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Not France or Argentina… Qatar could be real winner of this FIFA World Cup; here's why – The Indian Express

From Morocco reaching the semi-finals to Germany being eliminated in the group stages, the 2022 FIFA World Cup has been full of surprises. However, for many, the biggest surprise of them all happened 12 years before the tournament even began.
In 2010, FIFA’s decision to award the rights for the 2022 World Cup to Qatar seemed like a highly unlikely choice. Not only did Qatar have little to no footballing history to boast of, but the tiny Gulf state also lacked stadiums, hotels and highways needed to stage the tournament. Moreover, with a population of under three million, 90 per cent of which were migrant workers, questions were asked about how Doha could accommodate the demands of hosting the world’s largest sporting event.
Qatar responded to those concerns with a flurry of extravagant and rapid developments, but they too came at a cost. Over the last decade, human rights observers have criticised the Qatari government on a range of issues, spanning from the country’s treatment of migrant workers to allegations of bribery and corruption.
According to a 2021 investigation by The Guardian, over 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since 2010 and hundreds of thousands of others have been subjected to inhumane conditions and workplace abuse. Weeks before the World Cup, an eight-month-long investigation by The Indian Express tracked down the families of nine Indian workers who died while doing jobs linked to the event.
Qatar’s approach towards LGBTQ rights has also come under scrutiny, an issue exacerbated by comments made by senior government officials like the Qatari ambassador to the World Cup, who recently described homosexuality as a “damage in the mind.”
Despite numerous calls to relocate the World Cup and threats of boycotts, over five billion people have tuned into the tournament and over a million have traveled to the Arabian Gulf to attend it in person. This in turn has left many people wondering whether the World Cup has had a positive impact in highlighting human rights abuses or whether it has succeeded in laundering the reputation of the Qatari state.
The answer likely lies somewhere in between.
Despite its miniscule size, the emirate of Qatar has undergone a massive transformation since the 1970s, largely due to its massive reserves of fossil fuels. At the moment, it is ranked among the top 10 countries in terms of per capita GDP in terms of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP). While its ascent to the global stage was driven by its economic prowess, the emirate has also ventured into other domains in order to build up its international credibility.
Like other Gulf states, Doha too identified sports investments as an appealing catalyst for diplomacy and reputation building. The pinnacle of that strategy was the World Cup, despite the fact that the process of winning the rights to host the tournament was mired in controversy. For nearly a decade, journalists have alleged that Qatar would never have won the rights were it not for rampant corruption targeted at football’s governing body.
Those claims are not lacking merit. The US Department of Justice has indicted numerous FIFA officials of crimes ranging from money laundering to wire fraud. Some of those charges were related to the Qatari bid with investigators asserting that Qatar paid senior football officials up to $15 million to secure their vote.
FIFA’s disgraced former president Sepp Blatter has seemingly acknowledged the irregularities in the bidding process, recently admitting that the decision to award the tournament to Qatar had been a “mistake.”
However, despite the glaring scrutiny and public outcry, Qatar embraced the opportunity wholeheartedly, spending approximately $220 billion on hosting the World Cup. Less than $10 billion of this was spent on stadium construction with the rest allocated to improving transportation, hospitality, and security.
In addition to these infrastructural upgrades, Qatar has also invested heavily in securing the backing of some of football’s biggest personalities such as David Beckham and Gary Neville.
Doha has also attempted to project a more favourable image of the country through PR campaigns and by controlling the media narrative. In 2014, a British news channel found that Qatar had hired a global PR firm to combat World Cup adversity. Earlier this year, a Sunday Times investigation found that a criminal network in India had hacked the emails of World Cup critics, presumably at the behest of Qatari officials.
Additionally, Qatar has complemented its World Cup bid with separate investments in the field of football and other sports. A week after securing the tournament, Doha’s development non-profit, the Qatar Foundation finalised a $220 million deal with FC Barcelona to sponsor the Spanish club’s kits. Months later, Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, The Qatar Investment Authority, fund bought over French club Paris Saint Germain and soon after, the state’s media conglomerate Al Jazeera spent $130 million for broadcasting rights to the French league.
In the larger context of sports, between 2004 and 2022 alone, Qatar has staged 24 first and second order tournaments, including the Asian Games and the World Athletic championships.  
Sports diplomacy lies within the realm of soft power, a term coined by the American political scientist Joseph Nye in 1990. Nye argued that the old reliance on military strength and economic wealth was not enough in an increasingly globalised world, with countries needing to seek power through attraction. Describing the same as ‘soft power,’ Nye asserted that states would need to use their culture to project their values and influence across the world. 
A subsection of soft power, sports diplomacy is described by Stuart Murray, an Associate Professor in International Relations at Bond University, as “the use of sports people and events to engage, inform and create a favourable image amongst foreign publics and organisations to shape their perceptions in a way that is more conducive to achieving a government’s foreign policy goal.”
In an article titled Qatar’s Global Sports Strategy, Jonathan Grix, Paul Michael Brannagan, and Donna Lee expand upon this concept, claiming that by hosting sports events, countries can display their unique cultural, social and political values to international audiences.
Using sports as a means of enhancing diplomatic relations is not a new phenomenon. Perhaps the most notable example of the same is the 1971 Ping Pong diplomacy, in which the US and Chinese table tennis players met, paving the way for then US President Richard Nixon visiting Beijing subsequently ending 23 years of diplomatic deadlock between the two countries.
Derek Shearer, a professor at the Occidental College in Los Angeles, told, sports diplomacy can often yield positive results. “You’d rather have Pakistan and India play a historic match of cricket than have them fight it out on the battlefield,” he says, alluding to the reconciliatory power of sports.
However, sports diplomacy is one thing, and sports washing another. Coined in 2015, the term sports washing is used to refer to attempts by authoritarian regimes to clean up their tarnished global reputation through sports. Given that China, Russia and Qatar have all been awarded major tournaments since 2008, the term has become increasingly pertinent with organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch popularising its use.
Nick Miller, a senior writer at The Athletic, told that winning the rights to the World Cup has generated a moderate degree of success for Qatar. He states that the country has “used the currency that football has in Europe to present Doha as a desirable destination, much in the same way that Dubai has done.”
Positioning itself in that manner has been very much aligned with the objectives of the state as outlined by its National Development Strategy report from 2011-2016. The report publicly presented the priorities and objectives of the emirate’s sports diplomacy strategy, expressing a focus on improving Qatar’s visibility and relations with international partners through sports.
According to Grix, Brannagan and Lee, this feat would be achieved by tying sporting success to the brand of Qatar, thereby gaining an advantage over its regional competitors in terms of foreign investment, popular perception, and tourism. While the World Cup has showcased Qatar as a formidable tourist destination in its own right, it has also invited a fair share of negative press.
According to a study by the NewArab that analysed news coverage of Qatar’s World Cup, the media depiction of the country has been “overwhelmingly negative,” with abusive labour practices and human rights violations a key point of concern. That being said, as sportswriter and academic David Goldblatt noted at a symposium hosted by Tufts University, coverage of the World Cup differs radically depending on where you look.He argues that the BBC and Guardian represent examples of publications that have alluded to social concerns in Qatar, organisations like Fox News have been notably silent while in much of the Gulf, including Al Jazeera, “it’s an overwhelmingly positive interpretation of events.” 
Overall, however, the World Cup seems to be triggering what political scientist Victor Cha calls the “Olympic catch-22” wherein sporting events spotlight the unflattering side of host countries.
Evidence seems to support that claim. Firstly, after the announcement of Qatar’s bid, health experts were quick to question the suitability of the country’s climate, claiming that the extreme summer heat could pose a health risk for both athletes and fans alike. FIFA responded by postponing the event to the winter months but as noted by Grix, Brannagan and Lee, “as a result of the controversy surrounding the regional climate, the suitability of the emirate as a summer holiday destination was put into question, thus conflicting with the objective of promoting Qatar as such.”
Similarly, the World Cup has magnified concerns surrounding the Emirate’s kafala, sponsorship system for foreign and domestic workers. Amnesty International in particular has criticised the system, under which foreign workers are subjected to “inhumane” conditions, are stripped of travel documents, and frequently fail to receive their wages. While the Qatari government and FIFA have promised full transparency in this regard, the concerns raised by journalists, athletes and human rights groups painted the Gulf state in a negative light years before the tournament even started.
In the same vein, allegations that the bidding process was mired in corruption have done little to improve the emirate’s global reputation.
While the decision to host the World Cup was presumably more diplomatic than monetary, in terms of the latter, there have been some relatively promising results. According to IPA Qatar, the investment promotion agency of the emirate, foreign direct investment opportunities have increased significantly since the decision to host the tournament in the Gulf was announced. It notes that Qatar’s GDP has grown at a steady 4.5 per cent since 2010 and that the Ministry of Commerce has identified 83 commercial and investment opportunities for the private sector until 2023 related to preparing and running the tournament.
However, the long-term financial viability of such a strategy is questionable. Forecasts by the International Monetary Fund indicate that Qatar’s economy will grow by 3.4 per cent in 2022 and 2023 thanks to the World Cup boost, but then slow down to 1.4 per cent by 2024. 
Whether or not Qatar’s investment will pay off will likely depend on whether it can capitalise on the substantial infrastructure investments to sustain growth, a feat that is largely contingent on its ability to present itself as a reforming nation. The scrutiny from the World Cup has in that regard produced some encouraging signs.
In response to mounting condemnation of the treatment of workers in the country, in October 2019, Qatar’s government announced its plans to end the kafala migrant labour system by 2020. In January of 2020, the Assistant Undersecretary for Labour Affairs said that Qatar had eliminated restrictions on workers’ rights to enter and/or exit the emirate without permission from employers. After this announcement, the International Labour Organization (ILO) praised the country, calling its changes a “great milestone in the ambitious labor reform agenda of the state of Qatar.” Earlier last year, the ILO also commissioned a survey amongst 1,000 low-wage workers, finding that 86 per cent of respondents felt that the labour reforms had positively impacted their lives.
However, according to a report from the Carnegie Endowment Fund, such praise should be taken with a grain of salt. It notes that it took Qatar 10 years to complete these reforms, pointing out that the kafala system was only abolished after almost all the World Cup infrastructure had been built. Dismantling the system on the ground, it added, will “take years and substantial commitment and resources from Qatari authorities.”
From an environmental perspective, FIFA and Qatar have also claimed that the 2022 World Cup is one of the most sustainable international sports events ever organised. To neutralise the tournament’s carbon footprint, the government used climate-neutral technologies to build seven new stadiums, all of which have been equipped with solar-powered air conditioning systems. Multiple green spaces and nurseries have also been built in addition to a brand new electric public transportation system.
While some non-profits, like the Carbon Market Watch, allege that the World Cup’s carbon neutrality claims are “not credible,” they too acknowledge the significant improvements that have been made.
Additionally, Qatar surprised many international observers in 2021 when it stripped its Minister of Finance of all public duties over allegations pertaining to misuse of public funds. According to the Brooking Institute, “such steps, if translated directly into a robust governance reform agenda and taken forward with skill and tenacity, could very well open a new chapter in strengthening the rule of law and building effective and equitable state institutions in both Qatar and the wider MENA region.”
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