Qatar will host the 22nd edition of the World Cup between November 20 and December 18, 2022. It will be a novel tournament in many ways. Qatar has never hosted an event of such size and global importance before; in fact, it’s the first country in the Middle East to host the tournament. At the same time, it will be the first World Cup hosted during the months of November and December, a decision taken by the FIFA to shield players and fans from Qatar’s scorching summer temperatures. According to FIFA, 2.45 million tickets out of a possible 3 million have already been sold, and 1.2 million people are expected to visit Qatar. The Qatari government hopes the spectacle will boost the country’s global image and influence.
However, despite the event’s novelty and grandeur, it has been overshadowed by controversy since its conception. Reports about the exploitation of migrant workers and concerns about logistics have elicited doubt and disdain from abroad. With only seven weeks left before this mega-event, new controversies are still emerging. On 9 September, Lusail Stadium, a brand new $767 million venue with an 80,000-seat capacity where the World Cup’s final will be played, hosted its first match—an exhibition game between Egyptian club Zamalek and Saudi club al-Halil. Despite high expectations, the stadium received poor reviews—including complaints about poor air conditioning, lack of hydration and bathrooms, and long public transportation queues.
Academics have paid a lot of attention to this event, offering wide-ranging theoretical interpretations by Gulf scholars. While most analyses have considered Qatar’s bid an example of a successful soft power or national branding strategy, Thomas Bonnie James of Qatar University, however, questions the impact on overdependence on soft power can have on a country’s influence in the long-term. In contrast, Paul Brannagan and Richard Giulianotti argue that Qatar’s efforts to project soft power by hosting the 2022 World Cup has led instead to ‘soft disempowerment’ because of the criticism it has received. Mohammed Al Thani counters that Qatari labor rights reforms have helped defuse this criticism, restoring soft power capacities in the process.
Rented Power: A Better Conceptualization
In my book ‘Qatar: The Practice of Rented Power’, I attempted to explain Qatar’s foreign policy and power projection strategies since 1995, when Sheikh Hamad came to power. I argue that Qatar has wielded ‘rented power’, a more extensive version of soft power that incorporates the influence of working with non-state actors (political Islam groups, tribes, the media entities, and sports organizations, among others). Using the key measurements of scope, domain, weight and cost, the qualities and limitations of these enterprises can be more clearly understood. Drawing on conceptualizations of power developed by Robert Dahl and other scholars, I argue that as rented power focuses on renting the well-recognized influence of non-state actors, it allows the consideration of Dahl’s interpretation with regard to viewing economic capacity/money as a means of being engaged with non-state actors. Money is the primary capacity for power in this case, and economic capacity determines the depth of this power. A state can use this economic capacity directly or indirectly to sponsor a non-state actor. The other dimensions laid out in Dahl’s work correspond to rented power in a similar fashion. Scope answers the question of the methods by which a state gains from its engagement with a non-state actor. Domain focuses on the geographical ‘where’ of a state’s influence, while weight examines what influence A (a state) has gained at the regional and international level through its power over B by renting B’s well-established influence. Finally, the cost to A and B are relevant when measuring power–essentially the price A pays to rent B’s influence.
Qatar utilized its bottomless coffers to rent the glamor and prestige the World Cup provides. Qatar spent large sums attracting international sport superstars as ambassadors, including the French World Cup winner Zinedine Zidane, and legendary Barcelona player and manager Pep Guardiola. However, Qatar’s successful bid was surprising and drew criticism. Accusations of corruption prompted official investigations by FIFA’s ethics committee into the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Nevertheless, Garcia’s FIFA report concluded there were ‘no explosive revelations of bribery’ in the 2018 or 2022 bidding processes.
Qatar Advances its Soft Power
Qatar has engaged with non-state sports actors in two main ways. First, taking advantage of their transnational influence by hosting mega-events and buying prominent football clubs (e.g. the purchase of Paris Saint-Germain.) Second, selling the Qatari brand through shirt sponsorships with famous clubs (e.g. FC Barcelona, FC Bayern Munich, AS Roma).
Qatar has hosted several worldwide sports competitions besides the World Cup, including the 2006 Doha Asian Games, the 2011 Asian Football Cup, and the annual Qatar Open Tennis Tournament. In doing so, it has cooperated effectively with transnational non-state governing bodies that organize these tournaments, such as the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). Considering the political importance of these non-state actors, especially FIFA, Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup is particularly significant. Football, a truly ‘global game’, serves as an ideal conduit for Doha to project its influence worldwide. By backing non-state actors, including FIFA, Qatar’s rented power domain can spread across the globe. Furthermore, by winning the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Qatar took the event outside of football’s traditional power-houses, representing the weight of Qatar’s rented power. Through its engagements with sports non-state actors, Qatar successfully ‘rented’ an important role in the world of sport politics.
However, the event, and Qatar’s management of it, continues to draw criticism, which can be conceptualized as the cost of Qatar’s rented power. Other concerns and challenges have continued to arise. Some fear the tournament’s close proximity to Christmas celebrations might discourage fans from attending. Restrictions from the global COVID-19 pandemic remain another concern, particularly how much potential revenue will be lost if restrictions on capacity are put in place. However, there are hopeful precedents, since postponed sporting mega-events, such as the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and UEFA Euro 2020 Championships—which took place in 2021—have been celebrated as a huge inspiration to athletes and global audiences.
It is arguably too early to predict whether the costs or the benefits of Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup will be higher. The controversy and concerns should be considered part of the cost. Qatar’s calculation is that temporary criticism and scrutiny will be outweighed by the landmark occasion and its legacy, and that the negative attention can to some extent be off-set by the media coverage. Its success (or failure) will serve as a lesson for governments employing rental power for years to come.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.