The Qatar-linked bid to take over ownership of Britain’s Manchester United Football Club represents the next phase of a global soft power offensive by the gas-wealthy Gulf state, as it seeks to build on its successful hosting of the 2022 Fifa 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.
“Without doubt, the Manchester United deal is the next big move in soft power projection into the West, especially by Qatar following a very successful World Cup,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “They really managed to make their mark on football at a global level despite not having a very good team or league.”
People love football. If you become the sponsor and deliver what they like, people will generally tend to remember you and in a good context
He said the logic of Qatar’s sporting ambitions was “simple”.
“People love football. If you become the sponsor and deliver what they like, people will generally tend to remember you and in a good context. They’ve already done that with the World Cup, so obviously getting into the European club scene, and particularly through Manchester United, provides a great opportunity,” Ibish said.
“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.
Analysts say Qatar has a very low public profile in Asia, despite being a primary source of liquefied natural gas imports which provide electricity and heating to its major economies China, India, Japan and South Korea.
“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.”
This was evident after neighbouring Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates cut diplomatic ties and imposed an air, land and sea embargo on Qatar in June 2017, to punish Doha for its support for Islamist political movements, and close ties with their strategic rivals Iran and Turkey.
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.
With the United States’ military command for the Middle East based in Qatar, the emirate faced no such threats during the blockade which ended in January 2021.
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.
With such powerful motivations, Qatar would not be fazed by accusations of “sportswashing” from Western liberals and United fans concerned that Arab Muslim ownership might affect the rights of LGBTQ fans, analysts said.
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.
Meanwhile, Qatar is working hard to sustain its position as a global event destination, and “even more so for sporting events after the success of the World Cup”, said Clemens Chay, a research fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore.
The latest case in point is “diving into the organisation of the 2030 Asian Games”, for which the committee which organised the World Cup has recently been given the mandate to start preparations, 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.
Investments in sport, whether through money or time, are part of Qatar’s nation branding in its foreign policy
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.