Qatar-linked Manchester United bid the next phase in kingdom’s global charm offensive
- The ownership bid aims to elevate Qatar to a ‘position of visibility and legitimacy’, as it seeks to boost ties with Asia and the rest of the world
- Qatar has been working hard to sustain itself as a global event destination, on the back of its successful hosting of the 2022 World Cup
The aims of Doha’s game are manifold, analysts say, but they primarily seek to build a positive public impression worldwide about the tiny emirate by closely associating it with United, one of the most widely-supported clubs in the world’s most popular sport.
He said the logic of Qatar’s sporting ambitions was “simple”.
“There is no reason for Qatar not to double or triple down on what has been a successful public diplomacy effort involving international football.”
Ibish said the bid for United by Qatari banker Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al-Thani would be aimed at “an Asian audience, an Arab audience, a British audience and a European audience, probably in that order”.
“So obviously, these are the constituencies that the Qatari government would be hoping to influence in a positive way,” he said.
Sheikh Jassim’s camp has thus far not indicated that his bid is directly linked to the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, though observers have noted that the line between state and the private funds of the ruling tribe – comprising some 3,000 individuals – is thin.
“As someone who has worked extensively across Asia, I have seen how Qatar’s reputation ranges from anonymity to, in some cases, fear,” said Simon Chadwick, a professor of sport and geopolitical economy at SKEMA Business School in Paris. “I know that in China many are still deeply suspicious of Qatar and, indeed, sometimes equate the country with terrorism.”
But times are changing and relations between Qatar and the rest of Asia are improving, he said.
This is partly due to active diplomacy by the government in Doha, of which the World Cup was an integral part.
Owning United would enable this process to continue, Chadwick said, adding that “further improvements in Qatar’s image, reputation, and trustworthiness across Asia” could be expected.
The ruling al-Thani family also sees sports asset ownership and global event hosting as a way of “creating interdependencies with other countries which elevates Qatar to a position of visibility and legitimacy”, he said.
“This gives countries reasons to look out for Qatar’s interests, especially when confronted with external threats,” Chadwick said. “Fundamentally, this is what Qatar’s sport policy is about – the sense of strategic vulnerability the country sometimes feels.”
Doha’s sporting interests give countries “reasons to look out for Qatar’s interests, especially when confronted with external threats”, Chadwick said, adding that the Qatari government was also “mitigating risk and promoting its security interests” by moving some of its assets offshore.
“If ever the country was attacked or invaded, it has assets overseas upon which the country’s rulers can fall back on,” Chadwick told This Week In Asia.
Ownership of foreign assets did, however, figure in legal battles after a previous emir, Sheikh Khalifa al-Thani, was deposed by his son Sheikh Hamad in a bloodless July 1995 coup. Hamad voluntarily abdicated in June 2013 to ensure the smooth succession of power to his son, the current emir Sheikh Tamim.
The then foreign minister, father of United’s prospective owner Sheikh Jassim, was a key player in the coup, which paved the way for the massive investments that turned Qatar from a struggling backwater into a wealthy gas exporter.
In a Ligue 1 match on World Homophobia Day last May, PSG players sported kits with rainbow numbering to support the LGBTQ movement.
Likewise, human rights organisations are already facing considerable pushback on migrant workers’ rights from Qatar.
In 2020, it became the first Gulf Arab country to scrap the long-standing kifala work permit sponsorship system under which employers could prevent employees from changing jobs. It also introduced a minimum legal wage.
In the case of last year’s World Cup, Qatari authorities were slow to respond to accusations of sportswashing, analysts said.
But as the tournament approached, the country “adopted a more robust and assertive approach to critics”, Chadwick said.
“This was a sign of increased confidence among Qatari decision-makers, which we should expect to see again if the country is successful in acquiring United,” he said.
Washington-based analyst Ibish expects Qatar to respond to critics “largely by ignoring them”.
“But if they are really drawn out of their shell, they can always say that they have been making improvements on the treatment of migrant workers and insist that, on balance, they are a force for good in the world generally and in the sporting world in particular,” he said.
Qatari authorities are also making “significant efforts to showcase their own footballing history, which in turn makes the point about having sustainable sporting, if not, footballing culture”, Chay said.
The Qatar National Library, for instance, now boasts an exhibition section comprising the Qatari love for and flavour of football.
“These investments in sport, whether through money or time, are part of Qatar’s nation branding in its foreign policy that in turn dribble down to its domestic cultural practices,” Chay said.
With the infrastructure from the World Cup intact and a strong reputation earned from the mega sporting event, the Qatari government “will continue to redirect resources towards development projects and the spotting of talent”, Chay said.
Under the sport pillar of Qatar’s nation-branding strategy, the organisation of major events, the acquisition of clubs, the ability to connect with an audience through media platforms like beIN Sports satellite TV channel and the mission to train future stars “all make up the drive for Qatar’s international visibility”, he said.