The FIFA World Cup, a quadrennial soccer tournament, will commence in Qatar on November 21, 2022. Although much attention will focus on how Japan performs in the so-called Group of Death, this year’s World Cup should also prove fascinating in terms of international relations, as the tournament is being held in the midst of unstable global conditions, including the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Why did a small Middle Eastern country with an area about the size of Akita Prefecture insist on holding the World Cup? When you examine the context in which Qatar came to host the tournament, you find a strategy that focuses on security and Qatar’s intentions to become an advanced nation.
[Key Points of this Article]
● What kind of country is Qatar?
● Was security the reason for Qatar’s World Cup bid?
● The increasing importance of soft power
● The World Cup as a catalyst for entry into the league of advanced nations
Basic information on Qatar: A country smaller than Akita Prefecture and arguably more secure than Great Britain
Because Qatar is hosting the World Cup, we hear about it more often now, but not many people have a clear idea about that kind of country it is.
So, what kind of country is Qatar?
Area: About the size of Akita Prefecture
Population: About the same as Kyoto Prefecture (more than 80% are foreign laborers)
GDP per capita: 4th in the world
Global Peace Index: 23rd in the world
Qatar, which lies to the east of Saudi Arabia on the Qatar Peninsula that juts out into the Persian Gulf, is slightly smaller than Akita Prefecture. Its population of 2.8 million is about the same as that of Kyoto Prefecture. Native Qataris only account for about 330,000 of the entire population, over 80% of which is made up of foreign laborers.
Meanwhile, with a GDP of $169.2 billion in 2021, it is an extremely wealthy country that ranks fourth in GDP per capita. Its main industries are based on energy resources such as crude oil and natural gas.
What’s more, it is a surprisingly safe country. According to the Global Peace Index, in 2022, Qatar ranked 23rd in the world, well above the United Kingdom (34th) and France (65th).
Qatar is bordered to the west by the superpower of Saudi Arabia, and many of the countries in the Middle East are politically unstable, so security is an extremely important issue for the country. To compensate for its meager military strength, Qatar also has a history of securing military and political stability by adopting a neutral stance and cooperating with several major powers, including hosting U.S. military bases. To start, this should give you a general idea of what kind of country Qatar is.
What the World Cup means for Qatar: Making its presence known in the global arena
What does the World Cup mean for Qatar, which, despite the enormous wealth it earns from its energy resources, has had to navigate a difficult course in international relations? We asked Associate Professor Tsuyoshi Matsushima from the College of Social Sciences at Ritsumeikan University, who is an expert in the sociology of sports, to explain the situation to us.
“When a country relies on energy resources to boost its presence in the world, its external relations are largely dependent on market forces. If oil and natural gas prices were to collapse, that country would not be able to recover significant economic losses. Therefore, the question arises as to how to diversify the economy.
Some of us may have a vague image of the Middle East as ‘dangerous’ or we may think all of the countries in the region resemble each other. The reason for this is that the only news we hear about the Middle East focuses on danger and crisis, as those are the topics that the media outlets view as having value. So, in terms of security, it is important for Qatar to be seen as a unique country instead of just ‘another one of those’ seemingly dangerous Middle Eastern countries . Throughout the world, more people are starting to look at the World Cup and Qatar's sports strategy through this lens. The key phrase here is soft power,” explains Associate Professor Matsushima.
Security realized by the soft power of the World Cup
“Soft power, a concept that was first proposed by Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard University, is defined as ‘the ability to achieve goals through attraction rather than coercion.’ It is the opposite of hard power, or the use of force, of which Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a prime example.
“For example, if international tourism value can be enhanced by having an attractive cultures, value system, or historic landmarks, that attractiveness can yield many forms of power. Italy and France possess soft power in the form of luxury brands and cuisine, while Japan exhibits soft power by broadcasting its culture and history, including things like anime and manga, to the rest of the world.
For Qatar, the promotion of sports, including its hosting of the World Cup, is considered an extremely important part of its national strategy as it represents the development of an area where the country can exercise soft power, explains Associate Professor Matsushima.
Qatar’s strategy to demonstrate soft power through sports is not just limited to the World Cup. With its abundant financial resources, Qatar has been expanding its influence in various fields, including making a huge investment in the athletes' village for the 2012 London Olympics, acquiring a soccer club (Paris Saint-Germain), and securing the rights to broadcast international sports matches via beIN Sports, a sports channel with a global reach.
“At a glance, it may appear that the wealthy people of this oil-producing country are doing this for fun, but they have their own very serious security agenda. By aligning what it can offer with the interests and desires of the rest of the world, Qatar will increase its importance on the international stage. This is a national survival strategy; it is an intentional undertaking,” says Associate Professor Matsushima.
The World Cup will change Qatar’s institutions and customs: Can Qatar become an advanced nation?
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, Qatar ranks high in the world in terms of security, putting it on par with advanced nations. On the other hand, it had a deeply-rooted labor contract system called kafala, which had been criticized as a form of “modern slavery” especially by the West.
According to Associate Professor Matsushima, hosting the World Cup could be a stepping stone for Qatar to change these kinds of customs and enter into the ranks of advanced nations. He explains:
“For Qatar to earn recognition from the rest of the world, it is important for the country to embed global values into its systems in parallel with its soft power strategy. Here ‘global’ means ‘Western,’ but in any case, the country could not have easily won the World Cup bid if it had left systems like kafala in place.
Qatar was slow to reform, but in 2017, it concluded a partnership with the U.N.-affiliated International Labor Organization (ILO), and its labor reform efforts have improved over the past few years.
Of course, the old customs will not disappear overnight, but the fact is that, thanks to the World Cup, Qatar is about to undergo a major transformation.”
After the war, Japan tried to impress upon the world that it had joined the ranks of advanced nations by hosting the Tokyo Olympics. Qatar is trying to do the exact same thing with the World Cup.
How will the Qatari national team perform? The focus will be on what changes after the World Cup
“The World Cup has heightened Qatar’s visibility, so it has faced intense scrutiny from advanced nations particularly with regard to labor issues and the treatment of sexual minorities. I am keeping an eye on how the Qatari national team fares amid this sentiment that the country is ‘behind the curve.’
I am also interested in how Qatar will come to be perceived after the World Cup. At the same time, I wonder how Qatar will be covered by the Japanese media and how the country’s will image change in the minds of the Japanese people Many countries, including Japan, implement national strategies driven by sports, but I think we need to take a dispassionate look at how effective these policies really are.”
The World Cup in Qatar is about to begin. It will be interesting to watch the games based on the knowledge of this national strategy and also to see the cityscapes and learn about the culture of the country from the live broadcasts.
Originally from Saitama Prefecture. Current position: Associate Professor, Major of Sports and Society, College of Social Sciences, Ritsumeikan University. Degree: PhD (Sociology). Matsushima specializes in the sociology of sports. His research focuses primarily on rugby as he seeks to find out why the sport is so pervasive around the world. His major publications include “From the 2019 Rugby World Cup to Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics; Nationalism and Diversity” in Challenging Olympic Narratives, Japan, the Olympic Games and Tokyo 2020/21 (Ergon, 2021).