As the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar comes to a close with Argentina and France facing off Sunday in the lavish golden bowl-shaped Lusail Stadium, pundits are beginning to deliver their verdicts on whether the first World Cup held in the Middle East will be remembered as a success.
The prevailing consensus seems to be that, yes, Qatar scored the intended goal. Yet, at such an exorbitant cost, was it worth it?
It was a rocky road to kickoff for the minuscule gas-rich Gulf nation, which came under fire from Western media for its abuse of migrant workers, discrimination of LGBTQ people, and recurring corruption allegations that last week saw several European Parliament members accused of accepting bags of cash from the World Cup host to help its promotional push (Qatar officials have denied wrongdoing). Then, there’s the estimated — and eye-watering — $200 billion-plus spent on stadiums and hotels to accommodate more than a million fans.
But when all is said and done — provided Qatar maintains a safe environment through to Sunday — “they have absolutely pulled it off,” says Claire Enders, founder of leading London-based media consultancy Enders Analysis.
“They have put Qatar on the map of the world and everyone in the world knows where they are and everybody has a more positive view of Qatar than they had before, for sure,” Enders notes.
This nation-branding exercise started in 2010 when Qatar clinched World Cup rights from FIFA, beating bids from the U.S., South Korea, Japan and Australia. Then in 2012, Qatar’s state-owned beIN Sports broadcaster was set up alongside the already symbolic Al Jazeera news network. “They established beIN all over the Middle East and in France, and really built an incredible amount of Qatar brand recognition,” said Enders, pointing out that Qatar “certainly went at it ready to spend enormous sums,” given that over the years “the amount they’ve lost [on beIN] is in the many billions.”
BeIN, which denies being billions in the red, in a statement last week trumpeted record-breaking World Cup ratings across the 24 countries in the Middle East and North Africa where they are exclusive rights holders. “We are not surprised that the first World Cup in the Middle East is shattering regional viewership records with more than one billion cumulative views of the opening ceremony and first 16 matches,” said beIN CEO Mohammad Al-Subaie.
Meanwhile, FIFA has pointed out that the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is delivering record-breaking TV audience numbers across multiple markets around the world.
Ultimately, FIFA and Qatar won the gamble they took by breaking the mould to avoid Qatar’s scorching summer, and holding the event in winter instead of the mid-year months, shattering the myth that disrupting European soccer league schedules would prove to be a disaster.
Further elevating the profile of this World Cup has been the shifting geopolitics of soccer.
As one Qatar-based media expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity, points out: “The fact that certain teams in Africa, the Middle East and Asia performed remarkably well; that the whole Southern Hemisphere has gotten involved [in saying things like,] ‘Oh my God, look at that! The Saudi team can beat Argentina! Korea can tie to Portugal! Japan can knock out titans of the game [Spain]!’ That really made this World Cup one of those topsy-turvy moments in time where the fan bases weren’t just European: The fan bases were exceedingly global.”
Furthermore, Morocco galvanized Arab and African audiences by becoming the first team from both of these worlds to make it to the semifinals.
The games even signaled an extremely rare moment of unity in a fractious region. The opening ceremony, for example, reinforced the thaw in relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, following a three-year blockade with Saudi. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, wearing a Qatar scarf, sat next to FIFA president Gianni Infantino, and near Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the emir of Qatar (pictured above). “You really saw leaders from across the region coming to attend, to meet with the Qatari emir. It was another soft power win of sorts,” says Eurasia Group MENA region analyst Sofia Meranto.
Adds Dubai-based media consultant Mazen Hayek, a former spokesman for MBC, the Arab world’s largest TV network: “From a nationalistic perspective, millions of Arab fans are celebrating the fact that the FIFA World Cup is finally taking place in their own part of the world. From a logistical, organizational and operational standpoint, Doha spared no expense to make sure the World Cup is a success.”
But was the $200 billion-plus price tag worth it on the image, reputation and soft power fronts?
“I’m not really sure the incurred [costs] are yielding to high return-on-Investment,” Hayek explains, noting that “many elephants remain in the room, as evidenced by the global media scrutiny, issues-related controversies, and the EU Parliament corruption probe.”
On the other hand, money, thanks to a robust oil price hike prompted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, may not really be an issue. Qatar, according to S&P Global Ratings, is enjoying a bumper year that’s expected to generate a surplus worth 13% of its gross domestic product. The same goes for Saudi, which is in talks to buy a stake in beIN and is considering making a joint bid to host the 2030 FIFA World Cup with Egypt and Greece, according to Saudi Tourism Minister Ahmed Al Khateeb.
“I think Saudi Arabia is probably looking at the World Cup in Qatar, the wide range of human rights criticisms that accompanied it, and the lead up to this event, from the perspective of its own desire to host other big events in the future,” says Meranto.
And given the change in oil price, “there are no limits to the billions that the Qataris and the Saudis have today,” Enders points out.
“They can go at it forever.”