World Cup in Qatar Caps Big Gulf Push Into International Sports

For most of Mariam al-Anezi’s life, it felt as if no one knew where Qatar was. She would tell people she came from a place next to Dubai, the better-known Gulf Arab emirate a seven-hour drive away.

Now, as the throngs of fans from around the world descend on her country for the World Cup, she is roaming the streets of the Qatari capital, Doha, greeting strangers from India and Europe and reveling in a sense of pride in her nation’s new visibility on the global stage.

“People know Doha now,” Ms. al-Anezi, 35, said as her children kicked soccer balls around a seaside promenade on one recent evening. “Those who come, they’ll see it with their own eyes and they’ll know how to judge with their hearts.”

Over the past decade, Qatar and its resource-rich Gulf neighbors have poured billions of dollars into international sports, buying teams, sponsorships and hosting events‌, in part to bolster their global clout, but also out of a desire to diversify their economies, attract tourism, further their foreign policy goals and stoke nationalism at home that legitimizes their authoritarian rule.

Saudi Arabia started a new golf tournament this year that competes with the P.G.A. Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, hosted preseason NBA games last month. Ruling family members and government entities in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have all bought soccer teams abroad, including the Saudi sovereign wealth fund-led takeover of Newcastle United last year.

Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup, which kicks off on Sunday, is the pinnacle of the regional drive into international sports. For the country of three million people, the monthlong tournament is the culmination of 12 years of preparation and more than $200 billion in infrastructure spending, subsumed into a grand nation-building project for a state the size of Connecticut surrounded by more powerful neighbors.

With more than a million visitors expected in the coming weeks, it is also part of a broader push by the Qatari rulers to thrust their conservative Islamic country from obscurity into the global spotlight — a strategy funded by vast natural gas wealth. So much is riding on ‌the event’s success that this week in Doha, it has felt like the whole city is holding its breath in anticipation.‌

While critics accuse Gulf governments of using sports to cleanse their international reputations amid accusations of human rights abuses, sports mean a great deal more than a better image abroad for the Gulf’s hereditary rulers.

Saudi Arabia is rushing to diversify its oil-dependent economy, and sports can spur job creation and consumer spending. Across the Gulf, public health advocates want to use sports to encourage physical activity among populations that struggle with childhood obesity and diabetes.

Buying a global soccer team is also a symbol of prestige for a billionaire royal. And soccer is adored by many in the region, making it a perfect vehicle for leaders to increase their popularity and raise their profiles.

“The whole reason for the World Cup is its an exercise or a step in Qatar seeking to secure itself and have relevance and legitimacy,” said Simon Chadwick, a Paris-based professor of sport and geopolitical economy at Skema business school, who has been traveling to Qatar for more than a decade and has watched it change in the lead-up to the tournament.

All of that attention comes with downsides, and in recent months, Qatar has absorbed a hail of scrutiny, criticism and mockery from American, British and European commentators who have pointed out that the state is an authoritarian monarchy with negligible political participation.

Discrimination against L.G.B.T.Q. people and the treatment of migrant workers have cast shadows over the tournament.

Like many of its Gulf neighbors, Qatar relies on low-income workers from South Asia and Africa, who often work grueling hours for meager pay and sometimes face outright abuse. The sheer number of workers who toiled to build the infrastructure surrounding the tournament has highlighted the region’s exploitative employment system for foreign workers, spurring some changes that activists have said do not go far enough.

A last-minute decision to ban beer at the stadiums also caused an outcry from fans. Indeed, some Qataris say they feel the World Cup has attracted more negative attention than positive.

But for the Gulf monarchies — each of which face their own internal and external challenges — investments in sports are often a strategy to strengthen national identity and legitimize their leadership, directed as much to domestic and regional audiences as foreign ones.

When Qatar bid for the World Cup more than a decade ago, the goal was simply to be known at all. Now, it is home to an international airline, a U.S. military air base and the Al-Jazeera news network, which projects its influence around the world.

Officials hope the World Cup will establish Qatar as a distinct state that can stand on its own beside larger neighbors, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The government’s efforts to link itself with the international community are partly motivated by Qatar’s vulnerabilities, which include its own self-defense, said Danyel Reiche, a visiting associate professor at Georgetown University Qatar who studies the politics of sports.

Those insecurities are obvious on a map. Qatar has fewer than 400,000 citizens and is a peninsula with much larger regional powers on either side: Saudi Arabia and Iran. It currently maintains friendly relations with both, but neither can be taken for granted.

In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut off diplomatic and transportation ties with Qatar, accusing the country of supporting Islamist extremists and terrorism and of meddling in their internal affairs. Qatar denied those charges and the rift simmered for years, becoming increasingly rancorous, before it was largely resolved last year.

Still, it was a galvanizing moment for the young nation.

“What motivates me, truly, is I feel like we’re nation-building,” said Machaille Al Naimi, the executive officer of strategic initiatives at the Qatar Foundation, a deep-pocketed education and social development organization that is run by Qatari ruling family members and a key part of the state’s soft power strategy.

For the past 12 years, Ms. Al Naimi said, it felt like everyone in the country was working toward the World Cup — unifying the population through a trying time.

Since winning the bid to host, Qatar has poured more than $200 billion into building up its capital, erecting a network of highways and constructing a new metro system. The World Cup was “used as a vehicle to accelerate these initiatives,” Hassan Al Thawadi, the secretary general of Qatar’s World Cup organization, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, said in an interview in October.

Hosting the tournament means that people will know Qatar “as a destination,” he said.

Some Qataris are uneasy with the deluge to come, including the potential for drunken crowds and the pace and direction of change the event has brought to the country. Many are planning to stay home or travel abroad to avoid it entirely. Others are thrilled, though.

At a new sports-themed museum in Doha, exhibitions trace the development of sports from ancient times to the present, ending with a history of soccer in Qatar.

The sport, which was introduced to the region by colonial officials and foreign oil companies, has taken root in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa over the past century, harnessed as a tool by nationalist movements and autocratic regimes, according to the work of Abdullah Al-Arian, a Qatar-based scholar who has written about soccer and politics in the region.

At the same time, the game has become a rallying point for protest and political mobilization in countries where other civil society groups and political parties are effectively banned. In Algeria and Egypt, die-hard fan groups have played a significant role in revolutionary movements, organizing crowds and confronting police and the military.

Soccer provides a precious release in countries with few outlets for collective energy, the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote in 1982.

“Soccer is the field of expression permitted by secret understanding between ruler and ruled in the prison cell of Arab democracy, which threatens to destroy guards along with prisoners,” he wrote.

This month, as fans began arriving in Doha, the city’s traditional marketplace felt like a carnival. Young men with an air horn beeped their way through streams of people, past children in soccer jerseys, as tourists posed for photographs and television cameras soaked in the footage.

Draping his shoulders in his country’s flag, Abdulmajeed al-Harthi, 28, from Saudi Arabia, said he planned to stay in Doha until the tournament was over, even if the Saudi team were to be knocked out early.

“This is our second religion,” he said. When he sees sporting events happening in Saudi Arabia or Qatar after a lifetime of watching them on television, broadcast from the United States or Europe, he feels proud.

“Most Western and European countries have a bad image of us,” he said. “We want to improve the way they look at us. We want to change their view, first of all, of Islam.”

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