Qatar is trying to build a true sports industry integrated into the economic globalization of sports. Existence through sport. The 2022 World Cup is a turning point in his sports strategy.
Jean-Baptiste Quegan is a member of the Sports Business Observatory, a consultant, teacher, author and lecturer on Sports Geopolitics. The article was written in collaboration with Mourad El Bouanani and Alexandre Buzenet
Whether it’s in family or geopolitics, you need to redouble your ingenuity to “make room” for yourself when you come to the last world. Qatar therefore chose sports, a sector that offered several advantages: it was underinvested by its regional neighbors and it was very media-friendly. The organization of international sports competitions was therefore a guarantee of existence through sports, but where winning was not easy. The Maroons’ loss to Ecuador was a perfect example of this. In order to fully implement itself, Qatar has resorted to a particularly financially ambitious investment strategy. Moreover, a strategy far from being limited to sports!
The Qatar Investment Authority, Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, has mobilized numerous subsidiaries, enabling it to weave a global spider web both sectorally and geographically (Dumortier, 2012). For example, Qatar Holding was established in 2006. He is responsible for the acquisition of assets in international industrial groups such as Germany, where he became the major shareholder of the Volkswagen group and the German automotive industry as a whole. The same process is repeated for the real estate sector, where QIA entrusts the management of its investments to Qatar Diar Real Estate Company, which has developed numerous real estate projects around the world. We have recently seen it in Malaysia, Turkey, Morocco and Egypt through its subsidiary Barwa. Of course, if the francophilia of the royal family does not explain everything, France also seems to be an attractive territory with the acquisition of multiple stakes in our companies Total, Accor or Vinci.
Thus, this strategy allowed Qatar to control several sectors of activity and optimize its profits. “(…) unlike Saudi Arabia, which prefers bonds in the world’s best-rated countries and likes North American pension funds, QIA combines several sectors with high added value, such as aviation, automotive, technology, energy, water, media, finance, land , real estate and… sports.
Sports funding: The payer is the decision maker
Participation, organization and winning in sports are not enough. To make full use of it, it is necessary to finance international sports. As the payer is the decision-maker, QIA’s sports arm has been entrusted to Qatar Sport Investment (QSI), its specialized subsidiary, run by the Emir’s right-hand man Nasser Al Khelaifi (NAK). In 2011, Sports Illustrated named him the most influential person in the sports industry. In the same year, he became chairman and CEO of PSG and chairman of the Paris Handball club, which was associated with the PSG brand to become PSG Handball. ECA president, European club lobby and UEFA board member Nasser Al Khelaïfi is a man of networks. More importantly, he is one of Qatar’s faces abroad and its institutional entry.
By acquiring Paris Saint-Germain, QSI did not stop at creating assets. He aimed to turn the French capital into a sports and multi-sport beacon in the service of the emirate, its visibility and influence diplomacy. The creation of Al Jazeera’s sports arm, BeIn Sport, is also part of the funding logic to better penetrate world sports and promote Qatari interests. Since 2014, BeIN Media Group continues to grow and gain weight. Owner of the rights to more than sixty sports competitions, from the NBA to the Champions League, today it is present in 43 countries and has more than 55 million subscribers worldwide in 2020.
But Qatar is not satisfied with this. It seeks to build a real sports industry integrated into the economic globalization of sports, which it builds around high-visibility assets. Behavior that appears “rational” (social media, sponsorship deal, sports information, image) as income diversification and entertainment at various scales lead to the logic of integration into sports value chains.
To this end, QIA’s investments in the transfer market witness a new commitment to the economic and sporting progress of the global franchise PSG. In 2017, the payment of the Brazilian footballer Neymar’s clause (222 million euros) and the purchase option of the Frenchman Kylian Mbappe (180 million), the renewal of their contracts or the signing of Lionel Messi prove this. Thus, PSG became the 7th club in the world to exceed 3 billion euros (Forbes) in the last ten years. The second most powerful sports franchise in the world after the Golden State Warriors, the San Francisco basketball team is the NBA champion.
Effective sports diplomacy, however, is not without limitations
Qatari sports diplomacy is therefore by no means embryonic. According to geographer Mehdi Lazar, it is the geohistorical, geoeconomic and geopolitical characteristics that make Qatar form such a unique diplomacy. Because Qatar’s sports approval is not limited to the desire to prepare for the post-oil era.
His ambition is to make the emirate exist in collective representations and shape them to his advantage. Qatar’s sports activity, which is a means of differentiation among the Gulf countries, is also an element of nation-building, national unity and unity. This paves the way for a wider reconstruction of the identity that Al Thani, the ruling dynasty, is clearly trying to extract. It is a necessity for a young state that has been independent since September 1971 and is facing the historical threats of a complex regional space.
But while this type of development can certainly be dazzling, many weaknesses and contradictions remain. Sports do not erase reality. The action of NGOs such as Amnesty International and the work of journalists Quentin Muller and Sébastien Castelier, Slaves of the oilmanin particular, it cast a critical light on the precariousness and living conditions of the thousands of workers who built Doha over a decade and made the 2022 World Cup possible.
Admittedly, the real payoff of Qatari sports diplomacy can quickly become uncertain. Qatari delegations find themselves trapped in a fragmented and contradictory approach. The French example is clear amid calls for boycotts, participation and repeated criticism. Charm work does not give the expected effect. Far from it. Far from the expected narrative with controversies surrounding labor rights and, in particular, discrimination, the 2022 World Cup workplace narrative serves the interests of the state it is supposed to promote.
One can also be interested in the uncertain future of geopolitical events in the Gulf that may weigh on the kingdom of Qatar and destabilize it. Geographer Brigitte Dumortier explains how an environment of regional tension, compounded by this microstate’s strategic vulnerabilities, could undermine Qatar’s ambitions. The blockade of 2017 and the threat of overthrowing the ruling dynasty demonstrated this. The question of the sustainability of such a model in the era of diversification of the Qatari economy and climate change should also be raised.
The 2022 World Cup is undoubtedly a turning point in Qatar’s sports strategy. Qatar, which is scrutinized by the whole world, plays a lot with this event. The culmination of more than a decade of politics, football’s biggest selection competition is not without risks. The pursuit of exposure and visibility has a price. Facing reality. If it seems difficult to imagine the success of Qatar in terms of sports, at the diplomatic level, this world championship has already changed the nature of relations with its big neighbor, Saudi Arabia. See you in December 2022, the day after the final for the first assessment. It’s a safe bet there will be no shortage of lessons!