Why has Qatar relied so heavily on sports in its investment strategy over the past twenty years? During an interview given to Ecofoot, Dr. Amr Alem, researcher in Sports Management at ESSEC Business School and author of the thesis Globalization of the sport ecosystem: stakeholders between political legacies, legal regulations and economic issuesdiscusses in detail the goals pursued by Qatar through its investments in the global sports industry.
Why and how did Qatar identify sports as the main lever for soft power? Was Qatar the first country to use sports in this way?
Let’s start with the why first. In the scholarly literature on international relations, Qatar is referred to as a “microstate”. This forces him to implement a whole battery of strategies to survive, which can be summarized in three points.
First, microstates must be able to establish a modus vivendi with their neighbours, who are often larger – Saudi Arabia and Iran in Qatar’s case – and to ensure that relations with them are calm despite possible provocations. Second, they appeal to a powerful country to act as a military protector, as is the case with Qatar with the United States, which has one of its most important foreign bases there. Third, they must exploit a very specific niche that suffers from no direct competition to benefit first their neighboring countries, then their entire region or even a wider part of the globe. This is what Luxembourg does with its air services and financial facilities for EU members, Monaco with casinos, luxury hotels and offshore banks, Kuwait with import/export of gold, Bahrain with its financial and industrial services as well as regional commercial services headquarters… Therefore the choice of Qatar fell on sports. These points essentially serve to create legitimacy for microstates and then to demonstrate their value and utility in a globalized world.
That said, Qatar is not the first country to take advantage of the media and communication power of sport. In fact, sport and politics form a couple whose DNA is built around two main spirals: the use of sport for the purpose of national cohesion, which corresponds to the theory of nation-building, and that for the purpose of international influence, which refers to the concept of nation-branding . Several examples can be used to illustrate these two points. In the 19th century, Britain’s power was particularly based on sport to extend its economic and cultural dominance. In the British West Indies, the political activist CLR James (1963) seized very early on the mobilizing capacity of sport to carry out his demands for independence.
In Latin America, thanks to sports in general and football in particular, national cultures present in this region have been able to emerge, such as Uruguay, as the national writer, Eduardo Galeano said: This sky blue jersey was proof of the existence of a nation. […] Football drove this small state out of the twists and turns of universal anonymity. »
This political use of sports was also in place in Africa and more precisely in Algeria, where it experienced one of its greatest illustrations, with the national football team. Bringing sporting, cultural, psychological prestige and financial support, this team was an important support for the resistance both in its work of internal mobilization and in its quest for international recognition. It still functions today as the founding myth of the Algerian nation.
In the United States, political interest in sports began at the turn of the 20th century. This desire for influence was already present when the American delegation participated in the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, where it was sent to “sell the United States to the rest of the world”, in the words of Colonel Robert Thompson. real institutional turn at the end of the Second World War, around the concept of sports diplomacy. The first to fill this role in the sport were the American and Chinese table tennis players, in a match played on April 14, 1971, amid the diplomatic chill between the two countries. Sport was therefore used as a diplomatic tool to bring the two countries closer together. This parallel diplomacy did not engage the capitals directly in case of failure. It made it possible both to send signals to national and global public opinion and to test an approach so that it could assume a larger scale. This chapter remains legendary in the history of international influence through sports. More generally, this model has been imitated and developed by other countries such as China, Russia, Azerbaijan, Brazil and especially Qatar, which remains the most notable.
Has Qatar achieved its geopolitical/geostrategic goals through its sports investments? Do we have an estimate of the total amounts that the country has spent in this sector since the start of its strategy?