Qatar’s West Asian Moment: The Geopolitics of the World Cup
- Qatar’s cunning management of the FIFA 2022 World Cup demonstrates its rapid state-building efforts, now at a developmental juncture that allows it to execute large-scale policies in efforts that carry forward its national goals and interests. This exponential political maturation of the Qatari state is one the most significant patterns undergirding the 2022 World Cup, showcasing the young country’s global ambitions, its expanding breadth for maneuver, as well as its rapidly increasing regional clout.
- Western discomfort with Doha hosting the World Cup is as much related to the emergence of new geopolitical actors outside of the traditional post-1945 global architecture as it is with ethical concerns over labor and minority rights. Despite sensational media controversies and moral platitudes in the West, labor exploitation and its beneficiaries are not uniquely Qatari, as attested by FIFA’s record $7.5 billion in commercial revenue at the close of the World Cup.
- Ruling elites in Gulf Arab states have become increasingly agitated by Western criticism of their human rights record, leading them to push back more forcefully against Western virtue signaling, whether by threatening to render future energy cooperation with individual EU member states more difficult, or by hinting at their willingness to accept Yuan-priced energy contracts in the future. Their main intent, however, is to intervene tactically into moral debates in Western civil society to demonstrate more publicly the strategic extent to which Gulf states have long been allied to Western interests.
- Gulf frustration with Western moral posturing has also fed into popular reservoirs of regional humiliation and national pride, potentially harboring significant geopolitical implications. An Asian pivot may already be imagined, if not anticipated, at the level of Gulf societies.
The FIFA 2022 World Cup has put Qatar on the map, making it the first Middle Eastern country and smallest nation ever to host the tournament. However, along with the spotlight of winning the rights to organize one of the world’s largest sporting events, also came global scrutiny. Doha was especially criticized for its dire human rights record, not least in relation to its abusive treatment of migrant workers and its discriminatory stance on LGBTQ+ rights.
As others have pointed out, Doha cannot dismiss this criticism out of hand. In fact, the scrutiny of such organizations as Human Rights Watch suggests that despite noteworthy labor policy reforms in Qatar over the past few years, in practice, a considerable degree of labor exploitation persists in grunt sectors of the economy, especially in construction work. In late 2022, the UN’s International Labor Organization (ILO) even had to retract some of its earlier optimism, having announced loudly in 2019 the imminent “abolishment” of Qatar’s kafala system—infamously bonding blue-collar workers to their employers for indefinite periods of time through so-called “no-objection certificates.” Wage theft among low-wage migrant workers—especially by small to mid-size employers—is still reported, heat stress remains an issue in terms of outdoor working conditions, and laborers in Qatar still cannot exercise the fundamental human right of joining a trade union. The bottom line is that Doha’s vast financial resources do allow it to monitor and remedy the remainder of such manifestly fraught labor relations.
Qatar’s reputation suffered greatly following British media reports in February 2021, which claimed that “more than 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died in Qatar since it won the rights to host the World Cup,” thus implying that “an average of 12 migrant workers from these five south Asian nations have died each week since the night in December 2010 when the streets of Doha were filled with ecstatic crowds celebrating Qatar’s [World Cup bid] victory.” This coverage has led many civil society actors across Western Europe to set up “Boycott Qatar 2022” campaigns in the run up to the World Cup.
Figure 1: Boycott Qatar Sticker
Source: A German ’Boycott Qatar 2022’ sticker displayed in a Brussels parc in December 2022, close to the offices of the European Commission at Schuman Square, and right next to a colonial-era statue still commemorating impudently the “Belgian military heroism that rooted out the Arab slave traders.” Courtesy Jaafar Alloul.
While Qatar did not dispute the reported mortality rate, it did contend this total number to also include “white-collar workers [from those countries] who have died naturally after living in Qatar for many years,” adding that “all citizens and foreign nationals have access to free first-class healthcare.” This brings us to a key point of contention: while Western narratives often portray all workers from the so-called Global South in Qatar as confined to blue-collar professions they often ignore the fact that the very heartbeat of Gulf cities has long been South Asian, even prior to the discovery of oil. Indeed, “migrants” in Qatar hail from a great variety of nationalities as well as class backgrounds, and (upper) middle-class South Asians and Arabs have long been co-managing many, if not most, of the country’s economic sectors. Admittedly, the sociological realities on the ground in Qatar are more complex than readily reported on in alarmist Western human rights discourses. Many non-Western migrants in Qatar live comfortable and privileged lives, and by dominating certain sectors of the fast-developing economy, they now occupy managerial power bases that harbor a degree of independence from the local Qatari demographic, whom—for now—remain in charge of the country’s formal political affairs.
While none of the specific criticisms about fundamental human rights concerns in Qatar are out of the ordinary when addressed in isolation, the magnitude of the moral outcry in Europe and North America signals that more is at stake here. In European states deeply disturbed by ongoing geopolitical transformations, the Qatar controversy seems also to have been instrumentalized for domestic political purposes.
As Qatar continues to crash the scene of Middle Eastern politics center stage—playing a key diplomatic, military, or financial role in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Gaza, Yemen, and Turkey over the past decade—the country’s rapid expansion is indicative of a wider trend in the region, a trend with distinct geopolitical implications. The wider Arab region is transforming radically, with former state hegemons like Iraq or Egypt continuing to disintegrate or stagnate, and where the traditional centers of scientific learning and intellectual productivity are now shifting gradually but steadily away from Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus, and Cairo to the newly expanding urban nodes of Doha, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh.
The West’s ‘Qatar Controversy’
In preparation for the World Cup, Qatar spent over $200 billion. By employing FIFA 2022 as a propeller for economic development, Qatar has possibly set up its industrial baseline and infrastructure for the coming century, much according to its Vision 2030 national strategy. Given the scale and intensity of the undertaking, however, some Western (sports) critics singled out the tiny Gulf state for expending such a vast carbon footprint. Others even equated Qatar’s World Cup in and of itself to a “climate catastrophe.” Yet when Qatar had earlier announced it would engage in targeted measures towards carbon neutrality—for instance, by pre-designing some of its stadiums as dismountable and ready to be donated and reassembled elsewhere after the tournament—this was immediately derided by European media as a deliberate feat of ecological “sportswashing,” or “greenwashing,” rather than a policy aimed at sustainable engineering. This moral line of reproach was only one of many directed at Doha.
Just prior to the World Cup, Qatar’s tourism ads for the tournament were banned in the United Kingdom by the London transportation authority, disallowing Qatar use of any of its commercial space on the capital city’s buses, taxis, and Tube. Doha denounced the move as yet “another blatant example of double standards,” and stated to be reviewing its massive portfolio of London investments. With lists readily appearing in European media to inform the general public of “everything wrong with the Qatar World Cup,” the moral outcry seemed particularly vehement indeed.
Arriving in Qatar myself for the World Cup in mid-November, the local sentiment in Doha was one of disbelief over the fact that the most strong-hearted liberal criticism emanated from Western countries otherwise deemed Qatar’s traditional allies, the United Kingdom chief among them. The Qataris and middle-class expats I spoke to on the ground all conveyed a sense of disproportionality in observing the unfolding controversy about “the weirdest World Cup in history.” They were equally astonished by the BBC’s decision to boycott entirely the World Cup’s opening ceremony, broadcasting instead a review of Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers, the country’s continued ban on homosexuality and its unwillingness to embrace LGBTQ+ rights, as well as the various corruption charges brought against FIFA in assigning the tournament to Qatar in the first place.
Allocating the FIFA 2022 World Cup to Qatar, a small Arab state in the Persian Gulf region with just under 300,000 citizens, has clearly stirred much controversy, so much so that the country’s ruler, Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, likened it to “an unprecedented campaign that no host country has ever faced.” To be sure, illiberal countries have long been a member of FIFA, and there is precedent even of rogue states hosting a World Cup, most notably Argentina in 1978 under the military junta, and Russia in 2018 after annexing Crimea. Qatar has a relatively young soccer culture indeed, but that is not the only criteria by which FIFA allocates hosting rights. To be clear, FIFA’s implication in corruption scandals is highly problematic, but hardly anything new. The organization made a record $7.5 billion in commercial revenues with the Qatar edition of the World Cup while still registered as a nongovernmental organization in Switzerland. The World Cup is a global enterprise, involving not only Qatari or Arab construction companies, but also European ones. This is precisely why a global human rights campaign has been set up under the banner #PayUpFIFA, urging the organizing body to share some of its profits with exploited workers through a remediation fund, a call endorsed by the French Football Federation. Clearly, labour abuses–and its beneficiaries–are not uniquely Qatari.
To a certain extent, then, Western discomfort with Doha seems as much related to ethical concerns over labor and minority rights as with the emergence of unexpected geopolitical actors in what appears to be an unfolding multipolar order.
Qatari Statecraft on Display
To Qatar’s credit, no major incidents took place over the monthlong tournament, paying testimony to the endless effort it put into organizing a mega-event in what remains a politically volatile region, as noted earlier in FIFA’s own risk assessments. After the first forty-eight matches were played, FIFA had already reported a record cumulative stadium attendance of 2.45 million spectators. Given these numbers, Qatar had to boost its security personnel by contracting additional forces from thirteen countries, chief among them 4,500 Pakistani army troops, and 3,000 Turkish riot police. The United Kingdom even sent over so-called “supporter engagement officers,” who would stand in between local law enforcement and England fans “to warn people if their behavior is likely to be interpreted as problematic, even if they are not breaking any law.” Peculiarities aside, the smooth management of tournament logistics proved many of the earlier concerns over Qatar’s organizational capacities overstated. Many Gulf commentators therefore took immense pride in Doha’s achievement of bringing the tournament to the Middle East, seeing it as a defiant testimony to the fact that “we in the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] are far more capable than being given credit for.”
Yet in the immediate run-up to the tournament, Qatar had clearly been anxious about managing its global image, seeking to avoid any further public relations backlash. The last thing Doha wanted, it seemed, was having to deal forcibly, in front of global cameras, with rowdy or intoxicated soccer fans; a specter they feared would only reinforce the many media caricatures about Qatar being a radically intolerant, hyper-conservative, and a near-total dystopia. Given that the FIFA men’s World Cup remains one of the most-watched sporting events on Earth, the stakes for Doha were very high indeed.
To that end, Qatar quietly undertook a series of (legally) ambiguous policy measures that would severely curb and filter the sort of fans allowed into the country: alcohol was suddenly banned at stadiums and most FIFA fan zones, while last-minute visa restrictions were put in place that would disallow most ticketless fans entry during the first stage of the tournament. These ad hoc policies, compounded with the high cost of stay in Doha, and the administrative hassle for European travelers otherwise accustomed to extraordinarily privileged mobility regimes globally, subsequently yielded the desired effect on the ground: auxiliary European fanbases were noticeably absent in Doha at the outset of the tournament.
That said, the absence of a soccer ambiance for Qatar 2022 in Europe—used to seeing the tournament held in summer—did not imply a lack of atmosphere in Doha. Attending several games in Qatar myself, it was clear that tens of thousands of fans from Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Morocco, Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico were particularly ecstatic in cheering their teams on. This was especially clear after Saudi Arabia’s stunning win over Argentina in the opening phase of the tournament, leading to an outpour of Arab solidarity on the streets of Doha. In a rather unique display of Arab cosmopolitanism and regional unity, one could suddenly witness fans from Tunisia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar fraternizing and partying together in public, chanting slogans of elation in Arabic. This dynamic may have been impossible were the tournament organized in Europe given its many entry restrictions for fans from the Middle East-North Africa region. As reported by others, the Qatar edition also drew in a lot of African middle-class attendees, who equally testified of a relatively easier visa access to Qatar. What more, being on the ground in Qatar during the World Cup also showed how many of the global fans present in Doha had left much of the Western criticism aside; this tournament, many insisted, was not intended to be for Europe in the first place.
Figure 2: Crowds in Qatar
Source: Fans celebrating in Doha’s Souq Waqif, using loud drums, and waving the Saudi, Tunisian, Moroccan and Palestinian flags in November 2022. Courtesy Jaafar Alloul.
Qatar’s cunning World Cup management demonstrates its rapid state-building efforts, now at a critical juncture, that showcases considerable depth, so much so that its bureaucracy is now able to conjure, administer, and execute a set of sophisticated, if not Machiavellian, policies on a very large scale in efforts that carry forward its national goals and interests. While this political development of the Qatari state is seldom reported on, it is arguably one the most significant patterns undergirding the 2022 World Cup, for it amplifies the country’s sturdy global ambitions, its expanding breadth for maneuver, as well as its rapidly increasing regional clout.
Doha, a Migrant City Turning Global
In trying to achieve global city status, Gulf cities are now aiming to emulate a Singapore-like model in terms of state-led economic development and industrial diversification. Each year, Gulf states send tens of thousands of their citizens overseas for advanced studies, chiefly to the United States and United Kingdom. Gulf policy makers are thinking very hard today about issues of sustainability, not out of moral concern only, but also because its potential impacts are immediately tied to their own political survival. Located in a wider region that is no stranger to war, foreign invasion, and protracted civil wars, a new generation of Gulf autocrats has now entered the scene, including Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim, the United Arab Emirates’ Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, who all share grand ambitions for the region at a time when the United States is perceived to be taking a step back from its involvement in the Middle East to focus on China and Russia. They are equally anxious to continue anticipating currents of political upheaval in the region that could prematurely end to their rule, enticing them, on the one hand, to preempt revolutionary change by piece-meal social reforms, and to usher in massive strides for economic development, on the other hand.
Key to turbo-development in the Gulf is migrant labor. Today, Qatar’s capital city Doha, as well as neighboring Dubai and Abu Dhabi, harbor some of the highest foreign resident-to-citizen ratios in the world, with the bulk of immigrants hailing from a handful of countries in South(east) Asia. This makes migration the ideal lens for studying the region’s transformation. Qatar’s distinct demographic make-up, however, has also engendered caricatures about who ‘really’ belongs, especially apparent in foreign media coverage during the World Cup. During the tournament, Western media singled out the appearance of “fake fans” in Qatar, said to be paid for by Doha to shore up and display a local fan culture and fill up otherwise empty stadiums. Moreover, British, Belgian, and German media reporting on these “Indian workers” allegedly disguised as Argentinian or Brazilian fans, highlighted how they were “discovered”—and even called out—by incoming European fans arriving in Qatar. What such Orientalist media reporting overlooks, however, is that Gulf cities like Doha are today home to an expanding Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Arab (lower and upper) middle-class—one which does hold the spending power to take part in World Cup celebrations. Moreover, this style of coverage overlooks the decades-old Indian love for soccer, especially in Kerala—long a key Indian state in sourcing migrants to the Gulf—where fans have traditionally been drawn to cheer for major South American teams in the absence of India’s ability to qualify for the tournament.
Already anticipating a “post-oil” future today, albeit to a varying degree, Gulf states are set to remain heavily dependent on these foreign-born populations, with many white and blue-collar migrant workers likely there to stay for decades to come. In fact, however temporary some of these (South Asian) resident populations may be treated by Gulf governments—or portrayed by outside media coverage—they, as well as their second and third-generation offspring, now effectively make up for the Gulf’s working-class and (future) human capital base. Here, again, Qatar’s South Asian population, well-entrenched in all layers of society, will continue to prove an asset for Doha rather than a liability, as it is often portrayed in the West.
Doha’s urban transformation has been jaw dropping. During the recent World Cup, the big politics of the small state of Qatar have thus literally been on display for the world to see. Contrary to popular belief in Europe, however, Doha’s stellar rise has consistently occurred in close tactical liaison with its Western allies, whose overarching financial and security architectures Qatar continues to strategically operate in.
The Impediments to EU Energy Security
Western indignation about the Qatar World Cup has equally morphed into a tool for internal political intrigue in European states deeply disturbed by ongoing geopolitical transformations. For instance, when the German interior minister, Nancy Faeser, hinted in October 2022 that “it would be better” in the future were the World Cup tournament “not awarded to such states” as Qatar, she was quick to retract her comments—largely intended for domestic audiences—by claiming they were “misinterpreted”—when reported on globally—as she grew aware that her provincial electoral politics may have geopolitical implications for the desperate efforts of German capital to secure Qatar’s help in massively shoring up industrial LNG deliveries in the short to medium term. The fact is that even prior to the Russia-Ukraine war, Qatar already supplied nearly a quarter of the EU’s overall LNG imports. This newly emerging European energy dependence on Gulf Arab states—exacerbated further by the September 2022 sabotage attacks on the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea—clearly needs more time to sink in. In the meantime, the emergence of a protracted war in Europe is making Qatar and the other Gulf states even richer.
What this inevitably demonstrates is that while Europe’s historical disposition leads it to occupy a moral high ground by default, it is increasingly finding it hard to get away with it unscathed. In fact, amid a growing multi-polarity globally, and a shrinking relative economic footprint of its own, this self-centered moral snobbery not only sounds but increasingly feels very anachronistic. More so, aiming to project its human rights discourses as an integral vehicle of foreign policy onto Russia and the Gulf states at the very same time—two of its key energy suppliers—Europe is fast burning its bridges for cordial diplomacy and realpolitik.
The stakes for Europe in the current scramble for energy are high. Not only has 2022 seen European heads of state working overtime behind the scenes to quietly divert home (Gulf) energy volumes on the global market that were actually slated for delivery to poorer states in the Global South, the European Union faces increasing competition from the US under the guise of a newly instated Inflation Reduction Act. The importance of these developments could all be observed empirically on-the-ground in Doha, playing out in real-time during the World Cup tournament.
Robert Habeck, Germany’s economy minister, for instance, went on record in November 2022 to argue that manifest corruption was the only explanation for Qatar winning the bid to host the World Cup. Following a joint US-Swiss investigation that led to the prosecution of several high-ranking FIFA officials, we have for some time now known that there is weight to such claims. That said, it seems that a reprimand of corrupt FIFA officials—mostly Western nationals based in Europe—was not Habeck’s main intent. Interestingly, in an unexpected twist of events closely following Habeck’s statements, other reports suddenly emerged that Qatar may also be implicated in a “cash-for-favors scheme” with senior officials of the European Parliament. The severity of the matter resided in allegations of unprecedented bribery and was further highlighted by the immediate arrest by Belgian prosecutors of one of the EU Parliaments’ vice-presidents, Eva Kaili, now embroiled in a fully-fledged criminal investigation.
Doha expectedly denied any such claims, calling some of the diplomatic restrictions immediately imposed on Qatar “before the legal process has ended” discriminatory. European media outlets, quick to point towards a “Qatargate,” then turned to Habeck again, who was suddenly confronted with the fact that he might actually have to follow up on his earlier reproach of Qatar. Yet the German Minister’s changed his tone, radically shifting his moral stance, saying that whatever the investigative outcome, the issue at hand was not to be mixed up with gas purchases, which are “two different things.” This shows the extent to which Habeck’s earlier scolding of Qatar—much like his colleague heading the Interior Ministry—was intended for political consumption by domestic audiences at home rather than forming part of any consistent foreign policy. In fact, the analogy is remarkable here: while European media now speculate about Abu Dhabi’s (envious political) hand being involved in at least the timing of revelations about the alleged Qatari bribery—during the height of the World Cup spectacle—the bottom line is that anyone slightly familiar with how far the European Union Parliament has fallen behind “national parliaments [of member states] on transparency and anti-corruption rules” is pressed to confront the fact that the so-called ‘Qatargate’ graft scandal is as much about Qatar as it is about the questionable internal machinations of an underperforming European Union institution. At a time where Europe’s total lack of strategic autonomy is painfully exposed—its critical infrastructure under attack but its leaders silent—one cannot but ponder whether the ongoing Qatar sensation is part of a gross act of self-deception?
In his analysis of US foreign policy tendencies during the early Cold War period, George F. Kennan infamously cautioned the political class from resorting to electoral political discourse in world affairs, for when decoupled from any coherent strategy it obscures one’s own position and obfuscates the limits of one’s power. He repeatedly warned aspiring global hegemons about the self-defeating lure of overextending power projections, especially when formatted along a domineering zeal that is bereft of diplomatic restraint or informed tact; a process he likened to abruptly “tearing the plants up by the roots when they fail to behave as we wish them to.” Today Kennan’s cautioning chimes with Europe, where major political figures seem caught up, ever more passionately, in the parochial myth of Europe’s supposedly preordained centrality in global affairs. Notably, this political development in Europe does not only hold dialectic resonance on the level of bilateral relations with Gulf states, but equally so within Gulf society.
Still grappling with their colonial legacy and fraught national histories, European states like Britain and Germany have tacitly sought to reinstate respectable forms of nationalism to face off popular anxieties about a relative decline. The FIFA World Cup offered a productive moment for showcasing very selectively a set of well-choreographed but ad hoc European solidarities with the Global South, which allowed for “subcontracting moral guilt” onto Qatar, deprecating thereby Doha’s spectacular rise in sports diplomacy and global energy affairs. This has visibly irked regular Qataris celebrating the World Cup, and also prompted Arab commentators to expose the double standards undergirding Europe’s freedom rhetoric. Substituting a historical sense of racial superiority with a newfound moral superiority may sit well with domestic audiences on the European continent, but Western politicians have critically misjudged their ramifications on Gulf politics and the Arab street, much less tolerant today for unwarranted rehearsals of neocolonial grandeur.
Qatar, Pivoting East?
In recent years, ruling elites in the Gulf have become irritated by the relentless moral signposting of their Western counterparts, most visibly in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. This has led them to push back more forcefully, whether by threatening to make future energy cooperation with individual EU member states more difficult, or by hinting at their willingness to accept Yuan-priced energy contracts in the near future, a move that could destabilize the US dollar’s position as the global reserve currency. While this political posturing in the Gulf has not received much media attention, its implications are vast. Indeed, ever since US President Nixon decoupled the US dollar from the gold standard in 1971, US currency has been shored up by a Petrodollar guarantee, a recycling system based on the acquiescent pledge of key Arab oil producing states to price and sell their oil chiefly in US dollar. The continuation of this alliance—or allegiance—is a key pillar of US global financial architecture. While these Gulf diplomatic maneuvers are still deployed with a sophisticated dose of plausible deniability, their main intent, thus far, has been to demonstrate the extent to which Gulf states have traditionally been allied to Western interests. This form of messaging, intended for mindful observers across Western civil society, aims to signal that they—the allegedly ‘backward’ sheiks, emirs, and kings of Arabia—have long been compliant politically, if not a critical to continued wealth creation in the West.
Scholars have indeed highlighted the strategic global process by which Gulf Cooperation Council states consistently recycle large amounts of their financial resources back into Western economies, whether it be via major weapons purchases, extractive privileges to major Western oil firms and their offshoots in the Arabian Peninsula, or in the form of Gulf foreign direct investments in Western bonds, stock markets, company shares, real-estate, and as of late both ailing and top-tier British soccer clubs.
For instance, Qatar alone is reported to be “the 10th largest landowner in the UK,” measured only by its public sovereign wealth fund investments, not including the many personal holdings of Qatari royalty. Doha’s close relationship with its Western counterparts equally extends into the military domain, with Qatar hosting the US Central Command at the Al Udeid Air Base, which houses one of the largest known US Air Force contingencies outside of US territory. This base was critical in the forward command-and-control positioning of Anglo-American personnel during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Ever since, Al Udeid continues to function as a key expeditionary node in US military’s “over-the-horizon” force deployments, which remains principally air and naval based. The role played by Qatar in this respect marks its territory out as a potential target in any Western standoff with neighboring Iran, a fact seldom mentioned in Western media coverage on Qatar.
In the security domain, Qatar seems to have taken its role very seriously indeed, even to the extent of pro-actively setting a new bar in terms of Western-Arab military collaboration. In 2011, for instance, Qatar was the first-ever Arab country to join a NATO-led coalition intervening militarily in a fellow member state of the Arab League, namely Libya. Acting under the UN Security Council Resolution 1973, and together with key NATO allies, the Qatari Air Force co-enforced a non-fly zone over the North African state. When Islamist rebel groups, supported financially and military by Qatari special forces on the ground, then raised the Qatari flag over Muammar Gaddafi’s former Bab Al Aziziya’s palace, eyebrows were raised even in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, not because of Doha’s role as a Western force multiplier, but rather for its preference to see Muslim Brotherhood aligned groups take up power in the aftermath of regime change. Doha’s growing importance to US foreign policy was highlighted in March 2022 when the White House officially designated Qatar with the status of “Major Non-NATO Ally.”
Autocracies in the Gulf, still firmly allied to Western interests, are increasingly enticed to jointly push back against what they see are double moral standards, overtly leveled against them to primarily serve the domestic logics of political intrigue in the West. During the World Cup, this ostensible irritation of Gulf governments with Western ideological hegemony has also fed into popular reservoirs of national humiliation and pride, potentially harboring significant geopolitical implications. When I attended the Germany-Japan match at an open-air fan zone in Doha in November 2022, suddenly, a new political sentiment exploded into the open with Japan’s stellar win over Germany. To some surprise, I witnessed many of my Iraqi, Egyptian, Palestinian, and Syrian co-spectators loudly chant “Asia, Asia! Asia, Asia!”, in a distinctly Arab tongue. This popular outburst seemed to derive not merely from a tit-for-tat polemic vis-à-vis the German national team, whose players had earlier posed in front cameras with their mouths covered in defiance of FIFA’s ban to wear ‘One-Love’ armbands. Rather, the visceral nature of their apparent self-identification with a fellow Asian team made it clear that they emotionally and cognitively felt part of a shared cultural space, if not an emerging geopolitical region. These Middle Eastern professionals who had long made Doha their expatriate home—all hailing from fraught regional countries—seemed keen not only to embrace the Asian moment on screen, but equally acted as if they were part of it.
With Qatar and the Gulf states increasingly drawn into a concentric sphere of overlapping Eurasian economic integration processes, such cultural developments hold a formative ground. Sports is only one of the many institutions which now formally drive an intensifying exchange between Gulf Cooperation Council states and their eastern neighbors. Qatar not only participates in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup, but also became a first-time tournament winner in 2019 after beating Japan in the final game, hosted by the United Arab Emirates. Doha is now slated to organize the next Asian Cup tournament in 2023, becoming the first ‘Asian’ country to host three Asian Cups—following the 1988 and 2011 editions—thus showcasing its global ambition to project soft power both westward and eastward.
During the World Cup, Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia for the purpose of the Gulf-China Summit, where the Chinese president was seen praising his Qatari counterpart for organizing a successful tournament. Sitting at the commercial interface of continents (Europe, Africa, and Asia), Gulf Cooperation Council states appear to be slowly rebalancing along a new agenda of “strategic neutrality.” While this recalibration seems largely economic as of yet, Gulf states are increasingly joining Asia-based cultural institutions. In September 2022, Saudi Arabia and Qatar even secured “dialogue partner status” in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. These developments have prompted a use of the acronym ‘MEWA,’ for the Middle East and West Asia region in policy reporting—a region increasingly connected through (maritime) trade and migration corridors, and therefore gradually studied as a world region in social scientific literature. At minimum, these ideational flirtations portraying the Gulf region as West Asian rather than Middle Eastern only, articulate an expanding diplomatic agency and strategic consciousness coming out of the Gulf, which occurs in rapid pace with ardent state and nation building efforts on the ground.
Qatar’s World Cup management accentuated these trends in Gulf foreign policy, especially apparent during the tournament’s opening ceremony. While heads of state of major Western countries were markedly absent in the Al-Bayt soccer stadium—undoubtedly given the moral outcry at home—joining Sheikh Tamim on the dais instead were Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, among others. The line-up highlighted again the “untraditional” political geography of the 2022 World Cup edition, and equally validated an end to the Blockade of Qatar, enforced in 2017 by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, as recent as January 2021. In congregating el-Sisi and Erdogan for this unique occasion, Sheikh Tamim facilitated a first-ever face-to-face handshake between them, signaling his hopes for a broader rapprochement in a wider region he clearly holds dear. More such diplomatic moves of regional unity were choreographed by Doha, not least its many overtures towards Saudi Arabia, especially noticeable when Sheikh Tamim stood cheering on the Saudi team while draped in a Saudi flag—unimaginable only a few years ago. Then, on December 5, Qatar’s most vocal critic, Abu Dhabi’s Mohamed bin Zayed, even made a surprise visit to Doha—the first since 2017—in a sign of strengthening bilateral relations. The World Cup has not only allowed Doha to reclaim “its place in the GCC” but also engendered a resuscitation of pan-Gulf, pan-Arab, and West Asian political solidarities.
With the World Cup concluded, the small state of Qatar has not only proven that it is driven by big politics and global ambitions, but equally that it has developed the necessary bureaucratic infrastructure and statecraft to operate large-scale challenges in a fashion that still carry forward its national goals and state interests. Sensing the tournament on the ground also made clear how Doha is slowly positioning itself as diplomatic kingmaker in an emerging, West Asian, interstate complex—a system that caries increasing cultural resonance at the level of Gulf society. One major geopolitical trend thus becomes clear, despite its human rights record, Qatar will be courted increasingly by both East and West, and its future moves will therefore be studied closely.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.