The Authoritarian's Guide to Football: The Reach and Repercussions of Qatar's Sports Empire
The FIFA World Cup is football’s most celebrated competition and among the world’s most watched and attended events. Unsurprisingly, the task of hosting this complex, month-long spectacle has long fallen to advanced and emerging economies. When South Africa played host in 2010, its population stood at 51 million and its gross national income (GNI) at $648 billion. When Brazil assumed hosting duties four years later, it boasted a population four times that of South Africa’s and an economy almost five times as big. And when Russia took up the next, and most recent, World Cup, it had a population of 144 million and an economy, however shaky, of $4.1 trillion. It is no coincidence that BRICS economies—the high-performing club of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—were the pitches of choice for a decade’s worth of World Cups: each spent between $3 billion and $15 billion to realize its hosting responsibilities.
Breaking with that tradition, this year’s World Cup will be played in the country of Qatar. Come November, fans and footballers will descend on a peninsula the area of Jamaica’s, mingle with a local population the density of the Caymans Islands’, and support an economy the size of Kenya’s. It says something about Qatar’s international reach that, over a decade ago, its bid to play host beat out proposals from the United States, Australia, South Korea, and Japan—all of which are OECD nations. It also says something about Qatar’s domestic capabilities that, in the decade since, its preparations have reportedly cost more than $200 billion—a seven-fold increase over the prior three World Cups, combined. Much of that spending was likely to take place anyway, but it is difficult to imagine the torrid pace at which hotels and public spaces, roads and transportation, and even a new city were to be built without a mega event to animate their urgency.
This “something”—the conundrum of a Jamaica outbidding an America and outspending a Russia—is often chalked up to Qatar’s soft power, the term journalists and scholars have used to capture the persuasive and attractive tools underpinning Qatar’s actions abroad. At some turns, soft power is like a sartorial style that a nation dons: the New York Times has used it to describe glittered gatherings at Qatar’s world-class museums, one of the country’s cultural tools. At other turns, it is like a set of virtues that a nation signals: political scientists have used it to characterize Qatar’s partnerships with Western universities, the centerpiece of its educational tools. Whatever the frame, Qatar’s soft power toolkit is seen as vast, spanning sectors as varied as media and academia, culture and entertainment, law and banking.
Within this toolkit, sports have come to play a greater and greater role. Sports have provided Qatar, despite its size, with unique opportunities. By hosting sporting competitions at home, Qatar can project stability and modernity to tourists wary of the Middle East’s volatility, and by sponsoring professional clubs abroad, it can promote its national enterprises in foreign markets. Sports have also presented Qatar, maybe because of its size, with unique challenges. In the case of the World Cup, it has had to marshal an incredible network of international support—professional organizations and labor migrants—to overcome its geographic and demographic limits. This has invited a number of controversies, from charges of malfeasance to secure competition rights to reports of migrant abuse—including forced labor and human trafficking—while constructing competition venues. These controversies are hardly unique to Qatar: prior World Cup hosts faced similar accusations, and their collective shortcomings have called into question FIFA’s broader culture of financial integrity. Still, Qatar’s transgressions stand apart for the scale of harm they have generated and the consistency of attention they have attracted.
The Qatari case underscores an unheralded dynamic, playing out with ever greater speed, in world politics: internationalization is enabling states of lesser stature to wield disproportionate influence beyond their borders. Internationalization is a facet of globalization, often described as a business strategy executed by private actors in search of opportunities abroad. But when those actors are state-owned or state-directed, and when those states are autocratic and kleptocratic, internationalization takes on the character of a grand strategy executed by states in search of influence abroad. Sports are among the most internationalized of sectors, owing to the number of national actors crossing borders and the number of national teams and leagues inviting them in. Qatari actors own or sponsor sports teams on six continents, forging relationships in service of the state’s economic and security objectives. While these relationships may benefit Qatar, recent events show just how costly they can be to those with whom Qatar shares the pitch. These events challenge the argument that sports are a tool of Qatari soft power. Power is still in play—but of a different, sharper kind.
This paper surveys Qatar’s vast investments in global sports, particularly football, to show how smallness need not be a barrier to states throwing their weight on the world stage. It begins with a review of the literature on power—a useful gauge of smallness—and authoritarianism. In both cases, this section makes theoretical contributions: first, to clarify the concept of power in its many forms, and second, to identify the rationale behind authoritarians’ choice of sectors. The paper then turns to the case of Qatar, outlining the contours of its foreign policy and the importance of sports to it. This section offers the most comprehensive picture to date of Qatar’s sports empire, based on a dataset that draws on media reports, scholarly articles, and industry releases to catalogue roughly 630 unique Qatari investments in global sports. To be clear, this section does not suggest that sports are more pivotal to Qatari foreign policy than other sectors. Rather, it demonstrates how Qatar’s investments in the sector have created interdependencies that are coloring the geopolitics of the Middle East and elsewhere. The paper concludes by considering whether Qatar’s sports activities warrant concern by outside parties and what that says about the enduring limits of smallness in world politics today.
Stature in International Affairs
In December 2010, then-FIFA President Sepp Blatter announced Qatar as host of the 2022 World Cup—and in the days after, media outlets attempted to make sense of the choice. Many were keen to reference Qatar’s population and geography, calling it a “tiny emirate,” a “mini-state,” and a “small country.” Smallness, for them, seemed to be a disqualifier. Others were sure to mention Qatar’s natural resources, responsible for the country’s “petrodollars,” “deep pockets,” and “financial prowess.” Wealth, for them, did not actually make up for smallness; it just pointed to the presence of corruption. What is apparent across these lines of commentary is that smallness, in international affairs, is presumed to have some bearing on geopolitical outcomes, whatever that may be. This section interrogates the literatures on power and authoritarianism for answers.
Population, geography, and natural resources are all examples of state capabilities—a common definition of power. Political theorist Hans Morgenthau refers to these as “elements of national power” and places them at the center of international politics, where states “struggle for power,” for capabilities. But to what end? Taking up this question, political scientist Kal Holsti identifies “influence” as the means by which states mobilize capabilities in pursuit of interests, ones that require them to change the behavior of others. But change how? Filling this gap, scholar-practitioner Joseph Nye describes two forms of state influence. The first, “hard power,” relies on bullying and buying—on coercion and manipulation—to induce behavior change. The second, “soft power,” rests on convincing and cajoling—on persuasion and attraction—to do the same.
From these scholarly contributions emerges a useful framework for understanding power. First, power is the ability of an actor to influence others in support of its objectives. “Actor” refers to the state and non-state units that make up international politics. These are the subjects and objects of global influence operations. “Ability” refers to the capabilities—also called resources or assets—that an actor possesses or cultivates. An actor’s capabilities offer a rough measure of its potential power. “Influence” refers to the tools—also called instruments or actions—that an actor uses to mobilize those capabilities and induce behavior change in others. An actor’s toolkit reflects its use of realized power. “Objectives” refer to the outcomes—also called goals—that an actor seeks from international politics. Outcomes can be productive or disruptive and reflect the consequences of an actor’s realized power.
Second, power is a function of a tool’s underlying logic and capabilities as well as the outcomes it produces. “Logic” refers to the type of behavior change a tool elicits. Coercive or manipulative, persuasive or attractive—a tool’s logic is based on whether its subject’s intentions are transparent or opaque and its object’s agency is preserved or diminished. These relationships are shown in Figure 1. “Capabilities” refer to the kind of inputs a tool employs. Coercion is generally powered by material capabilities like military readiness and industrial capacity, while persuasion and attraction are often linked to ideational capabilities like education and culture. By the end of the 1990s, few commentators seemed concerned with a tool’s logic and outcomes and instead treated power as a kind of short-hand for capabilities—with materially rich states serving as the hard power players of world politics.
Figure 1: Types of Power Based on Logics of Behavior Change
Based on this rendering, Qatar is rightly viewed as a small state. One indication is its lack of material capabilities. Qatar’s population stands at about 2.9 million, less than 25 percent of which are estimated to be Qatari nationals. The country’s geography, a thumb-shaped peninsula jutting into the Arabian Gulf, spans 4,500 square miles of mostly barren plain covered with sand. The state’s armed forces, anchored by the 8,000-plus U.S. troops stationed at Al-Udeid Air Base, comprise roughly 16,500 military personnel equipped with mostly U.S. aircraft and German tanks. And the Qatari economy, buoyed by the nation’s vast natural gas reserves, totals $254 billion. Across these capabilities, Qatar falls outside the world’s top 60 countries—and in some cases, outside even the top 120.
A second indication is Qatar’s considerable investments in more ideational capabilities. Though the nation’s total GNI is dwarfed by dozens of other countries, its small population and bounty of natural resources assure it one of the world’s highest per capita GNIs. In turn, the state has poured this wealth into a number of national sectors with global cachet. In media, the Qatari government launched Al Jazeera, a media network that broadcasts regional and international news in over 150 countries. In academia, it established Education City, a higher education and research hub that hosts top U.S., French, and British universities. In culture, it set up Qatar Foundation International, a non-profit that sponsors Arabic language programs around the world. And in law, it created the Qatar Fund for Development, a foreign aid vehicle that supports several UN bodies, including those devoted to development, refugees, and counterterrorism. It is capabilities like these that have thrust Qatar onto the international stage—but as a soft power player “punching above its weight.”
Recent international trends, though, cast doubt on the utility of a capabilities-based definition of power. One trend is rising authoritarianism. Analysts at the National Endowment for Democracy take as their starting point the state: why have Russia and China seen international opinion turn against their soft power influence? Authoritarians, they argue, exercise a unique brand of influence—one based on a logic of manipulation, powered by a range of capabilities, and oriented toward disrupting open societies. This form of influence, the authoritarian’s toolkit, they call “sharp power.” By contrast, analysts at the German Marshall Fund begin their inquiry with the sector: which professions have enabled authoritarian governments to undermine democracies and enrich themselves? From accountants and art dealers to lawyers and luxury car sellers, they find fault with ten sectors that permit kleptocrats to plunder their own countries. The result, “malign finance,” is especially corrosive to democratic institutions. In these ways, authoritarianism is prompting commentators to question what it means to exercise soft power.
Another trend is deepening internationalization. Organizational theorists Lawrence Welch and Reijo Luostarinen define it as the process by which firms increase their involvement in international operations. In practice, this reflects the interplay between national firms as they expand their geographic presence and national sectors as they entertain greater activity from abroad. The result—a constellation of internationalized firms and sectors crisscrossing borders—offers states useful vehicles for augmenting and projecting power. For one, states can create and coopt internationalized firms, exploiting their freedom of movement to exert influence in foreign spaces. Journalist Moises Naim notes this pattern in the growth of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) sponsored by repressive regimes, including North Korea, Myanmar, and Kyrgyzstan. Alternatively, states can buy their way into internationalized sectors, leveraging those sectors’ weak internal controls and high visibility to amplify their own power. Political scientist Alexander Cooley and his colleagues track this behavior in higher education, where in recent years U.S. and British universities have laundered the reputations of their Emirati and Qatari donors. This behavior extends beyond higher education, too: in sectors as diverse as healthcare, energy, and telecommunications, cross-border activity has accelerated. Internationalization, as such, serves as a force-multiplier, recasting what it means to be small.
By this yardstick, Qatar seems less of a soft power puncher. First, international perceptions of Qatar lag behind what one might expect from an ideational influencer. Qatar appears in no edition of the Soft Power 30, an index that scores countries based on their ideational capabilities and global favorability. Nor has its position really risen in U.S. News & World Report’s Best Countries ranking, despite its ever-growing portfolio of ideational capabilities. Second, the character of Qatari politics has long been authoritarian. Since independence, the country has been ruled as an absolute monarchy, and its public, particularly non-citizens, lay claim to few civil liberties. As a result, the media are subject to censorship, civil society activists and whistleblowers are detained or disappeared, and labor migrants face exploitative working and living conditions. This may explain the country’s depressed rankings in the above indexes, which account for factors like distribution of political power and respect for human rights. Third, a growing body of evidence indicates that Qatar’s actions abroad have sowed, to varying degrees, disruption. The final section of this paper offers sports-related examples to this effect, but evidence abounds in other sectors like banking, where Qatar’s 2008 purchase of a stake in the multinational firm Barclays sparked multiple years-long investigations by British authorities. Under closer inspection, then, Qatar appears more of a sharp power partisan.
Qatar’s Sports Investments
As footballers from 32 countries take the pitch this winter, they will see banners bearing the logos of Germany’s Adidas, China’s Wanda, and South Korea’s Hyundai, flanking cameras and mics broadcasting their every move to the mobiles and desktops, tubes and radios, of spectators in 219 territories. These features are not unique to World Cups. Football’s cross-border qualities are evident in its high visibility. The sport’s worldwide valuation stands at over $100 billion, with its top competitions drawing billions of viewers and its biggest brands ranking among the world’s most valuable sports teams. These qualities are also evident in football’s low barriers to entry. The sport is governed by a panoply of nested institutions—national associations, regional confederations, and FIFA—that contribute to the sport’s weak internal controls and fragile cash flows. Football, in other words, is highly internationalized. As a result, more outsiders—from sports ventures and alternative investors to industrial companies and sovereign wealth funds—are clamoring for a stake. This section lays out what those stakes are and how Qatar is leveraging them.
According to political scientist John Mearsheimer, states exercise power to assure their own security. Qatar’s security objectives—preserving its peninsula and politics—have long been shaped by the competing claims of its more powerful neighbors. Beginning in the 1970s, Qatar supported Saudi Arabia’s claim to regional hegemony, taking its policy cues from the kingdom in return for the assurances offered by the Saudi security umbrella. That changed in the early 1990s with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and a series of Saudi-Qatari border skirmishes that erupted in violence. In the aftermath, Qatar no longer wished to submit its political autonomy to Saudi designs, nor could it credibly rely on Saudi strength to safeguard its territorial integrity. Following a bloodless coup that brought the deposed emir’s son to power, Qatar began fashioning a new foreign policy premised on creating tangible interdependencies with powerful actors to make them stakeholders in Qatar’s security.
But to do that, Qatar would first need to escape its relative anonymity in international politics—it would need, in other words, a rebrand. Writing on public diplomacy, branding expert Peter van Ham asks, “Why would we invest in or visit a country we do not know, and why would we pay attention to its political and strategic demands if we have no clue what the country is all about and why we should care?” While the 1995 coup did not result in a branding strategy, it did set in motion a number of measures meant to position Qatar to outside audiences as modern, business-savvy, and Western-friendly. Some of these measures were directed inwardly. Among them was the introduction of municipal elections, the drafting of a permanent constitution, and the emergence of new political and economic opportunities for women. Other measures were aimed outwardly. These included the launch of Al Jazeera and Education City, as well as Qatar’s growing role in regional mediation. From political liberalization to global engagement, Qatar charted a path that, in van Ham’s words, was meant to help it “stand out from the crowd and capture significant mind share.” It says a lot about Qatar’s place in the crowd that the United States later made Al Udeid Air Base its regional headquarters, in effect replacing Saudi Arabia as Qatar’s security guarantor.
Sports, too, have played an important role in Qatar’s rebrand. In 2008, the government released Qatar National Vision 2030, a strategy document that lays out its development goals—chief among them, “international cooperation” and “economic diversification.” These goals were made concrete in two subsequent National Development Strategies, the second of which, released in 2018, states that the country will leverage its “memberships in international organizations” and its growing “partnership with the private sector” to guide future investment decisions. Tellingly, the government also published strategies specific to its sports sector, with the 2011 edition outlining the country’s plans for becoming a “global sports hub” and, along the way, forging friendships and improving relationships worldwide. Put differently, sports present Qatar with opportunities to enhance its brand and, through the internationalization of football, to secure new interdependencies.
Qatar is not the only state to take up sports as an instrument of national policy. In fact, the closest comparisons may well be those in Qatar’s backyard. Bahrain hosts Formula One races belonging to the sport’s top-tier international circuit; Saudi Arabia sponsors the new LIV Golf tour, rival to North America’s PGA Tour, through its sovereign wealth fund; and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) owns eleven foreign football teams, including England’s Manchester City, via a private equity firm linked to the country’s ruling family. States beyond the Middle East harbor sporting ambitions, too. Among them are Japan, whose 2011 law prioritizing sports as a promotional tool has since brought a Rugby World Cup and a Summer Olympics to its shores, and Australia, whose 2015 strategy championing sports diplomacy has factored into the country’s efforts to counter China’s Belt and Road investments in the Indo-Pacific region. These examples illustrate the range of states—small and large, autocratic and democratic, emerging and postindustrial—leveraging sports to achieve their objectives.
Still, the Qatari case stands apart from, and a cut above, these examples in two respects. First, authoritarianism affords Qatar’s state institutions greater control over its non-state elements, evidenced by the country’s cache of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and government-organized nongovernmental organizations (GONGOs). Consequently, Qatar’s autocratic regime has more tools for guiding the country’s sporting ambitions than do democratic regimes—in Japan and Australia—with independent civil societies. Second, internationalization presents Qatar’s SOEs and GONGOs with myriad opportunities to take part in the sports value chain, the business activities required to deliver sports to consumers. From hosting and broadcasting sporting events to sponsoring and owning sporting properties, Qatari institutions are active across the value chain, while their autocratic counterparts in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are not. As such, this paper makes no causal claims about Qatar’s smallness. Quite the contrary, it argues that such debates distract from the ways in which authoritarianism and internationalization have augmented the city-state’s influence abroad. And in global sports, as the following analysis shows, that influence is considerable.
One way for states to participate in international sports is by hosting competitive events. For states, hosting is a familiar part of the sports value chain. After all, they have been hosting complex competitions like the Olympic Games since the late nineteenth century and continue to show interest in hosting such events, despite their escalating costs. The reasons for this interest are wide-ranging; critically, though, hosting affords states the opportunity to leverage the tourism generated by spectator sports to spur economic development and demonstrate technical competence, engage new audiences and trumpet past accomplishments.
Sporting events can take a number of forms based on their scale, duration, and frequency, so it is worth defining three common types. “Hallmark events” are stationary, periodic activities that are so closely identified with the spirit or ethos of a place that they become synonymous with it. Tennis’s Wimbledon and cycling’s Tour de France are well-known examples. “Major events” are ambulatory, periodic activities that, by their scale and media interest, are capable of attracting significant visitor numbers, media coverage, and economic benefits. Track and field’s World Athletics Championships and racing’s F1 Grand Prix are stand-outs. “Mega events” are ambulatory, periodic activities that are so large they affect whole economies and reverberate across global media. Generally, the FIFA World Cup and the Summer and Winter Olympics are the only events that qualify for this category. Event type is a key factor in the kinds of competitions states host and the kinds of states that become hosts.
Qatar’s experience in event hosting is considerable. Figure 2 offers a cumulative look at Qatar’s hosting record from 1976 to 2021, during which it organized at least 382 sporting events. Three observations merit discussion. First, over 60% of Qatar’s portfolio are hallmark events. Among them are the Qatar Open, a three-decade-old tennis tournament drawing the likes of Boris Becker and Roger Federer; the Qatar Masters, a quarter-centuryold European golf tournament featuring past winners Ernie Els and Sergio Garcia; and the Doha Diamond League, a twenty-year-old meet belonging to the world’s top-level track and field circuit. Meanwhile, just under 40% of Qatar’s events are major (e.g., 2006 Asian Games) and only later this year will the country host its first mega event, the 2022 World Cup. Second, these events cover over three-dozen different sports, with Qatar’s progress toward that figure a gradual one. During its first two decades, the city-state only hosted football and auto-racing competitions, its experience confined to the stadium and the racetrack. A decade later, Qatar added four more sports, including shooting and golf; the pitch and the track gave way to the range and the fairway. As of last year, its portfolio topped 39 sports, ranging from cycling and sailing to track and field and equestrian; its implements extended to animals and vehicles. Third, these sports are overseen by 40 governing bodies with varying geographical scopes. Twenty-five of these bodies are international: for example, World Athletics, FIM, and FIN preside over track and field, motorcycling, and aquatics, respectively, and account for over a third of Qatar’s total portfolio. The remainder are almost all regional, specific to the Asian, African, or European continents or to the Arab World. The two outliers are Italy and Turkey’s football federations, each having held knock-out tournaments in Qatar. In sum, Qatar’s record reflects the country’s breadth and depth in hosting across decades.
Figure 2: Number of Sporting Events Hosted (cumulative)
A few insights can be drawn from these observations. One is how Qatar uses sports to set its brand apart from its more volatile neighborhood. That a large portion of the country’s résumé features hallmark events—starstudded and decades-old—suggests that the Qataris may be using celebrity and longevity to reset outside perceptions and reassure visitors of the peninsula’s safety. Another insight is how Qatar employs sports to cultivate and convey its capacity for modernization. To feature 39 disciplines in four decades, the country’s administrators appear to have taken a gradual and considered approach to engaging new cultures, managing new venues, and mastering new rules—all useful in styling the country as business-savvy and Western-friendly. A final insight is how Qatar leverages sports to build relationships with influential actors. By securing major sporting events, Qatar’s national associations have spearheaded relationships with the international bodies governing football, basketball, volleyball, and cycling, and by staging hallmark sporting events, they may have formed even tighter interdependencies with the organizations overseeing global track and field and tennis.
Another way for states to engage in sports is by broadcasting competitive events. Broadcasting, like hosting, is familiar terrain for states, though only to a point. Worldwide, governments play some role in their local telecommunications sectors. In the Middle East, for example, sports management scholar Mahfoud Amara observes over a dozen satellite sports channels operating locally or regionally—all of them, actually or ostensibly, staterun. However, not so many states can boast a broadcasting presence that crosses continents, a different proposition altogether. Guy Golan, an expert in strategic communications, observes, “Ownership of global broadcasting networks takes the mediated public diplomacy concept to a new level as governments bypass gatekeepers ... and are able to directly influence the framing of their nation by the news media.” For states, the attractiveness of sports broadcasting hinges on mediatization—that is, the close links between sports and media and their corresponding ability to set agendas, frame issues, and prime publics.
Qatar’s involvement in sports broadcasting has its origins in Al Jazeera. Founded in the mid-1990s, Al Jazeera entered the sporting fray in November 2003 with the launch of Al Jazeera Sport. At the time, the Qatari government’s hand in the news channel’s rise was well-known: Qatar’s ruler had given it an initial loan of $137 million, extended indefinitely to cover subsequent losses. The sports channel grew with its November 2009 purchase of content from the Saudi-based ART Network—which owned regional rights to the FIFA World Cup—and its June 2011 purchase of a package of French football matches. It was under the latter deal, which first brought Al Jazeera Sport into the European market, that the media company established the beIN Sports brand. That brand expanded to North America, and then Asia, before subsuming all of Al Jazeera’s sports content and, in January 2014, spinning off into a stand-alone network called beIN Media Group. Whether beIN inherited Al Jazeera’s links to the Qatari government is unclear; international media outlets continue to refer to the offshoot as state-funded and state-owned. Regardless, beIN then launched sports channels in Australia and Turkey and, in March 2016, acquired the U.S. entertainment company Miramax.
Through beIN, Qatar has established a formidable presence in global sports broadcasting. Figure 3 maps its presence across 43 markets, differentiated by the regional divisions they belong to. Behind this map are over a decade’s worth of consequential licensing deals, anchored by football. In 2012, beIN reportedly paid France’s football federation over $315 million to air a segment of its top-flight football matches in the French market for four seasons. In 2018, it struck a deal with Italy’s football federation—said to be worth $500 million over three seasons—to beam its top-flight games to 36 markets on four continents. And just last year, it extended its rights to broadcast European football’s prized product, the Champions League, to households across the Middle East and North Africa in a three-year agreement worth $600 million. What is telling about these deals is the quality of content involved, the number of markets covered, and the sums of money spent. By securing premium products like the Champions League, beIN taps into a committed, even captive, audience; by broadcasting these products to dozens of markets, it increases its share of the global audience for them; and by paying nine-figure sums, it establishes a toehold in regions long dominated by other providers. These dynamics were on display in the summer of 2021, when beIN boasted 1 billion Arab World viewers for its broadcasts of Europe and South America’s quadrennial tournaments.
Figure 3: Number of Broadcast Markets Reached
BeIN’s moves carry geopolitical consequences, particularly in the way they position Qatar vis-à-vis its regional rivals. First, beIN’s very existence, much like Al Jazeera’s, boosts Qatar’s reputation as a regional stalwart of press freedoms. The broadcaster’s purported independence casts its state sponsor in a liberal light, one especially attractive to democratic societies. It is the murky connections between broadcaster and state, in fact, that lead communications scholar Tal Azran to characterize the Qatar model as a “new” and “highly potent” tool of public diplomacy. Second, beIN’s footprint enables it to crowd out the interests of its competitors. A yearslong piracy row between Qatar and Saudi Arabia twice spilled out onto the Italian pitch: in 2020, beIN blacked out an Italian league match in protest of its federation’s decision to play a knock-out tournament in Saudi Arabia, and then in 2021, it refused to bid on regional rights to the federation’s matches over the latter’s continued ties to the kingdom. BeIN’s footprint, it would appear, created enough interdependencies—financially and geographically—to frustrate the Italian federation’s plans.
Yet another route for states to enter the sports value chain is by sponsoring properties. Sporting properties are intangible assets, like tournaments or teams, that draw fans and money; sponsorship, therefore, commercializes their exploitable elements, like tournament titles or team kits. The resulting partnership advances the sponsor’s cause through promotion, in exchange for financial and/or in-kind payment. Sports sponsorship is, perhaps unsurprisngly, an underexplored domain for states. While nation-branding is widely accepted (e.g., the United Kingdom’s “Cool Britannia” campaign), state sponsorship can come off as more invasive when crossing sectors, industries, and even borders. But as athletes, teams, and leagues seek out new sources of revenue, including overseas, states are increasingly vying for the chance to become their commercial allies—that is, to link brands and graft reputations.
Sponsorships are among the most visible of Qatar’s sports investments. Figure 4 displays a selection of the country’s football sponsorships from 2009 to 2022, during which Qatari entities concluded at least 65 agreements with 28 foreign partners. Several findings are worth noting. First, SOEs account for nearly all of these agreements. Over three-quarters of these deals come from just three enterprises: Ooredoo, one of the world’s largest telecommunications companies; Qatar Airways, the country’s flag carrier; and QNB, a multinational commercial bank. The only state agency present is the Qatar Tourism Authority, a decade-old partner to Paris Saint-Germain. Second, the type and location of properties involved are wide-ranging. Qatari entities sponsor five of the world’s seven football confederations, including FIFA and UEFA; nine national leagues, five of them in South and Southeast Asia; and 12 club teams playing in countries as far-flung as Spain and Turkey, Argentina and Tunisia. The only region in which Qatar lacks some kind of sponsorship presence in football is Oceania, though it makes up for that in other sports like golf. Third, kit rights are the most soughtafter asset by Qatari sponsors. Over 40% of all sponsorships involve real estate on a team’s kits—mostly on the front, but sometimes on the sleeve and sparingly on the back. Available figures suggest kit sponsorships are not just popular—they are expensive: FC Barcelona’s kit fronts cost Qatari enterprises $276 million over six years; Bayern Munich’s kit sleeves $129 million over six years; and Paris Saint-Germain’s kit backs $133 million over five years. What began with a couple of splashy sponsorships in 2009 and 2010 has since evolved into a vast effort that, according to business professor Simon Chadwick and his colleagues, rivals the reach of Russia and China.
Figure 4: Selection of Sponsorship Deals Concluded
Beyond the basics, it is also worth noting the quirks that come with Qatari sponsorships. One is that most Qatari sponsors are interchangeable, given their connections to the state. As part of its FC Barcelona deal, Qatari authorities substituted the Qatar Foundation for Qatar Airways after two years and later did the same with Bayern Munich, replacing Hamad International Airport with Qatar Airways after one year. Another quirk is that sponsorship cost need not correlate with asset type. The Qatar Tourism Authority’s initial deal with Paris Saint-Germain cost the state agency $1.15 billion over five years, a staggering sum. Yet, the agreement, which ran a mere five pages long and was said to concern “nation branding,” did not obligate the Parisian club to stitch the Authority’s brand into its kits or attach its name to its stadium, only that it “recruit players . . . of the highest European level.” These quirks reflect the unique situation of state sponsors, their commercial efforts wrapped up in the broader image of their countries.
And indeed, image-making appears to be at the heart of Qatar’s sponsorship efforts, routed through a few paths. Sponsorship promotes the country’s national enterprises, in turn advancing its own industrial development. For example, with many of the deals it strikes, Qatar Airways issues a press release marking the partnership before lauding the sophistication of its fleet and the locations they service in the partner’s home country. The expected commerce generated by these partnerships supports Qatar’s National Vision, particularly the goal of economic diversification. Sponsorship also promotes the country’s financiers and diplomats, fast-tracking their access to foreign decision-makers. Among the benefits often accorded to sponsors are VIP facilities on the partner’s premises—informal spaces in which Qatari leaders can mingle with local decisionmakers. This sort of corporate hospitality helps make up for Qatar’s small diplomatic corps and limited on-the-ground resources. Finally, sponsorship promotes the country’s culture and values, corporealizing its heritage via its partners’ activities. Though not discussed here, Qatar’s vast footprint in equine sports is part confession, part projection—a way to reflect long-standing elements of Qatari culture through its commercial commitments. Football is following a similar path.
A final route for sports-interested states to participate in the sector is by owning properties. Where sponsorship permits the paying party to commercialize a property’s underlying assets, ownership enables it to exercise a property’s underlying rights. Steering strategy, picking personnel, fixing fees—these rights, among others, form the basis of corporate decisionmaking, granting the owner autonomy over the property’s uses. In recent decades, national sporting properties have become an attractive mark for foreign investors, including ones linked to foreign governments. State ownership, therefore, represents the latest and most ambitious frontier in international sports. States, through government-owned vehicles, are exercising control over foreign properties as wide-ranging as professional clubs, training academies, medical facilities, and think tanks. In doing so, they find themselves in the unprecedented position of setting and managing the organizational priorities of prominent sports brands, sophisticated sports infrastructure, and even transnational sports ecosystems.
Qatar’s ownership empire comprises three layers of sports properties ranging in scope from the local to the international. The first layer of properties spans seven football clubs, all but one based in Europe. The best known of these is Paris Saint-Germain, France’s most successful club and among Europe’s most valuable; it was taken over in 2012 by Qatar Sports Investments (QSI), a subsidiary of the country’s sovereign wealth fund, for $131 million. Perhaps the least known of these clubs is Málaga CF, a second-tier Spanish club; it was purchased in 2010 by Qatari businessman and royal Abdullah bin Nasser al Thani for $45 million. The remaining clubs trace their Qatari ties to the Aspire Academy, a government-owned sports institute; the Academy controls two clubs, Belgium’s KAS Eupen and Spain’s Cultural Leonesa, and has partnerships with three more in England, Austria, and India. The second layer of properties encompasses eleven sporting facilities, all housed in Doha’s state-owned Aspire Zone. This 250-hectare sports complex supports the country’s quest to become a “worldwide reference for sports excellence” through a trio of efforts: Aspire Academy, which scouts and trains amateur athletes; Aspetar, which provides orthopedic and sports medicine services; and Aspire Logistics, which manages sporting events and facilities. The third layer of properties features two international organizations, both headquartered in Doha. The International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS), a think-and-do tank launched in 2011, aims to help governments and sporting bodies enhance event security, improve governance standards, and counter match-fixing and betting-fraud. The organization, though styled as independent, has multiple links to the Qatari state. Meanwhile, the Anti-Doping Laboratory Qatar (ADLQ), a testing facility inaugurated in 2012, furnishes both analytical and educational services to national sports authorities across the Middle East. Located in the Aspire Zone, it is the region’s only accredited lab for such services. Taken together, these three layers reflect the breadth of properties under Qatari control.
This catalogue of clubs, facilities, and auxiliaries is but one part of the story—how they come together is another. One way to view them is as components of two distinct networks. The older and more sprawling of these networks is based in Doha and anchored by the Aspire Zone. Through the Aspire Academy’s Football Dreams program, Qatar can recruit promising talent to make up for its limited population: from 2007 to 2014, the program reportedly screened 3.5 million youth across Asia, Africa, and South America. Then, through the Academy’s collection of European football teams, Qatar can shuffle prospects across professional settings to grow their experience: several members of Qatar’s national team took this path prior to helping the city-state hoist the AFC Asian Cup in 2019. In these ways, Qatar’s Doha network contributes to the country’s international sporting success, a state priority. In Paris lies Qatar’s other network, this one anchored by Paris Saint-Germain. QSI’s buyout of the club helped harmonize Qatar’s burgeoning presence in the capital city. On the one hand, it complemented prior Qatari investments from sponsor QNB and broadcaster beIN; on the other hand, it set the stage for future investments from sponsors like the Qatar Tourism Authority and Ooredoo. According to Forbes, the club is now valued at $3.2 billion, far more than what QSI spent to acquire it. In these ways, Qatar’s Parisian network appears to have uncorked a new source of national income, another state priority.
With these networks come interdependencies that grant Qatari actors considerable autonomy in global sports. This autonomy is apparent financially. The football economy is, in many ways, fragmented, owing to the sport’s panoply of regulators and patchwork of rules. For Qatari stakeholders, though, the sector has become self-enriching: Qatari sponsors and broadcasters contribute funds to Qatari clubs, upgrading their talent; the clubs then use that talent to promote Qatari sponsors and broadcasters, boosting their bottom lines. Ownership, in other words, has enabled Qatar to bundle its disparate investments across football’s ecosystem. The Gulf state’s autonomy is also apparent normatively. In some cases, Qatar uses its properties to evade existing norms. Despite FIFA’s efforts to curb passport-for-play schemes, Qatar has leveraged the Aspire Academy to field national teams loaded with foreign-born—yet legally eligible—players. In other cases, Qatar uses its properties to spotlight emerging norms. Though sporting officials have increasingly prioritized anti-corruption initiatives, ICSS has used its partnerships with multiple UN bodies and INTERPOL to elevate an altogether different priority: countering violent extremism. Ownership, it seems, has equipped Qatar with the tools to shape not just sports’ hard infrastructure but, strikingly, its soft infrastructure, too.
For many in the football world, FIFA’s December decision to award Qatar a World Cup was seismic. They could hardly fathom what was to come. The following week, Spain’s FC Barcelona dispensed with a century-old tradition, okaying a nine-figure kit sponsorship with a Qatari foundation. Six months later, French football opened up its local viewing market, licensing a cut of its best matches to a Qatari broadcaster. And just a few months after that, Paris Saint-Germain, the only top-flight club in the French capital, switched owners, becoming the property of a Qatari venture. From these and other Qatari investments, a pattern emerges.
Part of this pattern lies in internationalization and the opportunities it affords Qatar as a small state. Hosting and broadcasting sporting events, sponsoring and owning sporting properties—these are the entry points by which states, with the right material capabilities, can purchase a seat at sports’ biggest tables and then, with the right ideational capabilities, build relationships to realize their interests. Qatar has leveraged the breadth of its football investments to forge connections with foreign celebrities and dignitaries, clubs and companies, broadcasters and governing bodies. These connections, in turn, have helped assure Qatar’s territorial integrity and political autonomy by surrounding it with what journalist James Dorsey calls “friends when in need.”
Part of this pattern, too, lies in the consequences that can befall those who do business with Qatari entities. A decade’s worth of leaked documents, headlined by the “FIFA Files,” “Football Leaks,” and the “Pandora Papers,” reveals instances of Qatari bribery and bid-rigging, corruption and kleptocracy, that prey on the weak standards and structures governing international sports. Though many news reports focus on Qatar’s controversial World Cup bid, others spotlight Qatari organizations like ICSS, which used law enforcement resources to spy on rival national sports officials, and the Aspire Academy, whose scouting program drew allegations of child trafficking. To be sure, these practices are not limited to Qatar or even autocratic countries. Still, journalistic exposés uncovering the above mirror legal probes that have upended international football. Years-long investigations by U.S. authorities have resulted in 28 indictments against football officials—including a dozen FIFA executives and a former head of state—for their role in taking bribes to steer lucrative marketing and broadcasting contracts. Similarly, Swiss investigations have taken aim at Sepp Blatter and Michael Platini, long-time FIFA leaders currently banned from the game, as well as Nasser al-Khelaifi, the Qatari head of both Paris Saint-Germain and beIN, in connection with off-book payments—the latter concerning World Cup broadcasting rights. In these examples and others, Qatar’s sports investments have been disruptive to those on the receiving end.
What this pattern points to is the emergence of sharp power in the world of sports—with Qatar at the helm. To begin, the capabilities propelling Qatar’s sporting tools are wide-ranging, spanning the breadth of the sector’s value chain. It is these investments, in fact, that make Qatar’s ownership networks in Doha and Paris so formidable. From there, the logic animating Qatar’s tools is manipulative, cultivating interdependencies that restrict their targets’ choices. Chadwick and his colleagues worry that tools like sports sponsorships are so lucrative that they create a “power-dependence relationship,” morphing the partner into an “ideological instrument” of the sponsor. Finally, the outcomes resulting from Qatar’s tools are often disruptive to autocratic rivals and democratic allies alike. It is unclear whether these outcomes are intentional or accidental, but as Qatar’s cachet has grown, so too has the pushback—evident in Gulf states’ years-long blockade of, and Western states’ ongoing investigations into, Qatar. Such pushback is hardly what one would expect in response to a foreign policy premised on soft power.
Some have tried to explain this dissonance by invoking “sportswashing,” a term leveled by critics when errant actors use sports to clean their public images. In that sense, sports are not unlike Western universities or think tanks—internationalized sites for reputation-laundering. But that styling is too narrow: it overlooks the autocratic actors possessing limited capabilities and the democratic ones wielding manipulative designs. Sportswashing, instead, should be applied to states whose sports investments show some facility with the value chain of hosting and broadcasting events and sponsoring and owning properties. It is here, after all, where the ground is increasingly ripe for even small states to disrupt international affairs.
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 Regan E. Doherty and Matt Smith, “ANALYSIS-PSG purchase to boost Qatar brand ahead of World Cup,” Reuters, June 6, 2011, https://www.reuters.com/article/soccer-qatar-psg/analysis-psg-purchase-toboost-qatar-brand-ahead-of-world-cup-idUKLDE75506V20110606.
 James Dorsey, “Qatar 2022: A Mixed Blessing,” Huffington Post, August 12, 2013, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/qatar-2022-a-mixed-blessi_b_3846940.
 Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert, The Ugly Game: The Corruption of FIFA and the Qatari Plot to Buy the World Cup (New York: Scribner, 2015); Remi Dupre, “Football Leaks: the overvalued contracts of the Qatari version of PSG,” Le Monde, November 2, 2018, https://www-lemonde-fr.translate.goog/football/article/2018/11/02/football-leaks-le-psg-aurait-use-d-un-dopage-financier-avec-l-aide-de-luefa_5378262_1616938.html?_x_tr_sl=fr&_x_tr_tl=en&_x_tr_hl=en&_x_tr_pto=sc; Sean McGoey and Will Fitzgibbon, “Pandora Papers reporting from the Middle East and North Africa,” International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, December 1, 2021, https://www.icij.org/investigations/pandora-papers/pandora-papers-reporting-from-the-middle-east-and-north-africa/.
 Rouget, Martiniere, and Schmidt, “How Qatar used an anti-corruption organisation”; Michael Henry, “The twists of Aspire, the factory for young African footballers in Qatar,” Mediapart, November 12, 2018, https://www.mediapart.fr/journal/international/121118/les-coups-tordus-d-aspire-l-usine-jeunes-footballeurs-africains-du-qatar.
 “A Hemisphere of Soccer Corruption,” The New York Times, December 18, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/05/27/sports/soccer/fifa-indictments.html.
 Graham Dunbar, “Sepp Blatter, Platini indicted for fraud in Switzerland,” AP News, November 2, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/soccer-sports-switzerland-fifa-sepp-blatter-883a052d92a1562720f064c7f206af84; Graham Dunbar, “Swiss prosecutors charge Al-Khaelaifi in FIFA bribery case,” AP News, February 20, 2020, https://apnews.com/article/c750e746bba8dd64453381c72681875b.
 Chadwick, Widdop, and Burton, “Soft Power Sports Sponsorship,” 17.
 Simon Chadwick, “Sport-washing, soft power and scrubbing the stains,” Asia and the Pacific Policy Society, August 24, 2020, https://www.policyforum.net/sport-washing-soft-power-and-scrubbing-the-stains/.
 Cooley, Prelec, Heathershaw, and Mayne, Paying for a World-class Affiliation; Eric Lipton, Brooke Williams, and Nicholas Confessore, “Foreign Powers Buy Influence at Think Tanks,” The New York Times, September 6, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/07/us/politics/foreign-powers-buy-influence-at-think-tanks.html.