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How Qatar and Saudi Arabia are using football

Written by Ili Hyseni

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Norway stage a protest against Qatari human rights abuses

The recent Saudi takeover of Newcastle under the auspices of the nation’s sovereign wealth fund, PIF, has raised valid and pointed questions. Fans, journalists and stakeholders are concerned that the acquisition is the latest Saudi attempt to launder its international reputation and in turn, increase its soft power. Saudi Arabia are relatively new to football, however a regional rival in the form of Qatar has been engaged in the practise of sports-washing for the best part of a decade. While the two Gulf states have been embroiled in diplomatic spats and economic competition, their rivalry seems to have now spilled over into football. This piece seeks to explain the situation facing the two nations and how football serves as a vehicle for increasing soft power. 


Saudi Arabia is at a major crossroads. The country is facing a succession crisis, with 91 year old King Abdullah in ill health. The next in line, Crown Prince Salman, is 78 and also struggling with his health. There are concerns the latter is suffering with his mental abilities. This leaves Mohammed Bin Salman, or MBS as he is colloquially known, to lead the country into the future. It is an uncertain future, one that doesn’t feature the oil finances that Saudi Arabia has leant on for the best part of 70 years. The current balance of power is carefully maintained by conservative values and generous government handouts. When the demand for oil inevitably drops, the Kingdom will have to look to other sources of revenue or face greater discontent by its people. Using the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault puts the situation MBS faces into context. Much like Foucault describes in his book ‘Discipline and punish’, what is happening in Saudi Arabia should be seen as a shift from the use of macro to micro power. In other words, an emphasis on soft power is being placed. The ruling elites in Saudi Arabia are aware that maintaining the current system with an iron fist no longer works in the 21st century and a new approach must be adopted. To do this, MBS is seeking to diversify the economy while simultaneously liberalising some rules. Particular focus has been placed on science and technology as well as financial services, while certain laws have been relaxed; such as allowing women to drive and public floggings no longer taking place. 


East of Saudi Arabia lies Qatar. The country has developed somewhat of a ‘bad boy’ reputation in the Gulf region, maintaining a dangerous balancing act between the US and Iran. Once a Saudi vassal state, the Qatari’s boast the largest natural gas field in the world; a field that they share with the Iranians. The nation is also host to the US’ biggest military base in the region. Being the world’s third largest exporter of natural gas has allowed Qatar to flex its muscles in ways not normally associated with a country of only 2 million people. In recent years the Qataris have been accused of using the funds from gas as well as profits from foreign investments to support the likes of Hamas, terror organisations in Syria as well as the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE. Similarly to the Saudis, Qatar is facing the need to pivot economically. Through its carefully selected foreign investments, Qatar has become a byword for luxury and wealth. In 2008 the country announced a national strategy called the Qatar National Vision 2030. The stated aims are to transform Qatar into an advanced society capable of achieving sustainable development. Many argue that the programme serves little more than a PR stunt aimed at changing the international perception of Qatar. 


It is evident both countries will need to enact wide ranging changes if they are to consolidate and then increase their soft power. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are two regional powers, looking to have a greater say in global affairs. In order to achieve these aims, the Gulf states will have to get creative. 


The purchase of PSG by Qatar Sports Investment (QSI), a sovereign wealth fund subsidiary, created one of the world’s first state owned football clubs. Led by QSI chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi, PSG have forced their way into the group of Europe’s elite football clubs; spending $1BN in the process. Acquiring PSG has proven to be a major success for Qatar, crucially allowing it to diversify its income streams, expand its luxury portfolio as well as improving the country’s pedigree as a foreign investor. 


PSG has been an incredibly effective PR tool for Qatar. Marketing firms rate Qatar as one of the strongest brands in the Middle East, not far behind the UAE. During an economic blockade imposed on the nation in 2017, Qatar staged a coup against its rivals in a display of economic strength. The signing of Neymar for $257 million sent a signal to regional rivals that the embargo was ineffective and Qatar’s economy remained strong. Writing for the Brookings website, Senior Fellow Nader Kabbani argues that the economic blockade did little to affect Qatar. Instead, it forced the nation to become less reliant on imports, strengthening its economy as they increased domestic production of basic goods and expanded its Hamad Sea Port. 


Networks formed through ownership of PSG helped Qatar secure the rights to the 2022 World Cup; while rejection of the European Super League has curried favour with the UEFA leadership. In the aftermath of the ESL fallout, the PSG chairman assumed the role of chairman of European Clubs Association. With a Qatari now representing European clubs, it gives the country a direct say in the continent’s football politics, possibly allowing it to influence any future revamp of the Champions League. 

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The signing of Lionel Messi this summer has further eased pressure on Qatar politically. For example, hype around the move deflected attention away from the human rights abuses in Qatar. In financing the transfer, Qatar has acquired the ambassadorial services of the world’s best player. The positive association with Messi will generate further buzz around next year’s World Cup, especially since it is likely to be his last international tournament. Hosting the World Cup is a major victory over regional rivals. It positions Qatar as a tourist destination in competition with the UAE. In welcoming so many fans from across the world, Qatar will have the chance to present itself as an open and modern nation, in contrast to the negative press around its archaic system of governance.  


Overall Qatar’s sports-washing campaign has been successful. Despite the protestations from human rights groups, journalists and fans; the nation continues to see its influence grow both in the region and further afield. The successes in football have earned the trust of foreign investors, with the nation seen as a competent and reliable business partner. The tiny Emirate is also being viewed as a growing football power. The league is expanding and boasts names like James Rodriguez as well as Laurent Blanc and Xavi who has managed Al Sadd since 2019. In international football, Qatar’s reputation now overshadows once traditional regional heavyweights in the form of Iraq and Kuwait. 


Saudi Arabia has watched the developments in Qatar with envy. The pre-eminent regional power lost ground to Qatar in football and is keen to make up for lost time. The kingdom is also acutely aware of the problems it faces and is trying to alleviate some of them by sports-washing


The Georgetown Security Studies Review states that PIF’s acquisition of Newcastle, led by MBS, perfectly fits into the Kingdom’s 2030 strategy. The Newcastle deal is seen as a key element in improving Saudi Arabia’s attractiveness for foreign direct investment (FDI). The global football market is valued at $28 billion and since announcing the 2030 strategy in 2016, Saudi Arabia has invested $1 billion on hosting and sponsoring sports events.


Ownership of Newcastle is the cornerstone of the Saudi project, it bolsters the Kingdom’s investment portfolio and serves as an advertisement of what can be achieved with Saudi investment. And it should, in the long term, enhance the Kingdom’s strategic and economic ties. 


Football is a language known the world over. It has the power to unite and provide euphoria for its fans. Saudi Arabia is searching for ways to alter its image and there could not be a better opportunity than Newcastle. The Premier League club is seen as a sleeping giant, a team mismanaged and its relationship with the fans mishandled. Previous billionaire owner Mike Ashley was reluctant to invest the sums needed to turn the club’s fortunes around and his 14 year tenure was defined by relegations and a string of transfers that missed the mark. With the fans desperate for a new owner and willing to back anybody other than Ashley, PIF have been welcomed with open arms. While some fans have expressed their reservations, the Saudi government has found a new support base in North East England. 


Newcastle are now widely reported to be the richest club in world football and if the Saudis successfully turn Newcastle into an elite football institution, the benefits to the city and the surrounding community will be enormous. Behind all the good news stories will be the Saudi government spin doctors keen to latch on and deflect attention away from the abuses committed.


Despite Qatar, and to some extent Saudi Arabia, experiencing successes in their attempts to increase soft power; fans, politicians and rights groups from across the spectrum have come together to voice their concerns. The direction of football is increasingly money oriented and billionaire owners with questionable backgrounds are unfortunately nothing new. State owned clubs, however, are and this is where the bulk of the opposition is focussed. In the case of Saudi Arabia, owning a club in the Premier League, the world’s premier sports league essentially buys economic/political access and legitimacy in the West. And despite Premier League assurances that the Saudi state is not directly involved in the Newcastle deal, a simple Google search reveals that Crown Prince MBS is the chairman of PIF. As Saudi Arabia are relatively new to the world of elite club ownership, the voice of opposition will only grow; exposing the abuses and crimes of the state. 


In Qatar’s case, opposition has been vocal for a while. Much of the sentiment is around next year’s World Cup, with the Dutch, German and Norwegian FA’s among the loudest voices in football. It was initially thought that Norway would boycott next year’s event, though the idea was eventually rejected in a vote. At recent international fixtures all three national teams were seen wearing pre match t-shirts protesting in favour of human rights. This campaign was aimed at the abuses workers in Qatar have faced in the last 10 years. The nation has been undergoing an unprecedented period of construction, building new roads, airports and of course stadiums. As revealed in a Guardian investigation earlier this year, the new infrastructure has come at the expense of 6500 workers dying since preparations began in 2011. Alongside this, Qatar is showing no sign on liberalising its laws around the rights of oppressed groups such as migrant workers from South East Asia, the LGBT community and women. The country is known to operate the Kafala system in which employers exercise wide ranging rights over their employees. This has led to workers being overworked, access to services being denied and the death of many on sites. 

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While both governments will view their sports-washing campaigns with optimism for the future, a positive future for both states is far from certain. Qatar has credit in the bank, it is now an established actor in football and holds influential positions within the game, using those to build relationships elsewhere. Analysts will be looking to the World Cup to see if Qatar can shake off the accusations and negative press. The post World Cup era will be just as important. Questions arise: can Qatar sustain its position within the world of football? Will the World Cup have helped Qatar gain new found respect on the world stage? Saudi Arabia will be looking to answer similar questions when it evaluates its involvement in football. The Kingdom will look to build on its foray into football with a possible bid for the 2030 World Cup. This would be a crowning moment for the country expecting to meet the goals of its national strategy in the same year. It will also hope that the influence it is expected to gain can be used to carve out a new position for itself in global affairs. 

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