Soft power sponsorships: how Qatar uses sport to promote a positive picture to the outside world
Qatar, Russia, and even Azerbaijan are using high-profile sports sponsorships to build their national profiles and change perceptions
Over the last decade, Qatar has become synonymous with sport, albeit at times contentiously. The small Gulf nation’s rapid ascendancy to a position of influence in world sport has not been accidental. In its 2030 National Vision and accompanying development strategy, sport is explicitly mentioned as a vehicle through which Qatar can achieve a multiplicity of goals.
Doha’s strategic decision-makers have therefore been thinking ahead, and see an investment in sport as being part of Qatar’s post-oil and gas future. Specifically, sport is viewed as a means through which to generate both economic and socio-cultural benefits. Sport can be a source of jobs and export earnings, and address issues such as health, well-being and social cohesion among the country’s disparate domestic population.
Closely connected with the country’s sense of nation branding, sport is openly acknowledged by its government as being an important instrument of soft power in facilitating Qatar’s development.
The red nodes in this network visualisation represent the volume of sponsorship relations in which an entity is engaged. As such, we observe that Qatar Airways, Qatar National Bank, Ooredoo (a state-owned telecommunications company) and the Qatar Racing and Equine Club (QREC) are especially prominent in the network.
Qatar Airways (QA) has become something of an emblem for the country’s ambitions, especially as the airline has won numerous international awards for the standards of service it provides. Once more, QA’s success has been the result of a deliberate strategy by the Qatari state designed to attract not only airline passenger numbers, but also to evoke favourable impressions of the country across the world.
As such, we infer that there is an industrial and commercial element to QA’s sponsorship programmes. Its associations with the likes of German football club Bayern Munich are consistent with conventional sports sponsorship programmes that emphasise the recognition and awareness benefits attributable to sponsorship programmes. In the same way, Ooredoo’s deals with a variety of partners appear to be consistent with this too.
Drawing from this preliminary analysis of Qatari-related sponsorships, we therefore suggest that a new form of sponsorship has been created – soft power sponsorships – which we define as:
an outward contractual relationship between a state-owned entity and a property aimed at promoting the attractiveness of a country, its culture and its policies, with the intention of altering the attitudes and behaviours of key target audiences pertaining to the entity and/or the country with which it is associated.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan positioned itself as the ‘Land of Fire’ when it sponsored Spanish football club Atletico Madrid’s shirts to promote its hosting of the inaugural European Games, its staging of the Eurovision Song Contest, and its bid to host the Olympic Games.
Soft power sponsorships are changing the industrial and commercial landscape, as well as placing sport centre-stage of the image-projection strategies being adopted by, notably, Asian countries. In years to come, it will be interesting to assess the extent to which they have altered our views of Qatar, Azerbaijan and other countries around the world.
This piece is published in partnership with Policy Forum at the Australian National University’s Crawford School and the China Soccer Observatory at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham.