Analysis: Was this World Cup Qatar’s best way forward?

Owen Alterman

Senior Correspondent of i24NEWS English Channel | @owenalterman

5 min read
The FIFA World Cup trophy is displayed at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar.
AP Photo/Thanassis StavrakisThe FIFA World Cup trophy is displayed at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar.

Countries can promote themselves through a wide variety of strategies; hosting the World Cup is a particularly expensive one, and is also a higher risk

"Is this the biggest failure of any branding campaign in the history of the human species?" – so began my television report on Qatar's World Cup two days after it kicked off. "In our 300,000 years on this planet, has more money ever been spent to get a worse result?" I asked.

A bit of an exaggeration, I admit, and it provoked a spirited debate with i24NEWS guest Marwa Maziad, a nonresident scholar of the Middle East Institute. Those were the days when Qatar's promotional efforts in the 2022 World Cup had hit their trough, as protests against Qatar were breaking out across Europe and days after the Qataris themselves had scored an own-goal by backtracking on beer sales in stadiums.

So, in the aftermath of the mega soccer tournament a month later, have we actually set a record for ineptitude, not only for a World Cup or a sporting event, but for the entire history of the human species? Well, maybe not. But, even with the boost that a focus on the soccer itself would inevitably bring, Qatar's yield from this tournament is potentially questionable. Or, at best, not the most productive use of resources to achieve a public diplomacy goal.

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The tournament of the past month has partly redeemed Qatar. The logistics are seen as having gone smoothly, and the on-field play produced a long list of memorable moments. Most of all, scenes of Middle Eastern fans pouring onto the streets burnished Qatar's brand – capped by the tremendous story of the Moroccan national team and most of all, the tremendous final match. All of this did credit to Qatar and took attention away from what had been a focus – rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly – on Doha's misdeeds.

On the other hand, headlines about migrant worker abuse, LGBTQ+ rights, and corruption did not disappear. On corruption, stories actually burst back into the headlines with the dramatic arrest of a vice president of the European Parliament for taking Qatari bribes. That story, among others, looks set to continue generating headlines even as the glow of the World Cup fades.

There's also the open question of whether, from Qatar's perspective, this was the only way. Countries can promote themselves through a wide variety of strategies, and hosting the World Cup is a particularly expensive one. It's also a higher risk; the world's most popular sporting event brings attention as no other event would. 

AP Photo/Hassan Ammar
AP Photo/Hassan AmmarFireworks explode during the World Cup closing ceremony at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar.

But still, to the extent that boosting soft power was the goal, could Qatar have used its money more effectively and strategically? Maybe yielding more bang for the riyal than the all-in-one-go World Cup? And in ways that would not have attracted attention to the country's defects, as did this event? For Doha, maybe it didn’t have to be this way.

Which leads to an even deeper question: Is a strategy of limitless high-flying the best move for a country in Qatar's position? Or would it be wiser to shrewdly play the Middle Eastern diplomatic game – host the U.S. Air Force, set up Al Jazeera, buy a few European soccer teams, wine-and-dine some bigwigs – but then close up shop? What does the spotlight of the World Cup achieve for its soft power that Qatar could not have achieved through other means? Does now being known by billions of people help Qatar, or hurt it?

Of course, it's too soon to really know. Qatar is basking in the glow, with the stadium fireworks and Lionel Messi hoisting the cup front and center in our minds. 

The moment before the tournament's kickoff – with its rush of critical headlines – was fodder for quick judgment. This moment risks prejudicing us, too, as quick to exult in Qatar's victory. For this adventure to have worked for Qatar, it will need to have insulated Doha from image attacks in the future. Messi and Morocco and the organizers' own abilities can deliver the moment, but it's less clear if they're the best way to deliver in the long run.

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