It’s hard to know who was happier when the 2022 World Cup came to its dramatic conclusion Sunday with Argentina’s victory over France. Was it Argentina captain Lionel Messi, who had worked so hard for so many years for this moment? Or was it Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Qatar’s ruler, who spent hundreds of billions of dollars to stage the games in his country?
Make no mistake about it, when the sheikh placed a traditional bisht cloak on Messi before awarding Argentina the trophy, he was claiming bragging rights as the games’ host as much as Messi was claiming them as the games’ winner. But what does the sheikh have to brag about?
It’s true that Qatar defied critics who warned that the country wasn’t up to holding such a world-class event: that it was too small, too hot, had too few hotels and no sports facilities to speak of. In the end, the games went smoothly, perhaps helped by lower-than-expected attendance that saved it from unmanageable traffic jams and a shortage of hotel rooms.
It’s also true that Qatar also mostly succeeded in steering clear of political controversies that threatened to ruin Sheikh Tamim’s show, like issues surrounding LGBTQ visitors, Qatar’s exploitation of foreign guest-workers and its bans on any political expression (except, notably, support for Palestine). The worst crisis of the event was Qatar’s embarrassing last-minute ban on beer sales in stadiums to avoid offending Muslims.
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By raising Qatar’s global profile, the World Cup did what it was allegedly supposed to do for the country. But as PR campaigns go, it’s hard to believe Sheikh Tamim will get his money’s worth.
But the fact is, he doesn’t need to get his money’s worth. It was all an empty show.
The beauties of Qatar
No one knows how much cash the emirate lavished on the games, but estimates range from $220 billion to $300 billion, which is many times more than any other host of the World Cup or Olympics has ever spent.
The direct costs were relatively modest – no more than $10 billion was spent on stadiums, perhaps a few tens of million more on celebrity endorsements, and (if the allegations prove to be true) some more millions on bribes to win hosting rights from FIFA. Rather, the lion’s share of spending went to expanding Qatar’s airport, adding highways, and building a metro and tens of thousands of hotel rooms.
The Qataris and their defenders say this was money well spent, an investment in the country’s post-games economy. The World Cup will serve as a giant billboard advertising the beauties of Qatar to investors and tourists; the infrastructure will be there to serve them once they start flocking to the emirate.
The economic benefits of hosting marquee sporting events like the Olympics and World Cup have long been disproven. Almost no country earns back the money they invested. In the case of Qatar, however, even if there were economic benefits to be had, it may be the one place in the world that doesn’t need them.
Other Gulf countries have been seeking to diversify their economies by turning themselves into centers of tourism, industry, logistics, finance and technology in anticipation of the day that their oil runs out and/or that the world transitions to renewable energy. That will take time, but they can’t afford to wait. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has a population of 22 million (not counting migrants) that it needs to employ by encouraging the non-oil private sector. Dubai’s oil reserves are gone, and Bahrain is beginning to import natural gas because local demand is outstripping production capacity.
Qatar doesn’t have any of these worries. Its population is just 2.9 million, and nearly all of those are non-citizens. The indigenous population is a mere 380,000, which is not enough people to staff a “diversified” economy. Qatar is sitting on the world’s third-largest reserves of natural gas, which at the current rate of production will last the country more than 600 years. In the first half of this year alone, Qatar took in $41 billion in natural gas revenues.
Hopefully, the world will move to renewables long before 600 years have gone by, but Qatar’s gas will be among the last fossil fuels to be dispensed with. Compared to oil and coal, it puts less C02 into the atmosphere. And, when the day comes that the world is powered by windmills and solar, the Qatar Investment Authority, the country’s sovereign wealth fund, will be there: It already has some $460 billion stocked away for the future, a sum that will keep growing as long as the natural gas keeps flowing.
Using even the low-end figure of $220 billion for World Cup spending, Qatar spent close to $600,000 per citizen for an image-boosting campaign that is supposed to help create jobs and opportunities in the future. It was money down the drain: Qatar doesn’t need to diversify its economy, and certainly doesn’t need to do it at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars.
The beautiful PR game
To be fair, some of Qatar’s energy largesse has been used to help others who have not had the good luck to be in a place with so few people sitting atop so much gas. The suitcases filled with Qatari dollars delivered to Gaza is the example most familiar to Israelis. But Hamas isn’t the only one – Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan, and their troubled economies, have been beneficiaries of billions in aid and investment. Qatar gives hundreds of millions away annually in development assistance to other countries.
Still this is nothing compared to what Qatar spent on the World Cup. Imagine what it could have accomplished if it had decided to use those same billions usefully. The cost of reconstructing Ukraine is estimated now at about $250 billion and a Syria rebuild at $250 billion to $400 billion. The UN estimates that world hunger could be ended by spending $40 billion a year through 2030. The low-ball estimate for halting climate change is $350 billion.
All of these bills could easily have been covered by Qatar in whole or in part, scoring it PR points while doing something actually useful. But it seems pretty self-evident that PR and nation-building were only No. 2 or 3 on Sheikh Tamim’s priority list.
No. 1 was that he and his father (who was ruler in 2010 when Qatar controversially won the rights to the 2022 World Cup) happen to be big soccer fans. They have more money than they know what to do with and aren’t accountable to anyone, including their subjects, for how they spend it. So, instead of attending the World Cup like ordinary billionaires and potentates, they had the World Cup attend them.
Apologists for Qatar can argue as much as they want about how hosting the World Cup will boost the country’s image and attract business, investment and tourism. Or that it will provide the geopolitical benefits by raising its global profile just in case Iran invades or Saudi Arabia imposes another embargo and Qatar needs allies to help it. But hosting the World Cup was really no more than the world’s biggest vanity project.