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Sports and Soft Power: Qatar Diplomacy in light of Football World Cup

  By Amrashaa Singh


Countries have used sports to assert dominance and mark their presence for centuries. This article explores the role of football in improving or deteriorating diplomatic relations between nations and how Qatar used the FIFA world cup to become more relevant and assert its soft power, and how impactful is sports diplomacy.


Sports have been a part of human society for centuries.  To overcome language and sociocultural barriers, sports diplomacy incorporates the universal love for sports, transcending borders. It can, as such, enable interaction between cultures. Since ancient times, intercultural sporting events have been an integral part of efforts to improve ties between states.

“Soft Power” has been defined as the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payment. The development of major international sporting competitions has drawn the interest of billions of people worldwide, with sports playing a significant role in public policy and diplomacy. Today, the Olympic Games are the most salient example of sports diplomacy and a way of building a nation’s soft power. The modern Olympic tradition is influenced by its ancient namesake and aims to foster unity, human dignity, and intercultural understanding, with some degree of success. Historically, the Greeks and Romans considered sports an avenue to strengthen social relations between all social classes, genders and ethnicities.

The ‘Ping-Pong diplomacy’ between China and the United States in 1971 is the most well-known instance of sports diplomacy. The American team was invited to visit China during the World Table Tennis Championships. Ranked 24th in the world at the time, the US team would never defeat world champions China, but the Chinese players often let the Americans win ‘friendly’ games. It played a classic icebreaker role, relaxing a previously strained relationship. This gesture ultimately led to US President Richard Nixon’s official visit to China. The athletes met with Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai while President Nixon eased travel restrictions and trade embargoes against the PRC on the same day. 

Football started with the Barcelona, Hamburg, Marseilles, etc. inhabitants trying to copy the English who used to play football in their free time. Then, in the middle of the 19th century, the sport penetrated Europe and Latin America. Eventually, Brazil started to dominate in the sport in the second half of the 20th century. Brazil has now become a superpower in exporting football players. Within ten years, two thousand players left the nation to play for countries like Spain, France, Portugal, Japan, etc. Globalisation has also played a significant role spread of football. In 1930, only thirteen teams could participate in the football world cup and faced many problems reaching the host country. It also took much work to spread the information about the match results. Now, we can easily watch a match between the US and Iran live on television. There is an infamous example of the football match between El Salvador and Honduras. El Salvador was defeated 1-0 because Honduras intentionally organised a party near the hotel Honduras’ players were staying at. A re-match was organised, and the Honduran players had to be brought in an armoured vehicle. The team lost 3-0, three supports were killed, and the border between the two nations was closed. There have been instances of multiple such heated games between the nations. The sport has also been used to bring countries. In 1998, FIFA also announced a project to conduct a match between Israel and Palestine to try and get the two nations together. 

How Qatar uses Sports to Gain Global Influence

In the last decade, as part of an overall push to raise its global reputation, Qatar has taken measures to develop itself as a sporting hub and hosting the FIFA 2022 World Cup has put Qatar “on the map”. Before winning the bid for the Football world cup, this Gulf nation won the bid to host the AFC Asian Cup and Arab Games in 2006 and 2008, respectively. Qatar then submitted bids for the Handball World Cup, Amateur World Boxing Championships, and the World Championship in Athletics. This was strategically done to gain experience by hosting comparatively less popular events and eventually preparing for the world cup. After Qatar won the bid quite “shockingly,” it came out that the former executive committee member of FIFA, Mohammed Bin Hammam, was involved in bribery to win the support. He is now banned for life from football over a conflict of interest. 

As a part of its 2030 Industrial Vision, sport is a fundamental pillar of the nation’s development and growth. Several extensive sporting facilities are based in the Persian Gulf region, and sports have been used to brand and promote cities like Abu Dhabi and Doha. The member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have recognised the value of using global sports for soft power and public diplomacy, especially high-profile international events such as the Formula 1 Grand Prix and FIFA World Cup. Its emphasis on football has formed a vital part of this push. The prominent use of state-owned Qatar Airways as a football sponsor is noteworthy, as it promotes Qatar as a tourism destination and markets the state as an international travel facilitator, aiding the narrative that Qatar is a key global player. In addition, Qatar is using the World Cup to incentivise foreign direct investment, thus growing the country’s reputation for overseas investors. 

The foreign policy of Qatar is primarily determined by its location. Located in the Middle East, it suffers from the so-called ‘neighbourhood effect’, whereby its national image is associated with and affected by regional stereotypes of political instability, despite Qatar being a relative oasis of stability. Geographically, Qatar is incredibly small, especially when compared with its giant neighbour, Saudi Arabia. A Saudi-led alliance broke relations with Qatar in 2017, accusing it of sympathising with terrorists and offering them safe harbour. Although the small state could easily have collapsed (60 per cent of its imports were abruptly cut off), Qatar instead managed to adapt and survive, expanding ties and investments overseas.

A quintessential part of the overall sports diplomacy policy is the signing of high-profile foreign players to compete in local competitions or to represent states at international tournaments where citizenship is part of the arrangement. Qatar’s Aspire Academy is an ambitious initiative that scouts young athletes worldwide and employs elite trainers and sports scientists to advance the local industry. Qatar has now emerged as a leading destination for sports clubs and athletes to practice for international tournaments during the winter break. Their overarching soft power policies in sports and other fields play an essential role in Doha’s foreign affairs, given the restrictions on hard power the state must contend with. Doha’s long-term strategy sees investments in this area as a vital part of the post-gas future of the Emirate. 

On the global level, the Qatari approach to ‘football diplomacy’ can be broken down into three main components with complementary purposes. Firstly, Qatar has taken steps to nurture local talent. Secondly, it has encouraged international investment and sponsorships, and finally, it has sought to host a wide variety of sporting events, with the jewel in its crown, the 2022 World Cup. In internal talent growth, Qatar has spent huge amounts of capital, with the multidisciplinary Aspire Academies established in 2004 by the decree of the Emir. The role of the royal family in Qatari sports policy, as well as the concerted longevity of its sports policy, highlights its strategic importance. This World Cup might help Qatar establish partnerships in times of need

While Qatar has tried all the measures to use the FIFA World Cup to rise diplomatically, there have also been instances of human rights violations of workers who were building the infrastructure. At least 6,500 migrant workers have been reported to have died while building the infrastructure for the world cup. Under the Qatari labour law, deaths due to “natural causes” not properly investigated are not considered “work-related” and hence not compensated. The migrant labourers had to work for long hours in the scorching heat of Qatar, and people could not go back to their homes due to the amount of work they had. There have also been instances of wage thefts by employers as the kafala system grants employers complete control over their workers. It is yet to be seen how the Governments of these nations respond to Qatar considering the deaths and how it will affect the nation’s attempt at leveraging the world cup.

Conclusion: Does Sports Diplomacy Work?

Sports embody friendship, respect and tolerance, among other values, touted as universal. They can unite us and transmit the exchange of admiration and cultural understanding, creating an avenue for peaceful coexistence between nations. While sports have long been used to send political messages and pursue government priorities, the growing institutional and organised structure for sports diplomacy in the last decade has overseen its increasing importance in international affairs. Sporting events do not create geopolitical shifts; they develop while changes occur. Yet they can have a nudge effect, helping to offer new forms of engagement with the public. This form of diplomacy can provide a space for national priorities to be pragmatically followed in a manner that could foster international development too.

About the Author

Amrashaa Singh graduated from National Law University Odisha, India in 2022 where she studied BA/ LLB (Hons.). Her research interests include politics and law, international relations, and human rights. 

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