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Qatar faces tough rivals in fight for sporting dominance

Qatar must build on its football World Cup success and has rugby and the Olympics in its sights

The New Zealand rugby union team performs the Haka ceremony at last year's Rugby World Cup. Qatar is said to have offered close to $1bn for World Rugby's new competition Reuters/Christian Hartmann
The New Zealand rugby union team performs the Haka ceremony at last year's Rugby World Cup. Qatar is said to have offered close to $1bn for World Rugby's new competition

As Qatar splurged $250 billion on running the 2022 Fifa World Cup, it hoped there would be truth to the adage “if you build it, they will come”.

Come they did. During the World Cup almost 1.2 million people visited the country – equivalent to one third of its normal resident population. The emir state’s hosting of the event was widely regarded as a success. 

No wonder, then, that reports have emerged that Qatar is exploring a bid to stage the 2036 Olympic Games.

It has also allegedly submitted a generous financial offer to host four editions of World Rugby’s newly created Nations Championship, dubbed the “Superbowl of rugby”. 

The bi-annual rugby union competition will feature the current Six Nations – England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Italy and France; the Sanzaar union – South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina – and two other teams, most likely Fiji and Japan. The inaugural competition will take place in 2026.

Prior to 2022, Qatar hosted all manner of sports events ranging from the Asian Games in 2006 to the World Handball Championship in 2015. Since 2022, it has hosted the Asian Cup football championship. In 2027, it will stage FIBA’s basketball World Cup. The Asian Games will then return to Doha in 2030.

With eight state-of-the-art football World Cup venues at its disposal to stage this growing roster of events, a better way to characterise the situation is: “If you build it, you need them to come.”

It is rumoured that Qatar is offering almost $1 billion of commercial returns over eight years to entice World Rugby into selecting it as host. On one level, this is about ensuring Qatar is not lumbered with the kind of unused, decaying “white elephant” venues that have beset many previous mega-event hosts.

On another level, sports tourism is an intrinsic part of Qatar’s national development plans, albeit with a particular emphasis on luxury and premium customers.

It is also important to keep sports fans flowing into Doha’s Hamad International Airport to keep it relevant as a transit hub, particularly as both Dubai and Saudi Arabia are embarking on big airport investment programmes.

In addition, tourists are more likely to make return visits to a city or country if they have previously attended a sports event there.

Sport also has multiplier effects. Fans’ spending on the likes of food and drink leads to subsequent secondary expenditure by companies and workers, which adds a longitudinal dimension to the impact of events and helps to sustain long-term expenditure, employment, and investment.

There are constraints. Qatar’s non-oil and gas economy is somewhat fragile, state-led, and hugely reliant upon imports of everything from cars to food. This means that revenues generated by event hosting can be undermined by leakages abroad. 

One of these leakages can be seen in the large remittances made by immigrant workers to their home countries: around 90 percent of the Qatari population is expatriate.

Before the 2022 World Cup, large numbers of migrant workers were residing in Doha and other Qatari cities. They have since gone home, or migrated to Saudi Arabia or the wider Gulf. 

In addition, Qatar’s projected population growth of up to eight million residents has failed to materialise, further diminishing the potential multiplier effect. 

In it to win it?

Industry insiders have expressed concerns that Qatar’s sports economy has contracted since 2022, which raises questions about the basis upon which events are staged.

By now, in an ideal world, the country should be home to a thriving, self-sustaining sport ecosystem. However, Qatar remains reliant upon imported services provided by global corporations.

Qatar’s sporting neighbourhood has also become crowded. Over the past decade, Saudi Arabia has made clear that it will use its financial and political clout to stage more events and build its sport economy into something that stands comparison with more mature rivals in the Global North.

At this point, it looks like Riyadh and Doha are on a collision course, with both bidding for the 2036 Olympics.

The region’s propensity for isomorphic – copycat – behaviour means that Dubai is also following suit. Its new international airport will ease access and provide a stronger platform for perennial sport sponsor Emirates Airline to project itself.

Golf, Rugby Sevens and cricket have already established themselves there, while earlier this year it hosted the first Gulf Youth Games. 

In bidding for rugby’s Nations Championship, Qatar is probably trying to secure a first-mover advantage ahead of Dubai and other regional rivals.

Qatar has built its infrastructure, people have visited, and they are likely to continue doing so for the foreseeable future. However, officials in Doha need people to visit more often, spend as much as possible, and choose their country rather than one of the other Gulf nations. 

This is not simply a matter of a Fifa World Cup legacy. It is fundamental to the long-term health of Qatar’s non-oil and gas economy. Rugby’s new Nations Championship is one part of this, but so, too, are football and basketball, as well as motorsport, athletics and more.

Simon Chadwick is professor of sport and geopolitical economy at Skema Business School in France

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