Qatar Gambles on Soccer World Cup Netting It Wealth and Glory

The tiny but rich emirate hopes to leverage the tournament this November and December to lure investment and boost its soft power credentials

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
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World Cup advertising panels inside Villaggio Mall in Doha, Qatar, earlier this week.
World Cup advertising panels inside Villaggio Mall in Doha, Qatar, earlier this week.Credit: HAMAD I MOHAMMED/ REUTERS
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

The 2022 World Cup in the Gulf emirate of Qatar kicks off in less than seven weeks with a match between the host country and Ecuador. Thirty-two soccer teams will be competing in front of what the Qataris say will be more than a million spectators. An estimated 5 billion others will be watching via television and streaming services. The games will be held in a state-of-the art stadium, with visitors being whizzed around in a shining new metro.

Qatar’s leader, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, says the event will give the tiny but incredibly wealthy country a unique opportunity to showcase itself to the world and boost its efforts to attract investment and tourism and build itself into a world sports center. “Everyone, no matter who they are, no matter what their origin or culture, is welcome. We want these visitors to learn about the differences between cultures, to discover the culture of Qatar, and we hope they will want to come back,” Sheikh Tamim said in an interview last month.

Not everyone is convinced. Critics say the World Cup is a multibillion boondoggle that will never earn a return on the money invested in it. Qatar’s bid and the human rights violations involved in constructing the facilities have already saddled the country with bad publicity; the month-long games themselves risk creating even more image headaches.

“The empirical record does not suggest that these things help economically or otherwise,” says Andrew S. Zimbalist, the Robert A. Woods professor of economics at Smith College in Massachusetts and the author of the 2015 book “Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup.”

Volunteers during the orientation event for the World Cup Qatar 2022 at Qatar's Lusail stadium in September.Credit: MOHAMMED DABBOUS/ REUTERS

“There are a couple of exceptions historically when all the stars align properly and you can have a break-even situation – even considerably a slightly positive outcome,” he says. “What happens is that you get cities and/or countries around the world competing against each other to host events and the way they win the right to host the events is by spending more than anybody else and building things that they don’t need that cost billions of dollars.”

In the case of Qatar, there are no official figures, but the one that has been reported leaves previous World Cup budgets in the dust. Brazil invested some $15 billion to host the 2014 games and Russia $11.6 billion four years later. But Qatar is spending by many estimates $200 billion or more.

Only a fraction of that – no more than $10 billion – is going into construction of eight state-of-the-art stadiums that include coolant machines to enable players and fans to cope with temperatures that even in late autumn can reach 30 degrees centigrade (86 degrees Fahrenheit). The rest is going to new hotels, a metro, airport expansion, a planned city called Lusail where foreigners can buy property and the like. It’s money that Qatari officials said they would have invested anyhow in economic development.

Qataris say the goal of all this spending isn’t just to develop infrastructure to serve the games, but to accommodate a swell of tourists they expect will begin visiting the emirate in the wake of the World Cup. No less, officials expect the publicity will attract foreign investment and help turn the country into a major international sports venue, not only for traditional athletic events but esports. Officials even foresee Qatar evolving into a major center for sports medicine.

General view of the construction site for a car park for fans traveling through the land border for the Qatar World Cup at Salwa border, Qatar, earlier this month.Credit: HAMAD I MOHAMMED/REUTERS

White elephant projects

Qatar has no shortage of cash to lavish on projects like these. Last year, it was the world’s second-largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, generating revenues of nearly $74 billion for a country of just 330,000 citizens (and 2.3 million expats). This year, revenues have soared as the war in Ukraine raised natural gas prices.

But Zimbalist says that even if that is the case, inevitably large parts of World Cup spending ends up in white elephant projects that wouldn’t have been developed without the event or would have been given much lower priority. Every country that hosts big sports events promises side benefits that almost never materialize.

That includes foreign investment. Figures compiled by GlobalData FDI Projects showed that inward investment grew in South Africa, Brazil and Russia in the years before they each hosted the FIFA World Cup, but in the years that followed investment declined.

Zimbalist isn’t surprised by the figures: Multinational companies make investment decisions based on factors like access to markets and inputs and local labor costs and skills, not because the CEO had a good time watching the World Cup, he says.

In fact, many of the short-term benefits of hosting the games are going to be lost to Qatar’s neighbors. Desperately short of hotel rooms, Qatar has hired cruise ships to house guests and built temporary “fan villages” in the desert. Hotels are being built to open just days and weeks before the event.

The first soccer match at the Lusail Stadium in Qatar, in September. The stadium will host the World Cup final in December.Credit: IBRAHEEM AL OMARI/ REUTERS

But most of the country’s estimated 50,000 rooms will be taken up by teams, FIFA officials and sponsor delegations, leaving little room for the one million-plus fans expected to attend the matches over the course of the month. Between the shortage of accommodation, lack of nightlife and entertainment in Doha, and restrictions of alcohol, many World Cup fans are expected to stay in nearby Dubai, or even Saudi Arabia and come by plane or bus for the games they have tickets for. That will mean less money is spent on Qatari hotels, restaurants and souvenir stores.

But James Dorsey, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and a long-term observer of the Arab world sports scene, says that any economic gains Qatar might get from the World Cup are less important than the soft power benefits.

Soft power strategy

The emirate has long sought to punch above its weight by positioning itself as a key player in international diplomacy, for instance, mediating between the United States and the Taliban and between Israel and Hamas. Its Al Jazeera news network gives Qatar a voice throughout the Arab world and its high-profile foreign investments, such as London’s famed Harrods department store and Paris Saint-Germain Football Club, have raised its profile in Europe.

Dorsey says sports is part and parcel of Qatar’s soft power strategy. “Countries’ images are in part shaped by how they perform in sports,” says Dorsey, the author of the 2016 book “The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.” In Qatar’s case, however, the stakes are much higher than international branding, he notes. Sandwiched between two, often hostile powers – Iran and Saudi Arabia – Qatar needs to have global popular opinion on its side.

“Soft power for Qatar … is about security and defense as much as it is about anything else. Qatar is a country of about 2.3 million citizens – it doesn’t matter how many tanks or warplanes it buys, or how sophisticated the weaponry it acquires – it simply doesn’t have the bodies or wherewithal to defend itself in a conventional war,” explains Dorsey.

A building complex in the shape of the year 2022, at Doha Sports City near Khalifa International Stadium in Qatar's capital Doha, ahead of the FIFA World Cup in November.Credit: KARIM JAAFAR - AFP

To date, however, the World Cup hasn’t quite delivered the PR benefits the Qataris had hoped it would.

Their 2010 bid to host the cup has been clouded by allegations that it bribed FIFA officials to ignore the obvious drawbacks of holding such a big event in a tiny country without adequate infrastructure or soccer tradition. More importantly, Qatar has been dogged by reports of foreign workers being exploited and abused, including a 2021 report by Britain’s Guardian newspaper alleging that more than 6,500 had died in workplace accidents between 2010 and 2020.

Qatar has worked to correct many of the problems, but human rights groups say it has not done enough and should compensate the victims. Anxious about being linked with the abuses, some companies in Europe are declining to sponsor national teams. And Paris and other French cities say they will not host public viewings of the games.

More problems may pile up with the kickoff November 20. Qatari officials have been grappling with the problem of visitors consuming alcohol and/or engaging in extramarital and gay sex. The authorities have made some major concessions on both issues, although with just weeks left till the games get underway, many questions remain about how the conservative Muslim country will handle them.

“They have to balance what is being asked of them internationally and what the local population may or may not tolerate. What they’ve said they’re going to do is look the other way,” says Dorsey about sex-related issues. “Qatar is a country where public affection of any kind, whether heterosexual or gay, is frowned upon.”

Human rights activists may test the Qataris’ tolerance, putting the authorities in an embarrassing position. “The question is going to be what happens when two men check into a hotel room. Will questions be asked? What happens when rainbow emblems are displayed?” asks Dorsey. “How are they going to handle that, I think, is going to be very important.”

Beyond that, serious doubts have been raised about logistics and security for the event. A trial run last month of Lusail Stadium, the Qatari World Cup’s main venue, revealed serious problems. Its cooling system struggled, suppliers and medical personnel had trouble accessing the site and a 2.5-kilometer line formed when the 78,000 spectators poured out of the stadium to enter the nearby metro station.

Security personnel performed well at the trial, but the crowds for the trial were well behaved and no alcohol was served. Contending with much bigger numbers of people, many of whom will be drinking, and the risk of brawling between rival fans pose immense and unfamiliar challenges for the Qataris, says Dorsey.

To help, organizers have hired Turkish and Iranian security personnel, but their methods of law enforcement may create friction with Western visitors.

A half-century after the Munich massacre, there is also the risk of a terror attack on the ground and more modern security risks: Although Qatar itself hasn’t been targeted, some 100 drone attacks have been launched against civilian and military facilities in the Middle East and North Africa.

Zimblast worries that the World Cup will be too easy a target. “Unlike other World Cups that spread the stadiums over hundreds if not thousands of miles, in Qatar, all eight stadiums are very close to Doha. Four of them are in Doha. The concentration of people geographically complicates security enormously,” he says.

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