Soccer World Cup 2022: Sportswashing from Qatar, Saudi Arabia & Co.: “Investments are always political”

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From: Andreas Schmid

The Gulf States around Qatar are investing millions in football – including in FC Bayern Munich. © Ulmer Pressebildagentur/Imago (montage)

The Gulf States have been pumping a lot of money into football for years. What they hope to gain from this is obvious to experts.

Doha – The Gulf region is one of the richest in the world. This is due to the reserves of oil and natural gas. But those mineral resources are finite. That is why countries like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and especially Qatar are looking for other investment opportunities. They find what they are looking for in sports and especially in football. The Gulf states are not acting out of romantic motives. The accusation: sports washing.

Sportswashing is the goal of improving one’s reputation by hosting sporting events. In this way, the focus should be on sport, says Gulf States expert Sebastian Sons “All Gulf states want to use events like this to distract from abuses and strengthen their authoritarian rule. The rulers are hoping for positive attention at home and abroad.” This also applies “to other autocratic regimes such as Russia or China”.. However, the Gulf States have upgraded in recent years and invested in the sports industry, which was once frowned upon as un-Islamic. An overview.

Manchester City vs Paris Saint-Germain: Abu Dhabi vs Doha

In the current Champions League season, Manchester City faced Paris Saint-Germain. The two most expensive football clubs on the planet in terms of market value – and anything but a normal game between two top teams. It is the duel between enemy Emirates. United Arab Emirates vs Qatar. Oil Duel, Sheik Derby, El Cashico.

Manchester City has been owned by a group of investors from Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, since 2008. The emirate’s ruling family has largely taken control of what was once a middle-class club. Officially, Manchester City is owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The game will be played at the Etihad Stadium, named after the UAE’s national airline. The newly founded City Football Group not only brought money but also sporting success. The first championship in 44 years was followed by four more championship titles, most recently in 2021.

Manchester City vs. Paris Saint Germain
Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain have survived the group stage of the Champions League. The games ended 2-1 for Manchester and 2-0 for PSG. © David Blunsden/Imago

Manchester City: Financial fair play scams

The once overpowering local rivals Manchester United have been overtaken in sporting terms. The City Football Group invests in a global football network and has shares in a total of ten clubs, including the French first division club ES Troyes AC and New York City FC. All of these projects are also about image advertising. Negative reporting should be prevented. So that “the reputation of the owners” is not tarnished, as Australian Simon Pearce, club chairman of City Football Group, writes in a leaked email to the UAE ambassador to the USA.

Because the donations from investors are generous, Uefa excluded Manchester City 2020 from the Champions League for violating what is known as financial fair play. Put simply, financial fair play regulates that clubs are not allowed to spend significantly more money than they earn. Otherwise there are penalties. The Manchester City case involved financial fraud by concealing sponsorship earnings from Abu Dhabi. However, the International Sports Court CAS lifted the ban. In the reasoning for the judgement is available, it says: “The body is not completely convinced that Manchester City has concealed the equity financing (…).” A clear acquittal does not seem to be the case.

Qatar investments in sport: The emirate relies on Paris

Paris Saint-Germain also secured a hefty cash injection from the Arabian Peninsula. In 2011, the investor group Qatar Sports Investments, led by Qatari businessman Nasser Al-Khelaifi, took over. Since then: eight championship titles in ten years. Al-Khelaifi has close ties to Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, both of whom play tennis together. Al-Khelaifi is PSG president, head of the European football club association ECA, leading member of the organizing committee of the 2022 World Cup and even minister in Qatar. Or in short: the most powerful man in the football business.

Al-Khelaifi describes himself as the “savior of European football” because PSG did not participate in the plans for a Super League of the best teams in Europe. The truth seems to be that, unlike clubs like FC Barcelona or Juventus Turin, Paris does not depend as much on additional income.

Nasser Al-Khelaifi (centre) and Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani (right) together with former Paris coach Carlo Ancelotti and Leonardo.
Paris regularly contests its training camp in Qatar. Nasser Al-Khelaifi (center) and Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani (right) use the opportunity for positive PR. Here together with the former Paris coach Carlo Ancelotti. © PanoramiC/Imago

Qatar Sports Investments is said to have already invested more than one billion euros in Paris, a quarter of it in the Brazilian Neymar. In return, the most expensive player in football history, with a transfer fee of 222 million euros, is advertising as an ambassador for the 2022 World Cup. A year ago, the emirate even thought about taking over the traditional English club Leeds United, but the efforts petered out. The opposite pole 60 kilometers from Manchester did not materialize. Nevertheless, the competition between Doha and Abu Dhabi continues. The next big goal is to win the Champions League. Despite all the investments, both clubs have not yet succeeded in doing this.

The Gulf States’ relationship with sport: ‘Investments are always political’

Qatar has long been a major player in international professional sport. “Qatar uses sport as a soft power strategy,” says Eckard Woertz, a Hamburg university professor and an expert on the Gulf region. “By organizing international events and investing in top international clubs like Paris Saint-Germain, it is hoped that this will increase the country’s status and reputation.” The investments are “always political,” says Sebastian Sons. “First and foremost, the rulers want to consolidate their own power. Sport is seen as an essential tool to gain more influence politically.”

As a result of the World Cup, little Qatar, which is only half the size of Hesse, has attracted international attention. On the one hand, this increased focus on the emirate made the criticism of the grievances in the country louder – but it also helped Qatar enormously, says Sons. “Since the World Cup was awarded, Qatar has established itself as an irreplaceable partner for many governments, houses the US fleet or mediates between the US and the Taliban. So for little Qatar, sport is an instrument to get protective armor in a crisis-ridden region, to make oneself unassailable.”

Gulf States expert Sebastian Sons
Gulf States expert Sebastian Sons travels to the Arabian Peninsula regularly. He worked at the German Orient Institute, the German Society for International Cooperation and the German Society for Politics. © Tagesspiegel/Imago

World Cup 2022: “Sport creates sympathy – Qatar has understood that”

Qatar invests in top international clubs such as AS Roma, FC Barcelona – or FC Bayern. The German record champion wears sponsor Qatar Airways on his jersey sleeve and regularly travels to the training camp in Doha. Many fans are bothered by the commitment to the Qatari state, but their criticism is hardly heard by those responsible. The Munich club bosses defend the deal.

Marketing expert Manfred Schwaiger can meanwhile see no sports washing in the investments. “Sport offers a platform, the Gulf States use it,” says the head of the Institute for Market-Oriented Management at the LMU Munich to our editors. “The offer must first meet a corresponding demand for a deal to come about.” Means: Clubs like FC Bayern enable the reputation of Qatar and other Gulf states. “Football clubs are perfect promotional platforms and are designed to attract tourists and foreign investment,” explains Sons.

In addition to financial gains in the millions, Qatar’s investments also bring political benefits. Contacts in politics, also in Germany, are made through sport. “Partnerships like with FC Bayern serve as an excellent opportunity to position yourself more strongly on the German market and to cultivate the image as a reliable partner,” says Sons. Qatar also wants to improve its relationship with the United States, which is why it has partnerships with renowned US universities. Sons says: “Sport creates sympathy – Qatar has understood that and the UAE and Saudi Arabia are also pursuing a similar strategy. They use Qatar’s sports policy as a model.”

Bayern fans criticize Qatar's sponsorship
FC Bayern fans regularly criticize the Qatar sponsorship, as here in November 2021. In focus: CEO Oliver Kahn (l) and President Herbert Hainer. In addition: perimeter advertising for Qatar Airways. © Eibner-Pressefoto/Imago

Investments in sport: Saudi Arabia is also upgrading

In fact, other Gulf States have long since recognized how much they can benefit from sport. Saudi Arabia invests in the English first division club Newcastle United. The consortium that took over the traditional club threatened with relegation consists of 80 percent of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund.

Of course, the largest Gulf state is acting for economic reasons. “Saudi Arabia wants to take advantage of Newcastle’s geographic location to invest in local logistics and buy real estate,” says Sons, who has written several books on Saudi Arabia. The Italian and Spanish Supercups also take place in Saudi Arabia.

The desert investments focus on soccer, the most lucrative sport in the world. However, the Gulf States also have other areas in mind. Formula 1 races are now held in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia secured the Dakar Rally. Handball and Athletics World Championships have already taken place in Qatar. In a few months, the next mega event will follow with the first soccer World Cup on Arab soil. And with it the opportunity to make a name for yourself. According to Sons, despite minor reforms on the ground, one thing is clear: “The rulers of the Gulf States see sporting events as an opportunity for economic progress – not for democratic change.” (as)

Inside Katar

This text is part of the Inside Qatar series. Until the football World Cup in winter, we want to give you regular background reports on the (sports) political situation in Qatar – and look at different topics. If you have any suggestions, suggested topics or criticism, please contact [email protected]

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