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Sports As Diplomacy: Gulf Countries See Big Time Sports As Ticket To Global Influence

Offering instant citizenship and huge salaries to star athletes, maneuvering for major sporting events are a way for small Gulf nations to aim big on world stage.

Qatar's Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani
Qatar's Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani
Mustapha Kessous

QATAR - Pride is visible in the windows at the Souk Al Waqif. The shop fronts in this touristy area are covered with posters of the Emir of Qatar and his son raising the World Cup in triumph. Plaster replicas of the golden sculpture can be bought at the souvenir stand for a cool $27.

This desert kingdom will host the 2022 Soccer World Cup. The decision by the International Football Federation (FIFA) to grant Qatar the world's most watched sporting event came as the crowning of a policy of "sports diplomacy" initiated nearly two decades ago.

Ever since he came to power in 1995, Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani has single-mindedly pushed to give global resonance to this little piece of the Arabic peninsula. The launch of the Al Jazeera television channel in 1996 brought some serious attention, but there were other fields to conquer. And as sports economist Frederic Bolotny rightly notes: "Global sports is for sale."

Conveniently, Qatar, the country with the world's highest per capita wealth, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and third largest gas deposits, has virtually limitless funds to spend on its sporting challenge. In the course of a few years, the emirate of 1.7 million residents has become a sports mecca, hosting and attracting some of the most prestigious and dollar-hungry tournaments: soccer, Formula One, world-class tennis, golf, rugby, athletics, and more.

Doha can seem like just a massive construction site where cranes and tractors compete with shiny 4-wheel drives. Qatar is projecting spending of $225 billion over five years on infrastructure projects. A portion will go to the World Cup: $3 billion for arenas, and $17 billion for hotels.

Its neighbors in the United Arab Emirates -- discreet Abu Dhabi and vain Dubai and, on a smaller scale, Oman and Bahrain -- are also involved in sports diplomacy. They too host the biggest tournaments and spend phenomenal amounts to hire late career soccer stars to liven up their otherwise sleepy national championships.

Not quite Fenway Park

The first thing you notice when entering these gleaming, but nearly empty arenas in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, is the blatant lack of atmosphere. "So what? Monaco also plays to an empty stadium," argues Frenchman and former Qatar national team coach Bruno Metsu. "Games in Iran attract 100,000 people. People in France have no idea what goes on in the Middle East."

Shining (as in stars) is the name of the game. With no hesitations, Qatar has granted citizenship to famous athletes, particularly from Brazil, to strengthen its national soccer team or to earn medals at the Olympics. Such was the case for two-time world champion in the 3,000-meter steeple Saif Saaeed Shaheen, formerly known as Stephen Cherono (his Kenyan name). Dubai and Doha both own extraordinary sports facilities designed to train the athletes of tomorrow.

Sports diplomacy reaches European countries in the form of the purchase or sponsorship of top soccer teams. Sheikh Mansour, a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family, spent hundreds of millions of euros for his soccer team, Manchester City. Emirates Airline is a sponsor for English Premier League team Arsenal, the French Team Paris-Saint-Germain (PSG), and others. Qatar Sports Investment (QSI), founded by Heir Prince of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, just bought 70% of PSG. The Qatar Foundation will spend 30 million euros a year from 2011 to 2016 to be featured on the FC Barcelona jersey. And Qatar Airways announced last Friday that it is to become the official airline of the Tour de France.

All these purchases help Gulf State leaders "acquire respectability as heads of state," says Frederic Bolotny. But Qatar's reputation has also been tainted by the purchasing power that gives it standing. For example, Qatari Mohamed Bin Hammam, for a while a rival for Joseph "Sepp" Blatter for the role of FIFA president, had to pull out on suspicions of corruption. It is said the Emir himself asked him to step aside.

The Kingdom is also suspected of buying the votes necessary to be designated as host for the 2022 World Cup. Some national federations have officially called for a new vote, a boomerang in Qatar's attempts to use sports as diplomacy – and a reminder that even billions of dollars can't buy respectability.

Read the original article in French

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