrecked by the myriad investigations from human rights groups into Qatar’s abuses. The labor exploitation during the construction of the World Cup infrastructure stands in direct contrast to the National Vision 2030, wherein Qatar affirms its commitment to increasing the nation’s standard of living. Human rights organizations continue to criticize Qatar’s labor policies such as the prohibition for migrant workers to unionize and the continued reliance on employers for accommodation. Another point of criticism is the loose enforcement of labor reforms, such as the Wage Protection System.
Certainly, the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will bolster Qatar’s reputation in the eyes of many. Despite the controversies, the 2022 World Cup will go ahead as planned and the numerous boycott campaigns proved insufficient to dissuade football federations. Qatar will receive the opportunity to perform its carefully cultivated image to the vast audience of the event. Nonetheless, Qatar will not be able to fully control where the attention is directed. While it may exhibit a crafted image, it will also be forced to improvise. The nation will have to confront challenges to its reputation emerging from the interaction with non-state actors, keen on highlighting its stained human rights record.