PARIS — At a time when Qatar is being isolated by its Gulf neighbors, the recruitment of Brazilian soccer superstar Neymar by Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) — Doha's international sports showcase — shows the country's determination to continue to pursue its international ambitions.
Five years away from hosting the World Cup, the tiny but super-rich gas producer now more than ever is aiming to acquire global soccer legitimacy. And that's where the Parisian club it bought back in 2011 comes into play. Soccer and PSG are at the heart of Qatar's sports diplomacy and soft power. The Gulf state has been patiently building this strategy for the past 15 years, and is now ready to use this power when facing mightier neighbors trying to force it to step back into line.
Qatar must try to appear to the world as a true sporting nation.
And yet, on these shores of the Arabian Gulf, times are hard. There is, first of all, the diplomatic war waged against Qatar by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. They accuse Doha — or private individuals who could hardly act without the Qatari authorities' knowledge — of financing terrorist groups, while its television network Al-Jazeera continues to rile Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. With each side standing their ground, this could soon enough turn into a long and costly war for Qatar.
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There is also the question of falling prices of oil and gas, Qatar's main source of revenue, which has led to a new austerity program. The budget for the 2022 FIFA World Cup has been cut by half, ambitious construction sites have been toned down while others have simply been canceled. Qatar's enemies have made no secret of their intention to have the country barred from hosting the World Cup, likely by continuing to leak embarrassing information to the press. But as things stand now, nothing indicates that this undermining will bear fruit.
Until then, it is crucial for Qatar to appear to the world as a true sporting nation. And that is still far from being the case. Their goal, when they bought PSG, was to lift the biggest trophy in European soccer: the Champions League. The young Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim, who is also the architect of this sports diplomacy strategy, is particularly focused on this objective. So far, they've fallen well short of the mark. But in soccer as well as in most of its other strategic investments, Qatar, though not pursuing pure philanthropy, is a patient operator in soft diplomacy.
The 222 million euros ($262 million) it spent to snag the Brazilian jewel away from Barcelona falls in line with this logic of reinforcing PSG's capabilities. It's clear evidence that Qatar's investments in the Parisian soccer club are not subjected to Doha's recent financial restraint. This can only make the club's supporters happy — as they wait for the return on investment.