Paris Saint-Germain’s (PSG) signing of Luis Lionel Andres (“Leo”) Messi in August represents what is perhaps the highest-profile move in soccer history. It has caused a global spectacle and sparked euphoria among PSG fans. Yet, the arrival of the Argentinian soccer superstar to Paris could also be translated as the culmination of Qatar’s soft power approach in the field of sports. Indeed, the French club is owned by Qatar Sports Investments (QSI), a subsidiary of the sovereign wealth fund of the state of Qatar.

Qatar bought Paris Saint-Germain for US$170 million in 2011, and ever since it reportedly spent more than US$1.6 billion (€1.4 billion) on the club. Before signing Messi, PSG signed several high-profile players, such as prolific scorer Brazilian player Neymar for a record-breaking $US257 million (€222 million) in 2017. It is believed that by signing Messi, Qatar aims to maximize commercial opportunities related to the Argentinian superstar who will be associated with Qatar through their ownership of the PSG as well as Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup, where Messi is expected to play an important role with its national team.

But Messi’s transfer goes far beyond soccer. The world of sports has evolved into a powerful tool of diplomacy and state branding, and such a demonstration of soft power is playing an ever-greater role in Qatar’s foreign policy. Through sports, Qatar and other Gulf countries hope to increase their profile and bring international attention to their countries, in order to attract more tourists and foreign investment.

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Lionel Messi at a press conference at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Aug. 8, 2021. FC Barcelona previously announced that Lionel Messi would be leaving the club. (AP Photo/Joan Monfort)

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Dr. Kristian Alexander – a Senior Fellow at TRENDS Research & Advisory in Abu Dhabi, UAE – observes that by financing a European soccer club, “Qatar wants to indicate/demonstrate that such a small state can be successful in the global [sports] arena and that it is able to attract some of the biggest stars to play in a [stellar] ensemble at PSG.” Alexander told Inside Arabia that Qatar is operating in a competitive environment that sees other countries, such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia employing similar tools in terms of image branding.

In an interview with Inside Arabia, Simon Chadwick, Global Professor of the Eurasian Sport Industry and Director at the Center for the Eurasian Sport Industry, said that “nation branding [has] become an important part of nation-building,” adding that it is “similar or even synonymous [with] soft power.” He explained that Qatar not only wishes to differentiate itself from other countries in the region, but it also wants people to have a brand association with the country.

Moreover, Chadwick noted, “through sports and soccer, in particular, [Qatar is] seeking legitimacy as well as providence, and all this is borne out of strategic vulnerability of the country wedged on the peninsula between Iran and Saudi Arabia and some fairly unstable countries in the region. So, Qatar is using sports to mitigate geopolitical risks.”

David Ellwood, a Senior Adjunct Professor of European and Eurasian Studies at SAIS Europe, observes that while Qatari investment in soccer, including next year’s World Cup tournament, may give the monarchy a huge boost to its legitimacy, the domestic impact is much more important than that on the outside world. “Given that Gulf countries, in general, have legions of unemployed young men, who, if they are not given jobs and outlets for their passions and interests,” could “easily cause trouble,” promoting soccer – especially European, he added, makes sense because it is what these youngsters care most about.

Qatar as well as other Gulf states’ investments in sports have often been met with harsh criticism.

Qatar as well as other Gulf states’ investments in sports have often been met with harsh criticism, and their approach has been described as an example of “sportswashing.” The term is used to explain the practice of investing in sports to improve a nation’s global image and cover up problematic issues. Ever since Doha won the World Cup bid, Western media have accused Qatar of human and migrant rights violations, as well as neglecting environmental matters related to its energy-intensive economy and its “climate irresponsibility.”

While these issues should not be taken lightly, the truth is that such reporting patterns have almost never been used in the case of Western states. For example, one could find very few if any reports linking English soccer or other sports events held in the UK (such as the Olympic Games) with British military adventures in the Middle East, or their arms deals with regimes that have abysmal human rights records.

In a similar vein, there is almost no negative campaign against US sports and their association with Washington’s aggressive and militarized foreign policy that resulted in much death and destruction in the world for the last 70 years, nor its shameful human and minority rights record at home. This suggests that the Western countries often deliberately forget their own unfavorable practices and choose to expose only those whom they perceive as direct geopolitical or sports rivals.

To underscore this notion, Chadwick evokes the case of Norway, whose national Football Federation (NFF) held an extraordinary conference in June, about the possibility of boycotting the World Cup in Qatar. The Norwegian soccer community was under immense pressure from local activists to stand against Qatar’s alleged human rights abuses of migrant workers.

While the boycott failed, Chadwick revealed a lesser-known fact: Norway’s famous sovereign wealth fund (The Government Pension Fund of Norway) has significantly invested in Qatar. All its ventures go through review by the fund’s ethical committee, which has never raised any concerns over human or migrant-related issues in Qatar. Furthermore, Chadwick noted he has never heard that any Norwegian soccer club or player has made statements against their own country about the controversial ramifications of whale hunting, which is a popular practice in Norway.

Alexander agrees that there is indeed a sense of hypocrisy that can be raised here, while Chadwick further added that the term “sportswashing” itself is very Western and hugely reductionist. “It is culturally prescribed and employed by people as a means to judge others with whom you have an issue, and it has to do with changing balance of power in the world,” he said. In his view, such accusations against Qatar are a “quite simplistic, naïve, and ignorant way of looking at the country, as there is much more [promising developments happening in] Qatar than many can realize.”

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PSG’s signing of Lionel Messi in August represents what is perhaps the highest-profile move in soccer history and a culmination of Qatar’s soft power.  (Getty)

Nevertheless, signing Messi at a time when the whole world economy is going through hard times due to the COVID-19 pandemic, even as soccer giants like Barcelona or Juventus are facing a dire financial situation and losing their minds over mega-transfers, raises the question: Do these transfers and contracts make economic sense, especially the very expensive nation branding efforts?

According to Ellwood, spending grotesque sums of money on soccer players and coaches looks ridiculous in difficult times like these. Moreover, he too argues that the whole idea of nation branding—like sportswashing— is much too simple and reductive, and the key inventors of that idea seem to have left it behind.

From a sports perspective, Alexander believes that Messi’s move is a calculated risk for PSG and Qatar. He recalls, that despite its previous investment in high-caliber players (like the transfer of Neymar), PSG has not been able to win the prestigious Champions League. Alexander further notes that the Argentine’s presence will surely lead to increased jersey sales and to a sense of excitement. “This is not about responsible spending behavior but about outdoing other nations/clubs that use a similar high stakes investment strategy in order to achieve their goals.”

As for Chadwick, PSG is part of the rentier state approach where the country is generating external revenue from overseas investment. “It is interesting that ten years ago, PSG was earning some 100 million euros [$US115 million], now they are close to 700 million euros [US$810 million] per year. It is entirely feasible that PSG will earn over a billion [US] dollars annually, so this is sustainable business as it generates [long-term] revenue streams and it is commercially successful,” Chadwick explained. In terms of the rentier state landscape, this is quite important. PSG represents an investment asset where the Qatari government would like other Qataris to engage.

PSG represents an investment asset where the Qatari government would like other Qataris to engage.

The purchasing power of the state-owned clubs may not just seek to dominate the global soccer scene (although there is no guarantee that they will be successful in European competitions), but have already resulted in some other big clubs pushing the idea of creating a breakaway, American-style “Super League” which they see as providing more profitable competition.

While this idea ended in total fiasco and its initiators (Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Juventus) have been slammed by almost the entire European soccer community, for trying to create a closed, elitist competition, Qatari businessman and PSG President Nasser al-Khelaifi has cleverly chosen to support the UEFA and refused to participate in the backlash. In Chadwick’s view, Qatar has also worked very hard to establish a very central position at the European Club Association (ECA), as Khelaifi has become Chairman of the ECA—the only UEFA-recognized body representing clubs in Europe.

According to Chadwick, Qatar and Khalaifi may play a pivotal role at the heart of European soccer and the “way this is being packaged is not about pushing Qatari interests but finding consensus among all [parties], while also taking a firm standing for small and vulnerable [soccer] nations and their clubs.” He believes this is classic Qatar—trying to ally with everyone.

“Qatar has become even more powerful, and it has done that by [forming alliances with] others rather than putting itself in conflict with others,” he added.

And, if Leo Messi helps PSG win the trophy of the Champions League in May 2022, the year Qatar hosts the World Cup, this would not only represent an exceptional sports triumph but also a crown jewel for Doha’s soft power efforts.