Sports and IR: Qatar’s MESSIah

Introduction

After bidding a tearful adieu to his former club FC Barcelona – his boyhood club for 21 years – Lionel Messi joined Paris Saint Germain for two seasons, with an option for a third. While the football world awaits whether he can fulfill PSG’s dream of winning their maiden UEFA Champions League trophy, his new club owners, the Qatari Sports Investments (QSI) will be looking slightly further ahead. The QSI being a subsidiary of the Qatar Investments Authority – a state run sovereign wealth fund in Qatar – aims to achieve goals of national strategic development and grand political ambitions of Qatar through Messi. This article will investigate how the signing of Messi at PSG, will help the state of Qatar realize its plans of global domination.

How did it start?

Almost unknown and unnoticed in football until its FIFA World Cup bid for the 2022 edition grew formidable, Qatar, the richest country in the world by GDP per capita, at $103,900, has now spread its name across the globe partly by colonising the game with its strategic investment. But how did it all start?

It was in November 2010 that Argentina played a friendly game against Brazil at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar. Back then, football was largely pedestrian in Qatar, though the local crowd still seemed ecstatic. What appeared to be meaningless and friendly was actually the beginning of a tangled tale of money and geopolitics leading to the emergence of Qatar as a global football force.  Three weeks later, Qatar controversially won the right to stage 2022’s World Cup; as several important figures associated with the hosting vote.have been fined, suspended, banned for life or prosecuted for corruption. This was followed by the Qatar Foundation paying €150m in mid-December 2010 for a five-year deal to become the first ever sponsor of the Barcelona shirt. But the acquisition of the French club, Paris St-Germain in May 2011 cemented Qatar’s position in the football world. Now, let us look at the reasons behind Qatar’s extraordinary interest in the game of football.

A frantic interest in football

The immense interest in football of the Emir and the royal family in Qatar stems from the need to diversify its economy away from a dependence on gas and oil. Since 1971, when Qatar ceased to be a British protectorate, the country’s ruling family has been working out how best to use its wealth of natural resources. Though Qatar hardly has any unemployment and has the largest per capita GDP in the world, it realises that one day it will be confronted with the finiteness of fossil fuels. If an incremental transformation process for a post-hydrocarbon economy is not initiated now then the mass of unemployed young men to be found in these societies could become easy targets for radical Islam or worse, might set off revolts like the ‘Arab spring’ of 2011. With this aim, the Emir launched the 2030 national vision in 2008. Qatar’s National Vision aims that by 2030 Qatar becomes an advanced society, capable of sustaining its development and providing a high standard of living for its people. It identifies five major challenges facing Qatar, viz. modernisation and preservation of traditions, the needs of the current generation and of future generations, managed growth and uncontrolled expansion, the size and quality of the expatriate labour force and the selected path of development and economic growth, social development, and environmental management. The royal family seeks to address all these challenges through its strategic investment in sports.

Mega sporting events like the FIFA World Cup have the potential of stimulating Qatar’s tourism industry and increasing the revenues of hotels, restaurants, and shopping malls. Apart from such direct revenues, sports might also help to attract foreign investment in Qatar and help recruit white-collar employees from advanced industrialized nations for the Qatari labour market. Moreover, sport events will act as a driver for infrastructure development. This is crucial as Qatar’s development began relatively late in the 1990s and the 2022 World Cup sets a firm timeline for the completion of Qatar’s large-scale unfinished development projects. But most importantly on a societal level, with Qatari youth being fanatical fans of European football, organization of the FIFA World Cup and acquisition of the PSG will help in consolidation of national identity based on a sport. Moreover, this strategic investment will help in improving health outcomes by increasing sports participation and active lifestyle practices among Qatar’s population as chronic diseases are a major cause of death, accounting for 47% of classified deaths in 2008. Thus, developing into a regional, continental, and international sports hub is a major step in diversifying Qatar’s economy and fulfilling four interconnected pillars of national vision, i.e., human, social, economic, and environmental development respectively.

Besides the advancement in strategic national development, football has helped increase Qatar’s prestige on a global level. First, it helps to advance their soft power on the world stage by acting as a smokescreen for the negative public perception of their country. It allows Qatar to gain favour within European society, without being accountable for their various human rights abuses. This creates a better scope for getting foreign investments than achieved through direct political channels, such as the European Union, where they would have faced opposition earlier.. Second, this deep involvement in European football helps reduce Qatar’s economic dependency on the West. This is showcased by an impact study carried out by the Centre of Sport Law and Economy (Centre de Droit et d’Economie du Sport or CDES) in Limoges. This study shows the club’s major economic and social contribution ten years after the PSG was bought by the QSI to the Île-de-France region and France as a whole. The first lesson drawn from the study is that Paris Saint-Germain is an increasingly important source of economic benefits in the Île-de-France region. According to the calculations done by the CDES’ economists, the club generated more than 182.2 million euros for the region’s economy over the course of the 2018-2019 season. During the 2018-2019 season, the club helped maintain 2,150 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs, including 670 direct jobs (people on the payroll of one of Paris Saint-Germain’s entities). Additionally, the 1,480 indirect and induced jobs had been generated due to the mobilisation of a network of more than 800 companies that work with the club. By following a consistent strategy, Paris Saint-Germain has developed its organisation, ambitions, and economic model to become one of the European clubs with the highest turnover of €540.6mn in 2019-2020, and highest growth in turnover since 2011 with a compounded annual growth rate of 21.3% . This has resulted in the club’s development while injecting revenue into the local economy.  In parallel, Paris Saint-Germain makes a huge contribution to French public finance. Approximately € 1.9 bn in social and tax contributions has been paid by the club and its players to the French government and regional authorities for the last ten years. Moreover, Paris Saint-Germain has had an unparalleled impact in promoting France and its expertise worldwide. PSG’s media impact – more than 2.1 million media reviews over the 2019-2020 season – and its presence on the online social scene – more than 100mn followers on social media – allows French values and culture to reach several billion internet users every year. Thus, this has rather made the Western European nations heavily dependent on Qatar for employment generation and economic growth within their countries.

Where does Messi come in?

Lionel Messi is essentially incidental to the broader ambitions of Qatar. The Argentinian footballer will not only help in generating higher revenues through shirt sales, sponsorship, and other commercial deals but also his expected contribution to the success of the club will ensure that the image, status, and reputation of the brand Qatar are intact. This successful projection of soft power showcases Qatar’s financial muscle and independence to the world and especially to its immediate neighbours, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Thus, Messi is the highlight point in Qatar’s tangled tale of money and geopolitics that began in 2010.

Conclusion

Though Messi’s move to France has grabbed all eyes, football does not seem to be the only reason. As Messi is there to ensure that 2022 is all about Qatar. By various measures and an unnerving long haul, Qatar has reached the highlight in global sports, in a field predominantly held by the Europeans. What happens next year will be a story to watch by all.

Pratul Chaturvedi is a third-year student at Ashoka University, pursuing History and International Relations with a minor in Political Science.

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