From the standpoint of pure sport, the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup in Qatar has been full of surprises in every round. On the field, fans got the excitement they were looking for. But did Qatar get what it was looking for in hosting the world’s most watched sporting event? The objectives of this small, but wealthy petrostate are not officially listed. In contrast to other World Cup bids for 2022, the original Qatar 2022 “bid book” submitted to FIFA is not publicly available. But with the help of several analyses, posts, and reports, we can identify three of Qatar’s implicit geopolitical objectives: to showcase Qatar’s unique identity, to achieve global recognition, and to diversify the economy away from fossil fuels by using sports to expand future tourism, trade and foreign direct investment. An examination of these three objectives suggest that for now, the World Cup has been closer to a draw for Qatar than an outright victory.

Showcase Qatar’s Unique Identity

Qatar made sure that the world would see its unique identity from the start, scheduling the opening match in Al Bayt stadium, which was constructed to look like a massive Bedouin tent. Another stadium, Al Janoub, was built to look like the fishing dhows common to the Gulf. Watchers of any World Cup match have no doubt noticed the adaptation of local Qatari male dress, consisting of the thawb and shemagh, in a variety of creative ways among fans. While the dress is not unique to Qatar but rather part of tradition throughout the Gulf, this has been one of the noticeable areas where local cultural aspects have bled over into what billions around the world have seen. Television platforms likewise incorporated local customs into the location and design of their studios that viewers around the world have seen when tuning in. For instance, Telemundo’s main studio is located right in the heart of Souq Waqif in Doha, providing viewers with a traditional marketplace backdrop. Likewise, Fox Sports established its main studio on the Doha corniche with the city’s skyline and harbor in the background.

Achieve Global Recognition for Qatar

With 765,000 visitors in the first two weeks and many millions who have tuned in via screens so far, Qatar certainly has added to its visibility. A large percentage of the world’s people now know that Qatar exists and hosted the World Cup. However, not all of this global recognition has been positive. The 2022 World Cup has been full of controversy, with intense global scrutiny of Qatar’s treatment of migrant workersseveral thousand of whom died while building World Cup infrastructurethe LGBTQ+ community, journalists, and its citizens in general. Prominent outlets such as Telemundo pointedly raised some of these issues during their opening broadcast, a domain typically reserved for soccer-related discussion only. Migrant worker abuse has continued to generate news throughout the tournament. Another recurring storyline has been the limitations on any expression related to LGBTQ+ issues, as fans who expressed solidarity were denied entry into stadiums and some hotels refused to accommodate same-sex couples.

There is also the everlasting question about how Qatar was awarded the World Cup in the first place, given its small size and lack of soccer culture or prowess — even compared to its regional neighbors. In 2020, the Department of Justice confirmed that Qatari representatives had used bribery to secure hosting rights. Even former FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who oversaw and approved the selection of Qatar, said that it was “a mistake” to award it to the country.

Diversify Qatar’s Economy

This is primarily a longer-term objective, though there are some indicators that we can examine now. The total of 765,000 visitors fell far short of Qatar’s professed goal of 1.2 million for the month-long tournament. The “Boycott Qatar 2022” campaign in Europe and other similar efforts may have contributed to this. In addition, perhaps 1.2 million was too lofty a goal for a country that received fewer than 3 million visitors total in each of 2015 and 2016 and has witnessed a steep drop since likely due to the 2017–2021 Gulf diplomatic rift and COVID-19 pandemic. Qatar is hosting the 2030 Asian Games and plans to bid again for the Olympics. The country is projected to experience significant growth in foreign direct investment during 2023, though only time will tell if this is truly driven by economic diversification or simply by a growth in demand for Qatar’s natural gas due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and associated Western energy sanctions. Past trends for World Cup hosts are not positive in terms of a post-tournament investment “boom.”

Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup has brought both surprise and controversy. Through all of this, the question remains about whether the small country achieved its aims. For all three principle geopolitical objectives — showcasing Qatar’s unique identity, achieving global recognition and diversifying the economy — Qatar has achieved some measure of success. It introduced the world to local traditions, put Qatar on the map for a wide audience, and received an influx of visitors and money unrelated to its fossil fuel deposits. But there have been downsides for Qatar as well. Millions of people first learned in detail about Qatar’s internal issues like migrant worker abuse and lack of LGBTQ+ rights through World Cup media coverage. Time will tell regarding the long-term effects of Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup. But as the final whistle is blown this Sunday, the small Arabian Gulf country has scored a draw that has been further tainted by some own goals.  

Sam Plapinger is a Research Scientist with CNA’s Special Activities and Intelligence Program. At CNA, his work focuses on strategic competition, irregular warfare, fleet operations, and Middle East security issues. From 2020 to 2022, Sam served as the embedded CNA field representative to the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, conducting research and analysis for the senior U.S. Navy commander in the Middle East.