In the months since Qatar’s largely successful hosting of the 2022 World Cup, the small peninsular emirate has remained under the spotlight in global sports politics. Recently, the Qatari Nine Two Foundation has expressed interest in purchasing Manchester United, one of the world’s most famous football (soccer) clubs, from the Glazer family, its present owners. Although the sale is far from certain—a competing bid is expected from chemical billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe—it would represent a major step forward for Qatar’s soft power if completed.
For Qatar, as for all the GCC states, soft power can be explained through various lenses, mostly focusing on the country’s geography and neighborhood. Five of the six Gulf states have small land areas and populations, complicating their security concerns. One way for the five coastal states to offset this is to enhance their global visibility, which each of them has given a high priority—perhaps with the recent history of Kuwait in mind. Since the 2000s, and even more since the Arab Spring, the Gulf states’ accumulated wealth, and the emerging power vacuum in the Middle East region, has assisted in increasing their role at the regional level and encouraged the adoption of proactive foreign policies. At the same time, Qatar has sought to distance itself from global stereotypes of energy-rich monarchies, for which soft power policies have been effective. Soft power brings greater visibility to states, allows them to compete between each other and with other states within the MENA region, and the careful use of soft power supports their growing attempts to project influence worldwide.
The Power of Sports
Sport has become a crucial tool within Qatar’s soft power toolbox. Doha has hosted several worldwide sports competitions, including the 2006 Asian Games, the 2011 Asian Football Cup, the annual Qatar Open Tennis Tournament, and the 2022 FIFA World Cup, among dozens of others. A longer-term approach has also been the acquisition of shirt sponsorships of well-recognized Western football clubs (including FC Barcelona, FC Bayern Munich, and AS Roma). Qatar has mainly relied on these sponsorships to increase its influence, and is emerging as a key player in the field of football. Other Gulf states have branched out into other sports; Bahrain, for instance, has instead invested in the Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix, hosting the first Formula One race in the Middle East 19 years ago.
Qatar’s presence within the football sphere is perhaps all the more impressive, considering that the game became popular only in the 1940s, when football came to the emirate through British workers. The first official season of the Qatar Stars League (previously known as Q-League) was played in 1972, only one year after Qatar’s formal independence.
In addition to supporting domestic sports clubs, Qatar has sought to raise its global profile by strategically buying foreign ones, usually through its sovereign wealth fund or associated government funds. The state-owned Qatar Sports Investments (QSI), launched by Shaykh Tamim, bought 70% of the famed Paris Saint-Germain football club in 2011. The club had been making losses under its previous owners, the U.S. private equity real estate fund Colony Capital. Dissatisfied with owning only 70% of PSG, QSI purchased the remaining 30% in 2012, becoming the club’s sole owner. In 2012, the Qatar Tourism Authority signed a sponsorship deal with the club to pay up to EUR 200 million (USD 224 million) per year, for four years, covering the ‘galactic wages’ of players such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani. Al-Jazeera bought the rights to show French League football worldwide, and three weeks after QSI bought PSG, al-Jazeera paid EUR 510 million (USD 660 million) per year for the domestic broadcast rights from 2012 to 2016, in cooperation with French broadcaster Canal+, which had previously been the only bidder. (The president of PSG, the head of al-Jazeera Sport, Nasir al-Khelaifi, also heads QSI and runs beIN Sports.) Reports in 2018 suggested that state-owned Qatari companies such as Qatar Airways were interested in PSG shirt sponsorship, replacing the Dubai-based airline, Emirates, because the UAE’s sponsorship of shirts on a Qatari-owned team became an “uncomfortable fit” after the UAE imposed a blockade on Qatar in 2017. In 2019, reports revealed that PSG had reached a multi-year sponsorship agreement with Paris-based Accor hotels, as the team’s jersey sponsor beginning in the 2019-2020 season. Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) is a shareholder (11.3%) of the Accor Group.
State-owned enterprises and famous individuals are two common tools the GCC states use to utilize football as a form of soft power. For example, in 2022, Emirates renewed its sponsorship deal with AC Milan, extending it to 15 years. Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour, a newly-appointed Vice-President of the UAE, took over the Manchester City club in 2008. Although its investments arrived later and have been smaller in scope, Saudi Arabia has also acknowledged the importance of football, buying Newcastle United FC in 2021 along with PCP Capital Partners and the Reuben Brothers. In a less high-profile but substantial move, Saudi Prince Abdullah bin Mosaid bin Abdulaziz Al Saud took control of Sheffield United FC in 2020.
Return on Investment
The Gulf states are realizing the importance of sport in soft power objectives, and as with their general economic policy, have begun to diversify fields. Reportedly, both Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala Investment Co. and Qatar Investment Authority were considering opportunities to purchase stakes in NBA teams in February 2023. This suggests the view that sport can be further used for the Gulf’s geopolitical use to win hearts and minds in other countries, based on the types of sport popular in a particular country. In addition to European football and U.S. basketball, hockey can be another potential field for diversification. It also allows for influence across the IIHF’s top ice hockey countries, including Finland, Canada, Russia, the U.S., Sweden, and the Czech Republic. Another potential area is horse racing. The UAE is a global equestrian sports hub and reportedly spends over $572 million per year on the training of racehorses. In addition to connections with the U.S. and the UK, with which the Gulf states have traditionally enjoyed close relations, Australia, Hong Kong, and Japan are other potential states for investing in the racing industry, further diversifying the spread of the GCC’s soft power.
As with the other GCC states, Qatar’s use of soft power allows it to be discussed in terms of the qualities perceived in the vehicles by which it projects power. Along with serving important branding purposes, soft power has assisted Doha and its neighbors to project power globally. Primarily through football, Qatar has transformed its face from a regional into a global player. A successful bid by Sheikh Jassim for Manchester United—a massively recognized club and brand of long standing—would further boost this process. Even if the deal does not go through, it is part of a wider scenario that demands attention: diversity in sport’s utilization as a soft power tool. The Gulf states clearly understand the value of Western eyeballs on their favorite sports, and the indirect benefits of the states’ projected association with success and sporting pedigree.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.