Football World Cup in Qatar: the soft power of an emirate that wants to play in the big leagues

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The small emirate of Qatar has become in three decades a key player on the geopolitical scene of the Middle East, thanks to a meticulous strategy of influence, a soft power that goes through sport.

The football World Cup which begins this Sunday in Qatar could have been the culmination of a strategy of influence of the emirate started several years ago by the emir Hamad ben Khalifa Al Thani, father of the current emir , Tamim ben Hamad Al Thani, who has reigned since 2013 over this oil monarchy of some 2.4 million inhabitants, wedged between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

A liquefied natural gas tanker of which Qatar is the world’s leading exporter
AFP

Instead, the emirate must respond to a multitude of criticisms of this first World Cup organized in an Arab country. Criticism of the environmental footprint of the competition with its air-conditioned stadiums, criticism of the working conditions of thousands of immigrants, of whom at least 6,500 died on the pharaonic construction sites of the stadiums, criticism of the non-respect of human rights men and homosexuals, critics, finally, on the conditions for obtaining the cup in 2010, tainted by potential actions of corruption which spill over as far as France by involving former President Nicolas Sarkozy and the former number 10 Michael Platini.

Qatar 5th world gas producer

Qatar 5th world gas producer

Diversification started in 1995

The World Cup has become a real test for Qatar, which promised to make it the most beautiful ever organized. A test of truth which should not however call into question the place acquired by the emirate on the international scene. Because Qatar does not intend to give up everything that has been built since the country seceded from the United Arab Emirates and the Emirate of Bahrain in 1971. The former British protectorate initially kept a low profile, working to exploit the oil and especially gas wealth of its basement. In 1989, the exploitation of the North Dome offshore deposit began, which alone represents approximately 10% of the known natural gas reserves in the world. From 1996 the emirate launched an ambitious program for liquefied natural gas (LNG), of which it quickly became the world’s leading exporter, a position strengthened since the war in Ukraine. Today, the emirate is the world’s 5th largest producer of natural gas.

Al-Jezeera Channel Studio

Al-Jezeera Channel Studio

But Qatar does not intend to prosper solely on energy: it wants to become a player that counts on the world stage and have a diversified economy inspired by the model of the United Arab Emirates. This turning point was initiated in 1995. A year later, the continuous news channel Al-Jazeera was born, the Arab CNN accessible by satellite, which really made the country known abroad.

World Cup and takeover of PSG

In 2005, the country created the sovereign fund Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), which invests massively internationally, including in France, in many areas: finance, real estate and hotels (10% of the Accor group), industry, transport ( the country has the company Qatar Airways), and of course sports. With Qatar Sports Investments (QSI), he made a name for himself until he unexpectedly won the World Cup in 2010 and bought PSG in 2011.

After the awarding of the World Cup in 2010

After the awarding of the World Cup in 2010
AFP – MARWAN NAAMANI

Its diplomatic influence is also growing. The country, which wants to be pivotal between Iran and Saudi Arabia, multiplies relations and initiatives, supports in 2011 the Arab Spring revolutions in Syria, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, where it mainly supports movements linked to the Brotherhood Muslims. If the weight of the rigid traditions of Sharia persists within its borders, Qatar displays outwards the image of a country open to the West. The role of the emir’s mother, Moza bint Nasser al-Missned, who will be UNESCO ambassador for education and president of the Qatar Foundation, played a determining role in the country’s opening up to the world.

In 2017, a blockade of the country

But these successes annoy the neighborhood. In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut their political and commercial relations with Qatar, accused of financing the Muslim Brotherhood, opponents of these countries and of having good relations with the Shiite Iran. The blockade is a blow for Qatar, which will have to wait until 2021 for a return to normal after mediation by Kuwait and the United States, the latter having a large military base.

One year from the World Cup, everything seemed to be smiling in Qatar, which badly anticipated the flood of criticism, “unfair” according to him. Critics that should not, however, call into question the results of three decades of soft power.

Awarding of the World Cup: investigation into a corruption pact in France

Was Michel Platini’s vote in favor of Qatar for the 2022 Football World Cup obtained in exchange for compensation? A lunch at the Elysée between Nicolas Sarkozy, the ex-footballer and two senior Qatari leaders is at the heart of investigations carried out in France. On November 23, 2010, nine days before the vote to designate the host country of the 2022 World Cup, a lunch at the Elysée brought together Nicolas Sarkozy, Michel Platini, then boss of UEFA, the Crown Prince of Qatar and his Premier minister. Claude Guéant, secretary general of the Elysée, and Sophie Dion, sports adviser to Nicolas Sarkozy, appear on the table plan but deny having participated in the meal. After revelations in the press, a preliminary investigation was opened, then a judicial investigation in December 2019 for “active and passive corruption, concealment and money laundering”. Financial magistrates and the Anti-Corruption Office (Oclciff) wonder if “a give-and-take deal” was concluded during this lunch allowing Qatar to win the 2022 World Cup in exchange in particular for investments in France, including the takeover of PSG . After the purchase of the club from the American fund Colony Capital represented by Sébastien Bazin, the latter became CEO of the hotelier Accor which then brought Nicolas Sarkozy to its board of directors. Is there a link? Laurent Platini becomes provisional general manager of Burrda Sport, a subsidiary of the Qatari fund. Arms contracts and other counterparties would also be in the sights of the investigators. To date, no indictment has been issued.

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