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Brand Qatar’s legacy once the last World Cup fan has gone home

Reuters
Hosting the World Cup enabled Qatar to project itself as an affluent yet generous, conservative yet welcoming Arab state
  • Doha has silenced some critics and scored a victory for soft power
  • Much of the new infrastructure would have been built anyway  
  • Success of Moroccan team stirred feelings of Arab and African unity

Strolling down Lusail Boulevard on a warm December evening, foreign fans who have lingered on after the World Cup to enjoy some winter sun pause to chat with local vloggers about their lasting impressions of Qatar. 

“Impressed” is a word they use frequently. “Hospitality” and “generosity” are mentioned often. One pedestrian describes with delight how he has just eaten with a group of Qatari men who invited him over to share their meal.

This is the picture of Qatar its rulers hoped the tournament would present to the world. Affluent yet generous, conservative yet welcoming, a traditional Arab state with an eye for futuristic development. The values of Brand Qatar are perhaps a little clichéd, but they are a far cry from the picture painted by some members of the Western press in the run-up to the 2022 finals.

“From the day it submitted its bid, Qatar has sought to project soft power,” said Simon Chadwick, professor of geopolitics and sport at the Skema Business School in Paris.

“Soft power is linked to the notion of nation branding, but also to the whole question of legitimacy. Who knew what Qatar was, where it was, what its values were beforehand? Hosting the World Cup enabled it to project a set of aspirations that resonate within the community of nations.” 

Soft power is one of the fuzzier metrics by which the success of the tournament will be measured, along with hard statistics such as growth in tourism, foreign direct investment and revenue from sports and the hospitality industry.

The physical legacy of the World Cup includes a handful of world-class stadiums, a modern metro and the city of Lusail itself, but other long-term dividends from the $200 billion of investment may prove harder to tally.

“No-one expects a honeymoon,” said Theodore Karasik, a specialist in Gulf politics based in Washington DC.

“Most people cannot wait to get back to business as usual. For Qatar, that means leveraging its relative economic weight to compete with other Gulf states, as well as globally.” 

Doha
The rise of Doha cannot be ascribed solely to its World Cup preparations

At the end of the day, Qatar had a good tournament. The culture clashes predicted by foreign tabloids never occurred. On the whole, security was conducted with a light touch and any protests remained online.

“The early departure of Germany and Denmark helped, as their media in particular established the hostile narrative,” said Chadwick.

“There is also a natural event cycle. News coverage tends to focus on domestic issues in the vacuum beforehand.”

Ahead of the 2016 Rio Olympics, for example, foreign media obsessed over the spread of the Zika virus, he pointed out. “The criticism tends to dissipate as people move on.”

Some 1.4 million people visited the small Arab state during the month-long tournament, with attendance averaging about 53,000 a match, the official Qatar News Agency reported following the Argentina vs France final. 

“It will represent a milestone in hosting major international events,” said Hassan Al-Thawadi, head of the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, which organised the event.

Qatar
Qatar is a traditional Arab state with an eye for futuristic development

Historic gatherings of this size can leave very different marks on their hosts. Everyone recognises the Eiffel Tower, for example, though history has forgotten the 1889 exposition for which it was built.

By contrast, nothing remains of the vast neoclassical White City built for a similar expo in Chicago in 1893, yet that world’s fair had a galvanising effect on American industry, architecture and the arts that still resonates today.

The 2022 World Cup leaves behind few iconic monuments. However, it has helped put Qatar on the map.

As a crude measure of influence, a Google Ngram search of texts published in the past century show that mentions of “Qatar” surge from 2010, the year it won the bid to host the event. The Gulf state is now mentioned more often in English than its closest comparable economic rivals, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Dubai. 

“In terms of political geography and security, Qatar has always been quite vulnerable, but its growing recognition over the past 12 years has given the rest of us – culturally, socially, economically – a reason to care,” said Chadwick. 

“There has been a huge increase in investment from countries like the US, which has one of its largest military bases in Doha. So, the benefits are not just intangible.”

The rise of Qatar cannot be ascribed solely to its World Cup preparations, either. Its economy was already the fastest growing in the world in the 2000s, fuelled by natural gas exports from the giant subsea North Field.

Contractors say much of the infrastructure attributed to the preparations would have been built anyway to accommodate this development. 

Even so, the tournament is expected to help boost economic growth to 4.5 percent in 2022, its highest rate in seven years, with per capita GDP forecast to top $80,000 this year. The event has also galvanised several non-oil industries.

Qatar
International visitor arrivals are expected to exceed 11m by 2030, representing total annual spending of $11bn

International visitor arrivals are expected to exceed 11 million by 2030, representing total annual spending of $11 billion. The aggregate impact of tourism will represent as much as 5 percent of GDP by the end of the decade, according to official projections. 

Its new stadiums, hotels and transport links have been tried and tested and mean Qatar is now well-placed to host the 2023 AFC Asian Cup and 2030 Asian Games. Other temporary features such as the fan villages have already been dismantled.

The repurposed shipping containers that made up the makeshift Stadium 974 will reportedly be shipped to Uruguay, where it will be rebuilt for World Cup 2030.

In terms of its sporting reputation, Qatar became the first Arab and first Muslim-majority nation to host the Fifa finals, marking a subtle shift in the sport from developed to developing nations.

“For a time, it was the centre of the Arab world. There was a very strong undercurrent of trans-national sentiment,” said Chadwick. 

Football has a tendency to arouse passions and bridge cultural divides in a way that infrastructure cannot.

An early, unexpected victory by Saudi Arabia over Argentina and the meteoric rise of the Moroccan team stirred strong feelings of Arab and African unity on the terraces as well as a lively debate about ethnic and linguistic diversity, given the starring role of several Amazigh players who speak Darija, a Maghrebi dialect of Arabic. 

Argentina’s Lionel Messi, Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and Fifa president Gianni Infantino during the trophy ceremony

For now, it is clear Doha has scored a victory in terms of soft power, if not in the world at large then at least in the world of sport.

The lasting image of the 2022 World Cup is of Argentine champion Lionel Messi holding the trophy aloft while wearing a traditional Arab bisht. It has not escaped notice that in quieter moments he plays for Paris Saint-Germain, which happens to be owned by Qatar.

“On one level, there is nothing to see here. Qatar is a typical rentier state that generates revenues from external investments in sports as in other areas,” said Chadwick.

“On another level, it almost feels like the perfect execution of a plan. That image of Messi in the cloak lifting the trophy represents a coming-together of so many elements. Qatar cannot have wished for more.”