Sport as a nation-branding tool:
The case study of Qatar

It is more important to have a reputation at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) than at the United Nations (UN),” said Hamad Ben-Khalifa Al-Thani, Emir of Qatar, in 2010. More than a century earlier, the Reverend J.E.C. Welldon, Director of Harrow School from 1881 to 1895, stated that “it is written in the history of the British Empire that England owes its sovereignty to sports.” These two quotations illustrate how closely connected modern sport and politics has been since the 19th century.

Sport has two political functions: it can be used for national cohesion and integration purposes (nation-building), and it can be used to increase a nation’s international visibility (nation-branding). This article will explore the nation-branding function of sport through the case of Qatar which is one of the most illustrative examples of the interest that governments have shown in sport.

The emergence of sport diplomacy

In the first half of the last century, Jean Giraudoux, a French writer and diplomat, said: “Sport is peace”. At the other end of the spectrum, the English writer and journalist George Orwell provided a less idyllic vision: “Sport is war without weapons”. These are two completely divergent visions of the sporting phenomenon; the first one being optimistic, considering it as a means of universal pacification, and the other one being bellicose, presenting sport as a field of symbolic confrontation. Sports diplomacy refers to “the whole range of international contacts and competitions that have implications for the overall relations between the nations concerned”.

Among the first to have fulfilled this role in sport were the American and Chinese table tennis players in a game played on April 14, 1971. At the time, the People's Republic of China and the United States had been in a diplomatic turmoil since the Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949. The United States supported Taiwan’s autonomy, which the PRC did not recognize. The PRC and the United States were then engaged in a propaganda battle, even raising the spectrum of nuclear confrontation. However, after the Sino-Soviet break-up in 1961 and in view of the growing hostility between the two communist countries, Sino-American rapprochement gradually progressed, as the USSR had become a common enemy. But could the governments of these two countries convince their people to accept positive relations with a former enemy? There had to be a pretext, and sport could provide it [2].

In the context of the American and Chinese table tennis game in Beijing, the American players were invited to an official reception. Henri Kissinger, who was then Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs of the United States, wrote: “The young Americans found themselves in the Great Hall of the People, completely stunned, in the presence of Zhou Enlai, the Chinese Prime Minister, an honour that the majority of foreign ambassadors in Beijing had never been granted. He said on this occasion: “You have opened a new chapter in the relations between the American and Chinese peoples. I am sure that your budding friendship will be supported by the majority of our peoples”. The American athletes were speechless, which led the Chinese Prime Minister to conclude with "don't you think so?" that triggered a round of applause.” [3]

Sport has therefore been used as a diplomatic tool to bring the two countries closer together. It made it possible for the two countries to send signals to the national and international public and to test the reactions to a rapprochement.

As sport is becoming more and more global, especially because of its media strength, its political power substance has become undeniable. Countries no longer wait for major sport events as an opportunity to promote their image, but use sport as an ongoing way of managing the image of their nation. This is, for example, the case of Qatar whose nation-branding strategy uses sport as a fundamental spearhead [5]. “Sport has become an essential element in the influence of a State and, more broadly, of all the actors who are jostling on the international scene [...] Sport now has a significant strategic role to play” [6], namely that of a new instrument of power.

Qatar: Sport as a nation-branding lever

In the literature of international relations, it is established that the power of a country can be based, on the one hand, on its military, demographic, and economic forces, and on the other hand on its scientific and technological potential. Qatar’s military power is limited to a contingent of only 11,000 men, including a huge majority of foreigners. Economically, the country depends on hydrocarbon markets, and demographically there are fewer than 300.000 Qatari nationals, so only 10% of the country’s total population are Qatari nationals. Qatar chose, as soon as Sheikh Hamad Al-Thani became the Emir in 1995, to “compensate for its power deficiencies by focusing on a new type of dissuasive weapons: soft power […] In the era of a globalized world, digital technology and information highways, soft power and the power of the image appear to Doha as more effective and protective than hard power, brute and coercive force.” [7] One of the main levers of this process is the sports diplomacy applied by the Gulf emirate, which it has chosen to deploy for both national and international reasons [8]. Qatar has implemented a nation branding strategy combining economic, social and political initiatives where sport has a prominent place.

Figure 1: Qatar's nation branding, adapted from Dinnie's model [9] (2015, 44)

Qatar appears to be aware that “the protective shield constituted by the multiplication of defence agreements and strategic and military partnerships with Western countries is not sufficient to guard against the many threats, Qatar, unlike other countries such as Kuwait and in a different logic from that of Dubai, decides to counterbalance its initial geopolitical weakness with the strength of the image, using sport as its main vector and differentiation tool, of which it wants “to become a hub.” [10]

The first component of Qatar’s nation branding strategy is the organization of major international events [11]. After having organized the Asian Games in 2006 (the third largest sporting event in the world in terms of media audiences, and the second in terms of competitions number), the Asian Football Cup in 2011, and the World Handball Championship in 2015, Qatar becomes the host of the Football World Cup in 2022, which is one of the most powerful media events in the world, with more than 5 billion cumulative viewers.

The second component is the purchase of football clubs in Europe. In 2011, Qatar Sports Investments, founded in 2004 as a private shareholding organization with the ambition to invest in profit-bearing sports related projects, acquired the Paris Saint-Germain club. Paris Saint-Germain has since seen its list of achievements increase significantly. With the transformation of the sports club into an international brand [12], Paris Saint-Germain is showcasing the image of its sponsors around the world, among which are the six Qataris: beIN Sports, Aspire, Aspetar, Ooredoo, Katara and QNB. In addition, the Qatar Foundation was also the first paid shirt sponsor in the history of FC Barcelona [13].

The third component is the creation, in 2003, of the Al-Jazeera Sport channel (renamed “beIN SPORTS” in December 2013). In North Africa and the Middle East, this audiovisual group holds exclusive broadcasting rights, including all sports, for major events and championships. This positioning “remains the best way to ensure a mass audience [...] since 55% of the Arab world is made up of young people under 25 years of age.” [14] This Qatari sports media organization is now present in 43 countries, including France.

Training excellence is another component of Qatar's sports strategy. To this end, a youth academy called “Aspire” was inaugurated in 2005 in a ceremony attended by some of the world's biggest names in football, including Brazil's Pele, Argentina's Diego Maradona, and Germany's Franz Beckenbauer. This multisport complex, which is one of the most modern in the world, costing one billion dollars and covering 290 hectares, has as its mission to train future Qatari athletes, with a view to acquire sporting legitimacy for Qatar.

Through this training policy, the emirate seeks to replicate the Spanish model which, following the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, chose to focus on the youngest age groups in order to supervise and optimize their potential. Two decades later, this policy proved successful for Spain. For example, Rafael Nadal established his dominance in the world of tennis, and the FC Barcelona broke all records with a charming squad where the majority of players such as Messi, Xavi, and Iniesta come from the Catalan training center. The first results of this strategy can already be observed as Qatar won the 2019 soccer Asian Cup with a squad mainly comprised of players trained in Aspire.

Apart from the detection and development of new talents, Qatar has also chosen to include internationally competitive athletes in its national teams through naturalization. Naturalization refers to the act of "recruiting" a player into a national team who does not belong to the country by either the right of blood (i.e., the right allowing children to obtain the nationality of their parents) or by birthright (i.e., the nationality acquired by place of birth). For example, according to Campbell, in 2005 alone, 38 Kenyan athletes entered Qatar's sports scene. While the “signing bonuses” of these transfers remain unknown, athletes were offered “a monthly lifetime salary of $1,000, bonuses related to the results obtained, and optimal housing and training conditions.” [15] Because Qatar does not produce enough national athletes to achieve its objectives, it has chosen to continue to pursue this naturalization policy. In 2015 during the Handball World Championships hosted by Qatar its national team came second, with only 4 out of 17 players having a genuine link (right of blood and/or birthright) with this micro-state.

Another component Qatar’s strategy is sports health. To this end, “Aspetar”, a health center, was founded in Doha in 2007. Located in the heart of the “Aspire Zone”, this hospital establishes itself as one of the most popular places for recovering athletes. Sports medicine specialists around the world are drawn to this sports complex. About 500 people from about 50 countries are associated with Aspetar and ensure its development. Scientific research is also one of the strengths of this site, funded by financial resources provided by Qatar.

Not without criticism

Qatar’s nation branding which is very ambitious and advantageous for Qatar's image in certain respects, nevertheless comes up against criticism that the emirate is facing. One key issue is the situation of foreign workers.

In Qatar, there are more than 1,700,000 migrant workers who keep the country's economy going. While some of them are managers in positions of responsibility, most of them are low-paid workers. The possibility of increasing one's standard of living and acquiring a better economic and social position upon return to the country of origin strongly pushes workers to consider mobility to the Gulf countries with which some Asian regions have historical migratory links.

But once there, the reality faced by these workers is significantly different from their expectations. "Low wages, late payment of salaries, deprivation of residence permits and twelve-hour days (or even more) are often their daily life." [18] International human rights groups have spoken out about this issue. For example, a Human Rights Watch report [19], released in June 2012, entitled "Building a Better World Cup: Protecting Migrant Workers in Qatar Ahead of FIFA 2022", analyzes a recruitment and labor system that effectively traps migrant workers in their employment. Among the constraints they face are high recruitment fees, confiscation of the employee's passport by the employer-sponsor, and restrictions imposed by Qatar's Kafala system, which gives bosses guardianship over their employees. Human Rights Watch's findings are stark: "The high debts incurred by workers and the restrictions they face if they wish to change employers often effectively force them to accept jobs or working conditions that were not agreed upon while they were still in their home country, or to continue working under abusive conditions. Workers face obstacles if they wish to lodge complaints, and abuses often go unnoticed by the authorities.”

Another report, signed by Amnesty International [20], was released in 2013. Entitled "The Dark Side of Migration: Spotlight on Qatar's Construction Sector Ahead of The World Cup ", this 168-pages document, based on interviews145 with workers, employers, and officials, lists a multitude of abuses against migrant workers (e.g., non-payment of wages, very difficult working conditions, and indecent housing).

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) agrees: the situation of foreign workers in Qatar is worrying. Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the ITUC, summarizes the situation as follows: "More workers will die during the construction phase than footballers will play on the pitch.” [21]

In response to this situation, on August 30, 2020, the Emir of Qatar abolished restrictions on migrant workers changing jobs without their employer's permission and instituted a minimum monthly wage set at 1,000 Qatari riyals (230 euros), as well as allowances guaranteeing access to a minimum of daily living services. International organizations generally welcome these advances and call on Qatar to do more: "These reforms are a step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done to end the systematic violation of migrant workers' rights”, Amensty International says.


[1] Pigman, G. (2014), International Sport and Diplomacy’s Public Dimension: Governments, Sporting Federations and the Global Audience, Diplomacy & Statecraft, p. 94-114.

[2] CSFRS & IRIS research program. (2013), Sports diplomacy strategies, new outreach tools for States, pp. 5-6.

[3] Kissinger, H. (2011), On China, Pinguin Press, London, 608 p.

[4] Griffin, N. (2014), Ping-pong diplomacy: the secret history behind the game that changed the world, Simon and Schuster, 360 p.

[5] Boniface, P. Géopolitique du sport, Armand Colin, Paris. p.11.

[6] Ennasri, N. (2013). Qatar. De Boeck Supérieur. p.13

[7] Reiche, D. (2015), Investing in sporting success as a domestic and foreign policy tool: the case of Qatar, in International journal of sport policy and politics, 7(4).

[8] Ennasri, N. (2013). Qatar. De Boeck Supérieur. p. 36.

[9] Dinnie, K. (2015). Nation branding: Concepts, issues, practice. Routledge. p.44.

[10] Grix, J., & Brannagan, P. M. (2016). Of mechanisms and myths: conceptualising states “soft power” strategies through sports mega-events. Diplomacy & statecraft, 27(2), 251-272.

[11] Brannagan, P. M., & Giulianotti, R. (2014). Qatar, global sport and the 2022 FIFA world cup. In Leveraging Legacies from Sports Mega-Events: Concepts and Cases (pp. 154-165). Palgrave Pivot, London.

[12] Chanavat, N. & Desbordes, M. (2017), Towards a globalization of the brand Paris Saint Germain, in Chanavat, N., Desbordes, M. and Lorgnier, N. (eds), Handbook of Football Marketing, Routledge, pp. 217-250.

[13] Conn, D., How Qatar Became a World Force: From Barcelona to PSG and the World Cup, Guardian, November 19, 2015, qatar-barcelona-psg-world-cup-2022

[14] Amara, M. (2012), Sport, politics and society in the Arab world, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 58-61.

[15] Campbell, R. (2010), Staging globalization for national projects: Global sport markets and athletic transnational labor in Qatar, in International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 46 (1), pp. 45-60.

[16] Naves, M. C. & Jappert, J. (2017), Le pouvoir du sport, FYP éditions, p. 14.

[17] Boniface, P. (2014), Géopolitique du sport, Armand Colin, Paris. Back cover.

[18] Ennasri, N. (2013). Qatar. De Boeck Supérieur. p.48

[19] Human Rights Watch, (2012). Building a Better World Cup: Protecting Migrant Workers in Qatar Ahead of FIFA 2022.

[20] Amnesty International, (2013). The Dark Side of Migration: Spotlight on Qatar’s Construction Sector ahead of the World Cup.

[21] Delfoss, A. (2017, January 24th). L’autre Qatargate : on se tue à la tâche en préparant le Mondial.