Will Qatar emerge victorious in the World Cup image war?
By Eitan Fischberg
The 2022 Soccer World Cup launched in Qatar in November to much fanfare and controversy. Qatar, which won the hosting right under dubious circumstances in 2010, leveraged the position to embark on an intensive effort to bolster its public image in the West and, in response, was hit with a torrent of criticism for its human rights record concerning women, LGBTQ individuals, and migrant workers. Though we do not yet know the true victor of this “image war,” the saga has already provided valuable insights into key tactics the regime utilizes in its battles and has also shown one of the methods concerned citizens and civil rights organizations can use to stymie Qatar’s charm offensive, which continues to obfuscate its repressive policies.
Chief among Qatar’s cynical tactics – and perhaps the most effective – is steering attention away from its own human rights abuses by allowing for pro-Palestinian messaging during the World Cup and intensifying its anti-Israel propaganda. Jerusalem would be wise to acknowledge the tactic and coordinate efforts to combat it before other hostile regimes learn from Qatar and follow suit.
Mega Events as a Tool of Public Diplomacy and Soft Power
In today’s globalized world of “soft power,” public diplomacy, and nation branding, image wars are an increasingly prevalent phenomenon that sees countries battling for international legitimacy and reputation on the world stage. In this arena, a state fights for its ability to pursue its objectives unobstructed by other states, global institutions, or civil society.
Qatar, a formidable soft power juggernaut, knows this full well. It already has a robust soft power media apparatus with state-run outlets like the Islamic-oriented Al Jazeera and its subsidiary, AJ+, which intentionally uses progressive lingo popular among Gen Zers in the West to influence them with anti-West, anti-Israel, and antisemitic ideas. It’s even spent millions of dollars on U.S.-based public relations and media firms to win the hearts and minds of susceptible young Americans. Likewise, the Qatar Foundation has given $1 billion to elite American universities since 2011 to advance its agenda on campus – a fact it has tried to cover up.
The World Cup, however, provides Doha with its most significant opportunity yet to influence the worldwide sporting scene. As early as 2011, commentators have openly acknowledged that Qatar’s eagerness to host the World Cup stems from PR considerations, not economic opportunities. In fact, Qatar reportedly sent 1,600 foreign fans on an all-expenses-paid trip to the World Cup, where they are contractually obligated to spread glowing social media content and report posts critical of the host nation.
The mega-event PR strategy has been a powerful tool in the public diplomacy arsenal of both democratic and autocratic regimes, employed with varying degrees of success. While the public image of Azerbaijan soared after it hosted the Eurovision Song Contest, China and Russia enjoyed far less success after they hosted the Olympic games in 2008 and 2014, respectively, as foreign media outlets continued highlighting Beijing’s persecution of Tibetans and Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.
Israel also recognizes the importance of soft power, nation branding, and public image. It is the victim of distorted and often inaccurate media coverage that has hampered its freedom to pursue its policy preferences. This is, in part, why the country was so eager to host the Eurovision in May 2019 and why it consistently highlights its booming high-tech sector and agricultural and medical innovations.
Will its Nation Branding Campaign be Successful?
How will Qatar fare once the World Cup is finished? Will it face a loss of positive influence the same way China and Russia did? Or rise to new heights a la Azerbaijan?
Ideally, tangible policy change from world powers would be the optimal way to determine the success or failure of Qatar’s image war. Unfortunately, economic and geopolitical realities make it unlikely that the authoritarian monarchy – the West’s leading natural gas supplier and a critical mediator between the U.S. and Iran in the ongoing negotiations for a renewed nuclear deal – will endure any lasting consequences. The West is so dependent on Qatar that the U.S. even designated it as a major non-NATO ally earlier this year.
That being said, public opinion surveys can be helpful indicators. A YouGov survey taken before the World Cup asked thousands of people in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United States about their general opinions of Qatar. Unsurprisingly, respondents in these countries hold negative views towards the gulf monarchy – Germany was at the high end with 92%, while Americans were at the low end with 76%. A potential method to gauge the success of Qatar’s image war would be to conduct a repeat survey several months after the World Cup with individuals from identical sample pools and see how the new results stack up with the old ones.
Similarly, portrayal in foreign media is a crucial barometer. Studies have shown that Qatar received negative coverage in the lead-up to the World Cup. For example, an analysis conducted on the coverage of multiple British media outlets, for example, found that between 2010 – 2022, 66% of World Cup-related articles depicted Qatar negatively, while only 5% were positive. Once the tournament is over, will international outlets continue highlighting Qatar’s human rights abuses, or will they be wooed by the glitz and glamor of the Gulf metropolis and focus on its more positive aspects? Should Qatar enjoy an overall improvement in coverage in the months to come, its campaign will have arguably been successful. The opposite holds as well.
International indexes can provide a more concrete metric to gauge the success of Qatar’s image war. This year, Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World Report gave Qatar a score of 25/100, and the U.S. News & World Report’s Best Countries Ranking placed it 29th. If next year’s editions show a marked improvement, then Qatar’s $200 billion investment in hosting the World Cup may have been worth it.
Qatar’s Secret PR Weapon: Demonizing Israel?
Qatar’s World Cup image war has several ramifications for Israel, the least of which is the harassment Israeli journalists have faced on the ground in Doha. Indeed, there have been multiple reports of anti-Israel incidents occurring in the city and large-scale expressions of support for Palestinians inside the stadium and on the pitch, despite other political messages – such as support for the widespread anti-regime protests currently spreading in Iran – being silenced.
When approached by CNN about the harassment and pro-Palestinian messages, Qatar’s committee responsible for organizing the games and its ministry of foreign affairs did not respond. These episodes and others have led several commentators to correctly speculate that the royal family is pursuing a tactic of deflecting from criticism by stoking anti-Israel sentiments.
Perhaps the most significant indicator that this is a carefully orchestrated tactic is the suspiciously timed announcement on December 6th from Al Jazeera, effectively an organ of the regime, that it intends to sue Israel in the International Criminal Court (ICC) over the accidental death of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh earlier this year. The announcement generated numerous headlines – unsurprising considering that Abu Akleh’s death was one of the most severe public image blows to Israel in years.
Countermeasures Against Qatar’s Image War:
Qatar may win the battle over public perception this time around when all is said and done. However, image wars are comprised of numerous battles waged on multiple fronts. And lest we forget, wars are fought between at least two parties, not merely at the state level. The most effective counter-strategy for civil society to push back against Qatar’s soft power agenda under these challenging circumstances is working to ensure that it cannot participate in the image war at all. A key lesson here is to understand that a more proactive approach should be implemented instead of waiting for Qatar to dominate a given sector before mounting opposition, as was the case with the World Cup.
To accomplish that, concerned parties and prominent human rights groups must identify sectors of the international system where Doha has not yet established a foothold and embark on an intensive lobbying campaign to stop it from doing so. For example, they would be wise to approach international organizations in, say, the cinema and music industries and warn them of the potential damage their brands could incur by empowering the Qatari regime, much like FIFA, the body governing world football, has been hit.
This strategy doesn’t imply boycotting Qatari artists or actors per se, who are not at fault for their government’s policies but rather working to prevent Qatar’s state-controlled institutions from exerting their influence as profoundly as they have in sports. Time is of the essence, as the Gulf nation will flaunt all its culture and society’s (positive) elements throughout the month-long World Cup.
Of course, such efforts would do little good without honest and unflinching media highlighting Qatar’s human rights abuses – the kind that derailed Russia and China’s nation branding dreams when they hosted the Olympics years ago. Combining these two tactics may be the only way to hinder Qatar’s charm offensive and turn the tide of its image war.
As far as Israel is concerned, the relevant authorities – including its foreign ministry and national public diplomacy directorate – should understand that Qatar’s tactic of diverting negative attention towards Jerusalem can easily be emulated by other authoritarian regimes when hosting mega events. When such occasions occur, Israel should coordinate with allied states to exert pressure upon the governing body of the mega event and demand that rules banning political messaging (i.e., anti-Israel propaganda) and harassment of Israeli citizens be enforced.
Eitan Fischberger is an international relations and Middle East analyst. His work has been published in NBC News Think, National Review, and more.