Thursday, December 01, 2022

Qatar is the new poster boy for "sportwashing"

Qatar's hosting of the World Cup, and the incredible sums of money they have thrown at it (officially $229 billion, but some estimates run to $300 billion or even $400 billion) is perhaps the most extreme example of what has become known as "sportswashing", an attempt by an authoritarian pariah regime to buy international goodwill through sports. Russia and China have tried recently with their Olympic bids, and Saudi Arabia is trying it in several different sports (Formula 1 racing, golf, tennis). 

None of these countries expects to make money out of these sporting events. Qatar will never use the seven huge new soccer stadiums again, and most of the new roads and accommodation will languish unused when the foreign soccer fans go home. The only lasting benefit Qatar can hope for is reputational, an expensive advertisement for the country's desired international image as a shining example of modern oasis in the desert, a prime location for foreign investors to park their money.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), this high-risk strategy is likely to fail, as it has to greater or lesser extents in the cases of China, Russia and Saudi Arabia. While many people now know more or less where to find Qatar on a map of the world, and while the hosting of the events has actually gone pretty well, with relatively few hiccups, most people have not really liked what they have been introduced to.

They now know how to spell Qatar, even if not how to pronounce it properly. But they also know that the country only has about 300,000 native residents, the other nine-tenths of the population being foreign workers from South Asia brought in to do the menial jobs that are considered below the dignity of the Qatari overlords, forced to work in brutal conditions under what looks for all the world like modern-day slavery. 

They also know that Qatar is a deeply conservative country, where alcohol is strictly regulated, and free speech and the media are strenuously repressed. It is a country where women need permission from their male guardians to marry, travel abroad, study, or go into certain jobs. Qatari laws punish same sex relationships with harsh prison sentences, and soccer fans are denied entry into stadiums for wearing t-shirts or armbands with rainbows colours.

Tempted yet? 

There are those who believe that Qatar's foray into sportwashing is working just fine. After all, viewing numbers look good, and there are all those social media posts of people having a good time in Doha, despite all the restrictions. But I'm pretty sure that the movers and shakers (sheik-ers?) in the country are not just looking for some warm-and-fuzzy feelings; they are looking for hard cash. And that, at least, will probably elude them. This may be Qatar's coming out event, but suitors may prove to be hard to find.

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