By Diego Maloney
Football’s meteoric rise in popularity over the past century has come to represent more than a game and influence much more than just match results. As geopolitics and football have become increasingly intertwined, the sport has been used as a means of boosting economic growth, improving state relations and spreading hegemonic influence everywhere the beautiful game is played. Football has even brought resolution to armed conflict when in 2006 warring factions in Ivory Coast held peace negotiations in the wake of the nation’s first ever FIFA World Cup qualification.
Though an extreme example, the event highlights how football can shape modern geopolitics, as is proving to be the case with Qatar’s successful 2022 FIFA World Cup bid. With less than 50 days to the start of this year’s tournament, Qatar has taken centre stage and is proactively working to showcase the small Gulf nation to a global audience. The unparalleled exposure of hosting football’s greatest spectacle comes with much criticism and cost, though it also typically threads innovation into a country’s social and economic fabric. Qatar is no exception to these trends.
Beyond the Cup
Albeit with resistance, Doha has incrementally worked towards positive change for its foreign labour force. Several stipulations of the Kafala system that unfairly favour the employer have been amended or outlawed in the lead up to the World Cup. Massive infrastructure projects have given way to state-of-the-art public transit as well as the creation of entire cities home to innovative solar technologies.
Qatar’s host status has also granted it unprecedented soft power boosting its economic interests and rekindled severed diplomatic ties with its immediate neighbours in 2021 after accusations of supporting terrorist organisations triggered a crisis in 2017. There is no doubt that the looming World Cup helped to expedite this diplomatic process with countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), who are now crucial to the logistical success of the tournament.
It remains to be seen how Qatar will manage post-World Cup, which has historically been the greatest obstacle for host countries due to abandoned facilities and wasted capital. However, it seems that Doha has planned accordingly as authorities will convert tournament facilities into education and commerce centres to be used in 2023 and beyond. As for the progressive foreign attitudes influencing the nation, it is unclear if Doha will continue to liberalise its labour laws or dive further into pious conservatism after watchful eyes shift their attention.
Looking outward, Qatar’s more than US$200 billion in investments has brought the nation into the technological forefront, making it a valuable trade and security partner that has signed several agreements with foreign powers in recent years. This is especially true given that Doha will have greater leverage in its dealings with the 2017 diplomatic crisis behind it.
Up to this point, hosting the World Cup has been a net positive for Qatar though the massive risk associated with its unprecedented spending means that Doha’s greatest challenges still lie ahead.
Diego Maloney is a US-based political and security risk analyst.