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In response to many western media’s criticism towards organising the World Cup in Qatar, the emirate decided to launch a different Qatari media approach.
In response to many western media’s criticism towards organising the World Cup in Qatar, the emirate decided to launch a different Qatari media approach. Known for the use of its media power in regional conflicts, Qatar has made tactical changes to confront negative reports in Western media aimed at addressing various issues in the run-up to the global tournament.
Several years ago, the former Qatari ambassador, Mohammad bin Hamad Al Khalifa in Cairo, stated there was no need to address his country in numbers considering space and population. He meant to emphasise that a country’s political and strategic role does not necessitate specific geographic or population conditions as much as its ability to play the role.
Qatar hosting the World Cup confirms that political and strategic dreams are contingent on political will, foresight and financial resources. Qatar carved its presence in history by utilising its media and financial capabilities to realise its ambitions. The tiny emirate, home to a population of only three million, is the first in the Middle East to host the World Cup.
Nevertheless, reaching this point was a complex undertaking, despite Qatar’s previous success as a sports hub. Over the past years, Qatar has hosted over 500 international sports events to realise its long-awaited ambition.
Skillfully playing its cards, Qatar dedicated its regional and international capabilities to hosting multiple high-level sports events. Qatar broke the global habit of organising these international sports events only in the West, thereby un-marginalising small Gulf countries like itself.
It was not coincidental that the announcement of hosting the international event concurred with the massive wave of uprisings and protests against Middle Eastern regimes. At the time, Qatar supported the revolutions of the Arab Spring with funds, media coverage and even arms to overthrow several regimes.
When Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani ascended the throne, Qatar renewed its political foreign policy to reposition itself internationally, replacing its previous methods that merely sought to become a powerful regional player.
Sports and Media Strategy
Qatar has become less belligerent and more focused on mediation and diplomacy. Its strategies to improve its international presence had been in place for years prior to the endeavour of hosting the World Cup.
Qatar winning the World Cup bid meant that an Arab country would, for the first time, host the epitome of football tournaments. This, perhaps, prompted other countries, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to attempt the same. Some reports indicate the two country’s intention to submit a joint bid with Greece to host the World Cup 2030. The idea was conceived after high-level talks between the three countries’ governments.
From the start, there have been many doubts regarding Qatar’s ability to organise the tournament. After spending $200 billion to improve its infrastructure, however, the country muffled all doubts.
In his speech at The Shura Council, Tamim bin Hamad noted that his country is subject to an “unprecedented campaign that no host country has ever faced … and includes fabrications and double standards.”
He added, ” It soon became clear to us that the campaign tends to continue and expand to include fabrications and double standards that were so ferocious that it has unfortunately prompted many people to question the real reasons and motives behind this campaign.”
Tamim’s remarks comprised a leap in Doha’s strategy, responding to what it labelled a ferocious campaign against it. Some rushed to label it a racist war that reflects the “Europeans’ feelings of superiority and their hate towards all that is Arab or Islamic.”
Doha had summoned the German ambassador to protest against statements made by Nancy Wieser, the German interior minister, about hosting the World Cup. She stated that the matter of human rights must be considered when deciding which country will host the World Cup, a statement that Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, the Qatari minister of foreign affairs, considered “arrogant and racist.”
Doha switched from defence to offence through a counter-media campaign. Tamim’s speech and remarks represented a change in attitude towards criticism, from avoidance to a confrontational stance.
Qatar struggled to try to persuade the Arab media to take its side in what it described as “a strange unjustified intimidation war.” To do so, Doha launched a propaganda campaign to improve its image and confirm its unlimited ambition to host the World Cup successfully.
Qatar is assuming that this version of the World Cup will be an unparalleled professional tournament. Officially, Qatar considers this the perfect opportunity to change the stereotypical conceptions about the emirate and the region and refute the hostile media campaigns.
At the same time, the closing statement of the Arab Summit in Algeria expressed support for supporting Qatar. The statement emphasised that all Arabs have “full confidence in its ability to organise a distinguished version of this global event.” It also firmly criticised the malicious slandering campaigns targeting Qatar.
The Arab Information Ministers Council called on all Arab media to support Qatar and highlight the global event by depicting all preparations and efforts made to host it professionally.
Additionally, in order to prompt a move of Arab media to its side in the confrontation, Qatar repositioned some of the media platforms it funds, suggesting that the World Cup belongs to all Arabs, not just the Qataris.
Arab and Gulf platforms rushed to defend Qatar and depict criticism by Western media as hatred of Arabs and Muslims.
Debates were held on how Arab sports media would cover the World Cup in Qatar. There were attempts to prove the harmony in the Arab press as opposed to the division between international media over Qatar hosting the World Cup.
Some official and unofficial Arab media platforms switched sides last minute to support Qatar through articles and reports conveying the official Qatari perspective without addressing the root of the conflict with Western media.
For some, the portrayal of the matter as a media battle between good and evil was a charade of naivety.
Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman used his visits to several Western capitals and his interviews with European media to respond to the accusations levelled against his country.
Ali bin Samikh al-Marri, the Qatari minister of labour, later escalated the Qatari defence in a statement to Agence France-Presse, saying they “do not want to allow a small Arab and Muslim country to host the World Cup. They do not recognise our reforms because their motives are racist.”
Accusations in Bulk
Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Qatar of not implementing the pledged reforms, thereby not dismantling the Kafala sponsorship system entirely. HRW also referred to reports of the unexplained deaths of some workers.
HRW believes that FIFA granted Qatar the right to host the tournament without effectively mitigating harm and addressing the severe human rights violations in the country. The organisation also emphasised that Qatar did not establish measures to protect migrant workers building the tournament’s immense infrastructure. It is worth mentioning that several American officials have recently acknowledged this suggestion.
On the other hand, a seminar affiliated with the International Labor Conference in Geneva praised Qatar’s progress in protecting workers and their rights prior to hosting the World Cup.
Qatar sought to avoid a clash with the LGBTQ+ community by confirming that it would welcome everyone, regardless of background or sexual orientation, provided that they are not expressed.
Of course, this is not the first time a country hosting an international sports event has faced this type of media campaign. The sympathy in the Arab media is present primarily because of decisions made at a political level. Not all Arabs, however, sympathise with Qatar, resulting from a decade of suspicions surrounding Qatar’s foreign policies.
Qatar was depicted in Western media as an exotic eastern underdeveloped country. This approach, as some would say, reflects that the West is still a captive of orientalism, as it presents a contradictory image of Qatar.
According to Alainna Liloia, researcher and writer specialising in human rights and women’s issues in the Gulf countries, “the Western media has focused on concerns for LGBTQ+ visitors, the treatment of migrant labourers and rules regarding the consumption of alcohol.”
The Guardian believes that Qatar hosting the World Cup “seems to have done more to stain the image of football than improve Qatar’s.” The newspaper mentioned the rising concerns regarding the maltreatment of migrant workers and anti-gay laws.
On the other hand, Fatma al-Nuaimi, the tournament’s communications and media executive director, believes this is the best opportunity to correct the misconceptions and stereotypes of Qatari society and culture.
The Emirati outlet Al-Ain pondered the economic feasibility of Qatar’s World Cup in terms of profit and loss, while a Saudi analyst argued that previous events indicate that the economic feasibility of hosting the World Cup is questionable. In light of this perspective and with the added knowledge that all economic gains go to FIFA instead of the host country, discussing the economic feasibility is merely a marketing trick to promote the event.
Even if hosting high-level events does garner substantial returns for the hosting country, money was not the motivating factor for Qatari decision-makers. Doha sought to utilise sports to reshape its image in international media.
Doha, which served as a platform for and during the dramatic changes that toppled several Arab regimes while other countries survived, used the World Cup to reshape its media and foreign policy.
His visit to Al-Jazeera’s headquarters filled late Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak with sarcasm, and he mockingly wondered, “Is this matchbox the one that causes us all this trouble?” It is certain that Mubarak, in whose overthrow Al-Jazeera played a significant role, could not persuade anyone to let Egypt host the World Cup.