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What does Qatar want out of the World Cup?

Due to football’s position as the most popular sport in the world, the game’s inherent demonstration of power between states, and its emotional resonance both socio-politically and socioculturally, the World Cup has long been a seismic geopolitical event. Moments stemming from previous tournaments, such as France confronting it’s systemic racism following their victory in 1998, Africa’s boycott of the 1966 tournament due to the prioritisation of European teams, and the killing of Colombian defender Andres Escobar allegedly by the Gallon gang following his own goal against the USA in 1994, demonstrate how this tournament strays from the sporting to the cultural sphere. It comes as no surprise then that the 2022 edition, hosted by Qatar, is rife with geopolitical issues.

From the awarding of the tournament in 2010, when it was alleged that Qatar were only successful due to bribery (and further insinuated by the fact that 11 of the 22 members of the awarding committee have been fined, suspended, banned for life or prosecuted for corruption since), the entire process has been a groundswell of criticism toward the host nation. The main components of this criticism has been workers’ rights and the human rights of LGBT+ people in the country itself. With having to build or renovate all eight of the stadiums that will be hosting games at the tournament, an additional influx of labourers was taken on by the country (demonstrated by Qatar’s population rising from 1.8m in 2010 to 2.8m in 2020[1], and around 2.3m of the entire population being expatriates[2]), and the exploitation, underpayment and deaths of these workers is alleged to be in the thousands. Moreover, due to its adherence to Islamic law, homosexuality remains illegal in the country, and there are severe reports of the ill-treatment of queer people in prison in the country.

Sadly, there was not a focus in the western media on worker’s rights or the human rights of LGBT+ people in Qatar before the World Cup was awarded to them. This is a fault and an inherent bias from the perspective of the western world, and based in the othering of smaller, non-‘global north’ nations such as Qatar. However, with the World Cup kicking off on 20th November, these issues are now taking daily precedent in the western media’s reporting on the tournament. Criticism of the Qatari state in the west has never been as prevalent as it is going to be over this next month. So the most pressing question that I wanted to find the answer to was; why on earth are Qatar doing this to themselves?

The word ‘sportswashing’ has become increasingly prevalent in the past decade, and is regularly bandied around when it comes to discussing this World Cup. One can define sportswashing as the practice of individuals, groups, corporations, or governments using sports to improve reputations tarnished by wrongdoing. To this end, describing the 2022 World Cup as a sportswashing project would be incorrect – the reputation of Qatar has probably never been as scrutinised as it currently is. No, the staging of this tournament is to demonstrate that it can be done. I suggest that to say the aim of this tournament is instead to define a Qatari culture on the world stage and present itself as an important geopolitical player going forward, regardless of any wrongdoings. It is both a statement of soft power so as to consolidate and export culture, and to maintain an advanced place in the world-system.

As with all nations, inherent to Qatar’s geopolitical actions is its geography and its history. As a peninsula on the Persian Gulf just off the much larger Arabian peninsula, it has spent thousands of years being passed in control from the Persians to the Umayyans, the Abassids, the Usfurids, the Ormusians, the Ottomans, the Bani Khalids, the Bahrainis, the Ottomans again, and the British before finally becoming independent under the ruling bin Thani family. As a result, a definitive sense of a nation has been difficult to build. Qatari culture clearly exists – it would be at best naïve to suggest it doesn’t and at worst deeply offensive – however categorising it has proven difficult. It has also only been in the past century that the world’s 14th-largest oil reserves and the world’s 3rd-largest natural gas reserves have been discovered on the peninsula/in the immediate area of the Persian Gulf, meaning that its development from a colonial protectorate to an economically independent state has occurred rapidly.

FIFA President, Gianni Infantino (centre-left) shares a moment with the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani (centre-right).

This is where Qatar’s place in a postcolonial world is intrinsically linked to its hosting of the 2022 World Cup. I find dependency theory incredibly relevant here. As prescribed by Raul Prebisch and Hans Singer in 1950, dependency theory dictates that raw materials and resources flow from a periphery of poor, underdeveloped states to the core of wealthy states who turn them into manufactured goods, and in exporting them back to the periphery enrich themselves at the expense of those poorer states[3]. One could argue that it is a form of neo-colonialism, with the ‘core’ almost always being former colonial powers and the periphery being that which they colonised. Qatar, however, is a state that bucks this trend – with the price of natural gas and oil being so high compared to other natural resources, it has been able to somewhat circumvent its place in this world-system and develop incredibly rapidly economically[4] due to the discovering of wealthy gas reserves after their independence. This economic power has, in turn, allowed Qatar to focus on sustaining its place of power geopolitically and, in certain aspects, behave in neo-colonial ways. Beyond just importing and exploiting cheap labour, it is attempting to export culture as a method of gaining soft power. This should wholly have been expected – the way former colonial powers circumvent the issues of their history is through the exportation of culture, such as the American film industry or the European development/dominance of sport. There has even been concerted efforts from countries such as Japan and South Korea to develop its pop culture industry so as to export it (with the latter phenomenon being referred to as ‘Hallyu’, the Korean wave). It is to this end why Qatar wanted to host a FIFA World Cup. The only problem, as stated earlier, is that the country’s culture is difficult to define, to package, and to export to the world so as to consolidate soft power.

Since the state’s official independence, there has been a concentrated effort to create a national culture. A key example of this was through museums, such as the National Museum of Qatar and the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha. In discussing the post-colonial Arab World’s desire to preserve and construct its own national identity, Exell and Rico write that these museums exist to construct a distinct national identity and to preserve a changing lifestyle, and that ‘both these purposes were deemed necessary as the new nation-state[s] differentiated themselves from one another and strove for unique national identities while simultaneously struggling to pin down a cultural identity that was evolving out of all recognition.’[5] I would suggest that the hosting of a FIFA World Cup is another aspect to this, showcasing a commitment to evolving Qatar’s cultural identity in an attempt to commodify and export it for geopolitical power.

With an estimated 50% of the global population tuning in to the FIA World Cup, it is one of the most viewed cultural events that the world has. And this statistic is crucial, because the World Cup – more than almost any other sporting event – is overwhelmingly a visual spectacle. The aesthetics of the tournament are crucial to its immediate success and its legacy. Therefore, it gives Qatar an opportunity to visually showcase itself on the world stage, a beginning of the exporting of its culture to every corner of every country, showing those who were previously unaware what it is to be Qatari. The fact that Qatar didn’t have the infrastructure to host a World Cup when it was awarded the tournament back in 2010 did not matter; Qatar was giving itself an opportunity to build the culture it wanted to present to the world. At this World Cup, Qatari culture will be at its most visual through the stadiums that the matches will be taking place in.

Using the official World Cup’s website’s own descriptions, we can begin to recognise the vision of itself that Qatar wants to present to the world. The Al Bayt Stadium, which is hosting the opening game, is covered by a giant tent and ‘inspired by the bayt al sha’ar of Qatar’s nomadic people’, with the traditional black and white striped ‘reflected on the arena’s distinctive exterior, as are the vibrant sadu patterns that greet fans once inside’[6]. The design of Lusail Iconic Stadium, a beaming 80,000 seat diamond which will host the tournament’s final, ‘reflects the hand-crafted bowls found all across the Arab and Islamic world during the rise of civilisation, while interplays of light mirror the fanar lanterns of the region’. In addition, the stadium’s golden exterior will fade over time ‘replicating aged metal handicrafts to create a venue alive with cultural character’[7]. The Ahmad bin Ali Stadium has a spiralling exterior, described as an ‘intricate façade [that] reflects the undulations of sand dunes while intricate geometric patterns reflect the beauty of the desert, native flora and fauna, as well as local and international trade’[8]. Al Janoub Stadium features a sleek neo-futurist design, aiming to reflect ‘the wind-filled sails of Qatar’s traditional dhow boats – in tribute to Al Wakrah’s fishing and pearl diving past’[9]. Al Thumama Stadium is perhaps my personal favourite, with its exterior designed to look like ‘the gahfiya – the traditional woven cap adorned by men and boys across the Arab world’. The official description goes on to explain how the gahfiya symbolises coming of age for young men, ‘a time of emerging self-confidence and ambition that marks the first steps into the future and a realisation of dreams, it is a fitting inspiration for this one-of-a-kind stadium’[10]. And, lastly, the crowning achievement of this project is Stadium 974, an arena made out of shipping containers and designated as the world’s first ‘fully demountable’ stadium, intending to be fully dismantled and transported elsewhere after the tournament. Its design ‘pays tribute to Qatar’s long-standing tradition of worldwide trade and seafaring’, as well as 974 being the international dialling code for the country[11].

Pictured (clockwise): Al Thumama Stadium, Stadium 974, Al Bayt Stadium, Al Janoub Stadium

All of these descriptions and design inspirations point to a concerted effort of nation building, and yet still feel like a lecture on culture as opposed to representation of it. The commodification of indigenous community, the loose-weaved gesturing towards ceramic and clothing design not specific to Qatar itself, and multiple homages to the nation’s one real historical constant – seafaring – all fall slightly short of substantive. Whilst the stadiums use the aesthetic principle to demonstrate culture to those watching, the cultural justification behind them feels like viewers are having culture explained to them, rather than experiencing the culture itself. No, I would suggest that the building of a national culture here isn’t through the stadium design, but through the stadiums themselves. Grand infrastructure built through exploited, imported labour to act as the meeting stage for the world is Qatari culture and is exactly the demonstration of economic and sociocultural power that the Qatari state wanted this World Cup to be. It is why the negative press has been worth it.

Being the first Middle Eastern state to host a FIFA World Cup is a seismic occurrence. Beating Saudi Arabia and Iran to this, despite their footballing history, economic power and cultural significance within the region is a demonstration of changing power orders, regardless of how western press reports on it. And with all of the effort put into this – potential bribing of FIFA officials, withstanding a blockade from your powerful neighbours, intense media scrutiny and $300bn in infrastructure projects[12] - failure was not an option. All that is left now to determine the overall success of this venture is the football itself, with Lionel Messi’s last stand, Cristiano Ronaldo’s descent into ego death, a resurgent Brazil and a hopeful England being the dominant narratives heading in. And by December 18th, it seems like Qatar’s desire to have itself be known – meeting place of the world, builders of the sublime, purveyors of Arabia – may just be realised.

[1] [2] [3] Raul Prebisch, The Economic Development of Latin America and its Principal Problems, 1950. [4] Note: if we compare Qatar to a similar-sized former colony, such as The Gambia, who have the 31st smallest economy in the world due to 60% of their exports being raw gold totalling £357m, whereas Qatar have the 55th-largest economy in the world, with 81% of their exports being natural gas and oil totalling $47.2bn, we can see the economic difference in the type of raw material a state exports.) [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12]


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