The 22nd FIFA Men’s World Cup came to an end in Doha, Qatar on December 18 with one of the most thrilling finals in the nearly century-long history of the competition. Argentina defeated France 4-2 on penalties after the teams finished even at 2-2 in normal time and at 3-3 in extra time. Argentina’s Lionel Messi secured his place as one of the greatest soccer players of all time with a display that drew comparisons with Pelé’s World Cup performance in 1970 and Diego Maradona’s in 1986. And France’s Kylian Mbappé became only the second person in history to score a hat-trick (three goals) in a men’s World Cup final, yet still ended up on the losing side. The first World Cup in the Middle East established narratives—both on and off the field of play—that likely will resonate for years to come, and also provided a highly visual element to the notion of a broader rebalancing of global power in its various forms.
From the moment in 2010 that then FIFA President Sepp Blatter opened an envelope on a snowy December day in Zurich and declared that Qatar would host the 2022 World Cup, the tournament became politicized in ways—some fairly, others less so—that far exceeded those experienced by comparable hosts of global sporting competitions. This includes Russia, which was announced as the host of the 2018 FIFA World Cup on the same day, and China, which hosted the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Qatar was accused of using sports to boost its international reputation by “sport-washing”—a term that did not even exist in 2010—amid the glare of an international spotlight fixed firmly on issues such as working conditions for migrant workers constructing the stadiums and related infrastructure, as well as on LGBTQ and other marginalized communities.
Rather than focus on the cacophony of narratives that emerged during the tournament, which included largely negative coverage by some British and Northern European media that veered at times into orientalist—and even worse—territory, it is important to place Qatar’s World Cup in a regional and international perspective. What impact did the country’s hosting of a successful tournament, from both a logistical and a sporting angle, have on Qatar’s image, reputation, and influence? Did Qatar get what it wanted out of the World Cup by securing soft power advantages, or was there a variation between responses in the Global North and South? Has the regional dimension of the World Cup, along with expressions of pan-Gulf (and pan-Arab) solidarity, been enough to definitively turn the page on the decade of regional rivalry that marked the long buildup to the event?
A Long Quest for Recognition
In recent decades, sports have emerged alongside diplomacy, mediation, the news outlet Al Jazeera, and educational initiatives as key pillars of Qatar’s efforts to present itself to the world and shape its own narrative. Qatar’s use of sports as a tool for development and, later, branding, began decades before its bid for the 2022 World Cup. Even before his ascendance to the throne in 1995, former ruler Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani had a penchant for the sport and wanted to make Qatar a specialized hub for athletics. Qatar also bid for and hosted sporting events, beginning at the regional level with the Arabian Gulf Cup in 1976, 1992, and 2004, and the AFC Asian Cup in 1988, before moving onto the global stage by hosting the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 1995 and the Asian Games—the world’s second largest multi-sport event after the Olympic Games—in 2006.
Qatar launched its bid for the 2022 World Cup back in 2009, at a time when the state and its leadership was becoming a far more active and assertive participant in international affairs.
Qatar launched its bid for the 2022 World Cup back in 2009, at a time when the state and its leadership was crafting a reputation as a “nonstop mediator” in regional flashpoints such as Lebanon, Yemen, and Sudan, and was also becoming a far more active and assertive participant in international affairs. In the 2000s, Qatar held the rotating leadership of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (2000–2003) and the Group of 77+China at the United Nations (2004), as well as a two-year seat on the UN Security Council (2006–2007). Domestically, the creation of the Qatar Investment Authority in 2005 and the rapid expansion of Qatar Airways into a global connector capable of linking almost any two points in the world with a stop in Doha introduced two of the most visible manifestations of Qatar’s rising international profile. The pace and scale of the country’s development was fueled, quite literally, by policy decisions taken in the late 1980s and early 1990s to develop Qatar’s enormous reserves of natural gas. Qatar exported its first cargo of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) in 1997, became the world’s largest exporter of LNG in 2006, and reached a milestone production target in December 2010, two weeks after it secured the 2022 World Cup hosting rights.
Initial Criticism Not Borne Out by Reality
A quirk of FIFA’s decision to announce the host for two World Cups (2018 and 2022) in 2010 meant that Qatar’s hosting cycle lasted an unusually long 12 years, rather than the six or seven more commonly granted to hosts of other World Cups or the Olympic Games. During that time, Qatar remained fixed in the crosshairs of a deeply skeptical British and European media over allegations of corruption in the bidding process, the country’s treatment of migrant workers, its stance on LGBTQ rights, and the availability of alcohol at matches. The intensity of the coverage of some of the undersides of Qatar’s rise to global prominence, as well as the publicity given to spurious estimates that 6,500 migrant workers had died since Qatar’s winning bid, arguably did the country’s image more harm than good in Britain, Scandinavia, and other parts of Northern Europe. The media focus was so relentless that Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani stated in October that Qatar had faced “an unprecedented campaign [of criticism] that no host country has ever faced.” And after the tournament ended, a senior sportswriter for the UK’s Sunday Times claimed that “‘good news stories about the World Cup weren’t wanted” in at least one rival newspaper.
While the crescendo of criticism may have seemed deafening in the run-up to the tournament, once the World Cup began on November 20 it quickly became apparent that such negativity was not universally shared, and that opinions in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, as well as across the Arab world, responded very favorably to an event that was seen to be inclusive of and accessible to fans from the Global South. As World Cup organizers doubtless anticipated, the sight of soccer fans from around the world mingling in Doha contributed to an atmosphere that was as festive as it was vibrant, with fans from Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Argentina, and Mexico arriving in the tens of thousands. That this was possible was due to the compact nature of Qatar’s World Cup, with all of the stadiums located in and around one city. And the smooth functioning of tournament logistics was another riposte to naysayers’ concerns before the tournament.
Morocco’s stunning run to the semifinals, during which it eliminated European powerhouses Belgium, Spain, and Portugal and became the first nation from Africa to reach the final four, captivated global attention and provided an opportunity for the Arab world to come together in support of the Atlas Lions, just as they had done earlier for Saudi Arabia after the Green Falcons’ extraordinary opening-game victory against eventual champions Argentina. In both cases, and throughout the World Cup, displays of public support for Palestine and the Palestinian cause provided a constant and highly visible backdrop to the tournament, as well as a sharp rebuke to advocates of political normalization between Israel and Arab states. Soccer fans from across the Arab world made it clear that Palestine retains a mobilizing appeal like no other, one that is capable of rallying the region. The symbolism of Morocco’s players and fans waving Palestinian flags on the pitch and in the stadiums is unlikely to have been lost on the signatories to the 2020 Abraham Accords, which include Morocco, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Sudan.
Soccer fans from across the Arab world made it clear that Palestine retains a mobilizing appeal like no other, one that is capable of rallying the region.
Displays of regionwide solidarity also extended to Qatar in the face of the barrage of (almost exclusively western) criticism during the tournament. The fact that some of the loudest calls for boycotting the World Cup came from media and soccer groups in countries whose political leaders were simultaneously courting their Gulf counterparts for energy deals in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine added to a sense of hypocrisy that did not sit well with an increasingly confident and assertive Gulf mood. This situation even included states and officials that had been among the most critical of Qatar during the 43-month-long blockade initiated by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt in June 2017 and lifted only in January 2021. Anwar Gargash, the senior diplomatic advisor to UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, may not have referred specifically to the World Cup in a speech he gave in December 2022, but he did criticize unnamed states for burdening geopolitical ties with “moralistic baggage and other interests.”
A Return of Gulf Solidarity?
Expressions of solidarity by citizens across the Gulf Arab states increased in volume during the tournament as Qatar’s successful hosting of the biggest global event ever to take place in the region became a source of considerable pride. For the tens, if not hundreds of thousands of citizens and residents of other Gulf states who spent time in Doha during the World Cup, the event provided the first real opportunity for people-to-people interaction since the deep rift within the GCC finally came to an end. This was significant since one of the defining characteristics of the blockade, which set it apart from previous intra-Gulf political disputes, was its direct impact on individuals and communities who were cut off from extended familial and other networks by border closures and vituperative media and social media campaigns. The sight of Saudis, Emiratis, and Bahrainis sharing in the festive atmosphere in Doha could provide an element of “closure” to the blockade era, symbolized perhaps by the sight of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wearing a Qatari scarf at the opening game and by Qatar’s emir waving a Saudi flag.
The World Cup put an end to the decade of regional rivalries that began within weeks of Qatar being awarded the tournament.
Whether the “khaleeji spirit” will endure and contribute to a reinvigorated GCC remains to be seen. A preference for bilateral rather than regionwide statecraft is deeply embedded in policymaking decisions, not only across the Gulf but also among international partners, as seen in the plethora of separate visits to regional capitals made by European and other leaders since the Russia-Ukraine war began. At the very least, the World Cup put an end to the decade of regional rivalries that began within weeks of Qatar being awarded the tournament in 2010 and that encompassed major political disputes in 2013–14 and again in 2017. Given that the regional impact of the Arab Spring and the first and second iterations of the Gulf crisis formed a near-constant geopolitical backdrop to Qatar’s period as host-in-waiting, the delivery of a tournament that was genuinely an event “for the Middle East” was no small achievement.
What Comes Next?
What, then, does the conclusion of a mega-event that dominated policy bandwidth for years mean for Qatar moving forward? The World Cup acted as a spur for the completion of infrastructure projects that have transformed Doha, and attention is now turning to a two-phased expansion of gas production in the country’s North Field, which Qatar hopes will increase liquefaction capacity by a further 64 percent by 2027. Most of the new production is set to come online in 2025 and will ensure that Qatar retains its role as a long-term global energy and energy security partner. The challenge for policymakers in Doha may instead lie in utilizing all of the country’s new infrastructure with a steady pipeline of events that provide continued demand for the facilities built for the World Cup, and in thereby avoiding the pitfalls of the “white elephant” projects that have dogged hosts of previous mega-events, such as those that plagued Greece after the 2004 Olympics or Brazil after the 2014 World Cup.
Above all, the 2022 World Cup highlighted the shifting contours of a global order that, for all the Scandinavian and German hand-wringing during the tournament, is less centered on “the West” than it has been at any point since the emergence of the postwar international architecture in 1945. The process of geopolitical rebalancing has been underway for more than a decade; but given the Gulf Arab states’ pivotal role in energy and geopolitics—and increasingly in soccer and sports more broadly—2022 may eventually be seen as the year that confirmed their centrality to the global order that is currently taking shape.