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Qatar’s ‘sportswashing’ efforts to boost tourism industry likely to fail, per experts

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By Webb Wright, NY Reporter

November 18, 2022 | 7 min read

Alleged human rights’ violations during the construction of the World Cup stadium. Accusations of bribing Fifa officials. And, just this morning, the sudden decision to ban in-stadium alcoholic beverages during the tournament. Can Qatar manage to paint itself as an attractive country for future tourists amid such scrutiny and scandal? Experts are skeptical.

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Qatar is the first Arab country to host the Fifa World Cup / Adobe Stock

Earlier this week, Qatar – the host country of the 2022 World Cup – launched ‘Feel more in Qatar,’ a marketing campaign aimed at boosting the country’s tourism industry. The new ads star Andrea Pirlo, coach of the Italian professional soccer team, who is shown in a variety of exciting environments in Qatar – sandboarding down a dune, kiteboarding at the beach, conversing with a woman in a market. The slogan in the new ads – ‘No Football. No Worries’ – positions Qatar as a country that has much more to offer than just the World Cup.

That could be a difficult sell in light of recent developments.

This morning, it was revealed that Qatari officials have decided to ban in-stadium sales of alcoholic beverages during the 2022 World Cup, which kicks off in less than 48 hours in Doha, Qatar’s capital city. The decision appears to have taken AB InBev-owned Budweiser – who reportedly paid around $75m to be the tournament’s official beer sponsor – completely by surprise.

This announcement pales in comparison to some recent allegations that have been leveled against Qatari and Fifa officials. Qatar, the first Arab country to be selected as the host country for the Fifa World Cup, landed the prestigious position in December 2010. Shortly thereafter, the country began construction on the vast infrastructure that’s required to accommodate the more than 1 million fans that are expected to flood into Doha and the surrounding region for the World Cup.

The country has allegedly exploited and endangered a significant portion of the migrant labor force that was mobilized to meet the huge construction demands. According to a 2021 report from The Guardian, more than 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar from a wide swathe of causes – including the country’s infamous heat and accidents that occurred during the construction of the World Cup stadium – since the country was named as the host country of the 2022 World Cup in December 2010. Both Fifa and Qatar officials have reportedly disputed those claims.

The decision to make Qatar the 2022 host country over the United States also sparked bribery and corruption allegations directed toward some Fifa officials. In 2015, former Fifa president Sepp Blatter resigned during a separate bribery scandal revolving around the selection of South Africa as the host country for the 2010 World Cup. Earlier this month, Blatter told a Swiss newspaper that choosing Qatar as the host country for this year’s tournament “was a bad choice” and that he “was responsible for that as president at the time.”

“Hosting the 2022 Fifa World Cup has placed Qatar at the center of international attention, so in one sense the emirate has achieved the goals of elevating its presence as a global player and of distinguishing itself from other Persian Gulf locales such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi,” says James Andrews, founder and chief executive officer of A-Mark Partnership Strategies and adjunct lecturer at Northwestern University School of Professional Studies. “But since much of the attention has been negative, it is highly unlikely that this effort will drive tourism and could very well dissuade visitors from many western countries.”

The World Cup has also put a spotlight on Qatar’s official prohibition against homosexuality. In response, the US Men’s soccer team has unveiled a rainbow-colored logo to adorn their training facility and media room in Qatar in support of the LGBTQ+ community.

This is the factor that could have the most devastating impact on Qatar’s tourism industry, says Bread & Law founder Andrew Graham. “I don’t think the beer ban is a long-term factor here – I think it’s more of a blip in the news cycle. The LGTBQ backlash is really what could drive tourism down over the long term.”

Some have accused Qatar of ‘sportswashing’; that is, leveraging a beloved sporting event such as the Fifa World Cup to put a more attractive veneer over its highly conservative politics and alleged human rights violations in an effort to draw in more tourists. But the worsening PR crisis that the country now faces probably won’t be overcome simply by hosting a World Cup or making ads with a celebrity football coach. “There are two campaigns going on – the World Cup campaign for the sport, and the campaign for Qatar as a country,” says Karen Freberg, professor of strategic communication at the University of Louisville. “The focus of the World Cup will not be what is happening on the field, but what is happening off the field.”

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