News | Social Theory - WM Katar 2022 What “Sportswashing” Obscures

States like Qatar don’t get to host major sporting events without the support of the capitalist West



Raphael Molter,

Angela Merkel posing with the German national team after winning the 2014 World Cup.
Angela Merkel posing with the German national team after winning the 2014 World Cup. Photo: picture alliance / AP Photo | Guido Bergmann

In the years of debate over the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, no term has been more widely invoked than sportswashing. The accusation is raised whenever people dispute the whys and wherefores of staging the planet’s biggest sporting event on the Arabian Peninsula. Situated between the dunes and the sea, this year’s venue appears to present a very difficult set of conditions under which to play football.

Raphael Molter is a political scientist and writer who works on a materialist critique of football, among other topics.

Translated by Gegensatz Translation Collective.

Even in 2019, when Qatar played host to the World Athletics Championships, criticism proliferated in view of the brutal heat. To avoid the daytime temperatures, the women’s marathon was held in the middle of the night, but even so, 28 of the 68 runners collapsed, and things didn’t turn out much better in the men’s marathon. Guinea pigs for the emirate, the marathons alone saw 46 of 141 athletes collapse, in spite of weather conditions that, by Qatari standards, were ideal: around 30 degrees Celsius, with atmospheric humidity hovering between 50 and 75 percent.

A Profitable Investment

Qatar makes use of sport. It would seem that the aim is to make the country an international sports hub, with the small state so far managing to secure over 500 international sporting events since 1990. By hosting major golf tournaments, Formula One racing, and now the FIFA World Cup, Qatar has gone from being a small, unknown country on the Arabian Peninsula to one of the major players in world sport.

The emirate’s long-term goal is encapsulated in a series of modernization projects that are enabling the Qatari state to become less dependent on oil revenue and open up other economic sectors. With its “Vision 2030”, the Qatari monarchy presented a new strategic plan, setting out, among other goals, ways for the Middle East to fight climate change and engage with renewable energy. This is of course fantastic news at a time when Germany’s Minister for Economic Affairs, too, is obliged to do the rounds in Qatar in order to secure a supply of natural gas. Which led Minister Robert Habeck to say:

Qatar is in the process of increasing its gas production and in the short term, we need more gas to replace the supply we were previously receiving from Russia. … Our discussions have not, however, merely focused on the short term, but also on how energy policy will proceed overall. Before my trip, I was told, “Qatar is a supplier of gas and they’re not particularly interested in renewable energy and action on climate change.” But that is not the case. During my visit I’ve repeatedly discussed the energy transition, the supply of renewables, and climate neutrality. And to my surprise, I’ve encountered a lot of openness to these things.

The reciprocal links between high levels of prosperity bankrolled by the export of natural gas and other fossil fuels and investment in sporting events became patent just months before the World Cup, triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Sportswashing or Cooperation?

In this context, the term sportswashing connotes efforts to secure the right to host sporting events or investments in sport in order to improve the reputation of a country or — more specifically — its political leaders. From a German perspective, the term immediately calls to mind Angela Merkel, who, as Germany’s chancellor, not only reaped significant benefits from the rising fortunes of the German men’s football team beginning in 2006, but also always knew how best to project her image in this context. This came through in those scenes where Merkel commiserated with the players in the locker rooms, in the corresponding portrayals in the films Deutschland: Ein Sommermärchen (2006) and Die Mannschaft (2014), but also in public statements from the Federal Chancellery.

But this is not what the term is really supposed to denote. “Sportswashing” first appears in the 2010s, providing — whether expressed in these words or not — a term for describing (usually with racist undertones) what the Gulf states have been attempting to do for around the last two decades: buying a degree of influence over European sport, becoming indispensable as financiers, gaining control. It is not only Qatar that has irons in the fire of corporate sport, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain have also become important investors in global sport, and in football in particular.

Transnational capital is not simply an autonomous force beyond the influence of Qatar’s House of Thani, but enters into a close relationship with the country’s dominant class faction.

Qatar has invested over 1 billion US dollars in its French PR vehicle, Paris Saint-Germain. When the World Cup hosts for 2018 and 2022 were selected in December 2010, then-President of France Nicolas Sarkozy helped ensure that Qatar would be chosen to host the 2022 World Cup. In return, French corporations received major contracts on the Arabian Peninsula. Commentators much too frequently act as if investments in sport were only about distracting attention away from objectionable domestic situations — as if governments in Qatar or Saudi Arabia only wanted to present the rest of the world with the impression that they respect human rights and have functioning safety regulations in the workplace. This idea draws support from the tokenistic reforms that the Qatari state has officially been implementing for several years now, but which, according to numerous accounts from migrant workers, have led to scant changes in practice.

However, the concept of sportswashing obscures several dimensions that are essential to an understanding of the phenomenon. Corporations from the capitalist core have also discovered the Gulf region for their own purposes, and use the very same sporting events as a means of Westernizing it. For example, one of the effects of Qatar’s winning World Cup bid was the German railway operator Deutsche Bahn scoring the biggest contract in its history, with DB then able to sign subcontracts with numerous other German and French companies.

The reasons for this are obvious, seeing as the apparently synthetic cities of the Arabian Peninsula are almost blank slates as far as infrastructure is concerned, and sporting events offer an incentive to plan developments from the ground up and profit from massive contracts on a scale that would be impossible for sporting events held in Germany, Great Britain, or the US, simply because those places already possess infrastructure.

“Sportswashing” Is a Mirage

But why is Qatar interested in these events? The standard response to this question consists in references to the oft-cited, but only infrequently criticized soft-power strategy, which, when we consider the history of ideas, lies at the foundations of the notion of sportswashing. But what is the underlying understanding of the world that is implied here?

For years, Qatar’s attempts to expand its influence have led even critical observers to take this term, which is actually a theory, as an indisputable reality. Instead of rising challenging the gaps in this analysis, instead of developing alternative, critical perspectives, the consensus approach has been to assume that Qatar was using this strategy to compensate for its military inferiority with respect to its neighbours.

The root of such an understanding of international relations is by no means a critical one, however. Its theoretical progenitor, Joseph Nye, worked for many years in the service of governments, and was even US Assistant Secretary of Defense under Democrat Bill Clinton. Those who wish to speak about soft power ought not to remain silent about the underlying assumptions of the concept, for it is at this point that the problems become apparent.

Nye belongs to the mainstream of foreign policy and theories of international relations. Together with Robert O. Keohane, Nye founded interdependence theory and regime theory. These theories were the theoretical predecessors of neoliberal institutionalism, which investigates the modes of operation and the entanglements of international organizations, and rests on a classical liberal image of the world according to which states emerge not only as actors in international politics, but also as social groups. Exponents of this theoretical current also posit a fundamental anarchy within the international system, which is then constrained by relationships of interdependence between individual states and societies. These relationships promote an interest in cooperation, which leads to the formation of international institutions, which then go on to develop dynamics of their own.

In the context of the last three decades, basic assumptions such as these appear incomplete, since they either are scarcely able to explain how and why economic production and supply chains have detached themselves from national contexts or simply do not take the role of transnational corporations into account. Nonetheless, a certain fixation on state action at the foreign policy level appears to be undergoing something of a renaissance, in view of the fact that Qatari corporations clearly act according to similar patterns and under the direct influence of Qatar’s political leaders. The idea of a rogue state that exploits the working people within its borders and blows billions on European football is a seductive one.

Gramsci, Hegemony, and Qatar

The critique of the narrative of Qatar’s soft-power strategy is a critique of the founding liberal assumptions of international relations as a discipline. International relations is not simply an empty field ruled by a sheer anarchy that can only be opposed by means of order established via interdependencies, cooperation, and international organizations. Rather, we are dealing with a period in which the world is dominated by global capitalism, which leads to the emergence of transnational relationships of power and dominance.

If we ignore or fail to recognize this, we contribute — like the theory of neoliberal institutionalism — to the preservation of dominant social relationships of power. We ignore the causes of all the injustices of the existing order and posit its existence as natural. Instead of investigating the conditions for a structural transformation, the soft-power narrative floats almost motionlessly in space and, at best, provides approaches that Canadian political scientist Robert Cox has described as problem-solving approaches, which view the surrounding circumstances as fixed, thereby revealing their blind-spot.

The capitalist enclosure of sport may contribute to stabilizing Qatar within the regional politics of the Arabian Peninsula, but it is first and foremost a product of the ruling classes in the capitalist core.

Cox himself proceeds in a completely different way, retrieving insights developed by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci to found a critical theory of hegemony, the global order, and historical change, thereby introducing neo-Gramscian perspectives into international relations. In place of a supposedly neutral, anarchic global order, Gramsci’s historical materialism, influenced by Marx, provides a new approach. If Gramsci himself was chiefly concerned with the mechanisms of bourgeois domination, then Cox and his colleagues make use of a Gramsci-inspired perspective precisely in order to avoid getting stuck at the level of the nation-state, and instead reveal the relationships of power and domination that structure the global space.

Gramsci had provided the vocabulary for this some hundred years earlier, because hegemony is also at stake where global order(s) are concerned. In place of the realistic understanding of hegemony as a state’s economic and military dominance, neo-Gramscian perspectives attempt to develop a historical conception of the crystallization of hegemony, incorporating social, cultural, and ideological dimensions.

Political scientists Andreas Bieler and Adam David Morton therefore speak of a concept of hegemony that denotes “prevalent structures of power and dominance that are secured by a hegemonic consensus.” Their formulation is aimed at the way that the numerous actors at the level of international relations accept certain ideas and adhere to them in their behaviour. Without hegemony, there would be no generally supported relationships of power and dominance. Without generally supported relationships of power and dominance, there would be no global order based on relative consent.

You Scratch My Back, I Scratch Yours

But how can neo-Gramscian perspectives help us to better understand Qatar’s foreign policy?

One of the dictums to have emerged from these perspectives is that the social relations of production produce factions of social forces. This can be observed very clearly in the case of Qatar, as the influence of Western Europe and the US on the small Arabian state should not be underestimated. Corporations from Germany and France view Qatar as a new market to conquer, and a country they will willingly help if it means opening up new sources of capital accumulation. The governments of the countries in which these corporations are based provide Qatar with military backing and ensure the relative stability of its economic prosperity, such that even during the Qatari crisis of 2017–2021, the country’s economy faltered only slightly.

Clearly, transnational capital is not simply an autonomous force beyond the influence of Qatar’s House of Thani but enters into a close relationship — which becomes even clearer in the context of football — with the country’s dominant class faction.

When the FIFA Confederations Cup was inaugurated in 1997 as the successor to the King Fahd Cup held in Saudi Arabia, the then-general secretary of FIFA, Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, had taken a day-long detour to the small neighbouring country, carrying on a lengthy and animated discussion with the Qatari emir and sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, father of the current head of state in Qatar. Those discussions between Hamad bin Khalifa and FIFA’s later president indicate clearly the opportunities that the gatekeepers of football as a capitalist enclosure saw in Qatar:

During the inaugural FIFA/Confederations Cup … in December 1997, the General Secretary of FIFA went missing for at least [a day]. Blatter left Riyadh for a secret visit to neighbouring Qatar. There he met in Doha the ruler of the country, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani. … [Bin Khalifa] has a reputation as a moderniser, a man anxious to open his country’s doors to Western investment. … His meeting with Blatter was not to discuss innovations. The subject on the agenda was as old as man. Power and how to acquire it. The solution has been around for a while too. Buy it. I do not know what Blatter offered the Sheikh but I would not be terribly surprised if there is a FIFA announcement in the near future that one of the many meaningless tournaments that the Havelange presidency gave birth to has been scheduled to be held in Qatar.

With these words, published 12 years before the award of the World Cup, journalist David A. Yallop guessed in which direction the collaboration was going. But not only that: the alliance between FIFA and the ruling class in Qatar is not one characterized by inequality or dependency. Rather, two allies have come together, unified by their hegemonic position within capitalist relations.

Broadening Our Horizons

We should avoid speaking of a soft-power strategy pursued by a state, Qatar, that acts in an independent and supposedly autonomous way and uses sport to wash itself clean.

The approach taken by neoliberal institutionalism automatically assigns the role of the baddie to Qatar, without looking into the contexts and causes of Qatar’s sporting entanglements. The role of global capitalism and the hegemony of social forces — most notably of transnational capital — have been flagrantly neglected. The capitalist enclosure of sport may contribute to stabilizing Qatar within the regional politics of the Arabian Peninsula, but it is first and foremost a product of the ruling classes in the capitalist core (especially in France), of transnationally active corporations, and of the officials of football-as-capitalist-enclosure.

If it seems that we’re witnessing Qatari autocrats going on the offensive to acquire power and influence at the geopolitical level, then this is only superficially true. What we are witnessing, rather, are structures of power and dominance that operate according to the patterns of global capitalism’s world order. Qatar is a new market to be conquered. At the same time, Qatar’s political leaders are enabling new investments in a growing European market: football as a capitalist enterprise. Which is entirely in accordance with the hegemonic consensus.