“The winner to organise the 2022 FIFA World Cup is, Qatar!” These are the words declared on 2 December 2010 by Sepp Blatter that remain fresh in the memory of so many in the footballing world. They are also the words which have arguably changed a nation and how football is run forever. I will always remember the atmosphere in Aspire Park in Doha. Men, women and children, faces illuminated looking up at a giant screen. The declaration ceremony was taking place a world away in a much colder Zurich. The area erupted when ‘QATAR’ was pulled from the envelope. People shouted, screamed and some even cried with happiness. It was then that I realised that this was to be much more than just a football tournament. It was going to be a catalyst for change on a political, cultural and human level. It was going to be about sport breaking down stereotypical barriers, and a unique opportunity for Qatar to leave a lasting legacy to change perceptions about the country on a global scale.
However, no more than a few hours later, the world’s media scolded the decision and brought Qatar’s biggest ever party to an almighty halt. Allegations of corruption and bribery soon followed and even now in 2016 casualties of the decision continue to be thrust into the media spotlight with the bid now under FBI investigation. Qatar is having what we like to call in the industry, a ‘PR nightmare’.
Despite the opportunity before them, I have to agree with comments made by Nicholas McGheehan, Gulf Analyst at Human Rights Watch recently that Qatar seemed to be “catastrophically” unprepared for the scrutiny that followed this big decision. Its efforts at public relations have been poor, especially in comparison to the United Arab Emirates who have been more effective in handling the country’s image around the world.
I’m a strong advocate of giving the underdog a chance at proving themselves. But I also have to acknowledge the negative image which has been portrayed so far amidst the allegations of corruption, bribery, human rights abuses, lack of footballing history and the uncontrollable climate issue. I have been lucky enough to live in Qatar and I agree that they have a lot of work to do to combat this negative reputation and I certainly don’t condone the said allegations. But what Qatar is being denied is a chance to tell both sides of the story. Qatar has gone from a relatively anonymous backwater to strong economic and political power, becoming a key player in global affairs. Its vision and ambition has to be admired, but one has to question if Qatar being thrust into the global media spotlight was too much too soon?
Amongst the damning headlines, Qatar has also been catching the eyes of the world by means of its vast wealth. It is the richest country in the world per capita and has been involved with the purchase, investment and sponsorship of some of the world’s biggest brands including Harrods, FC Barcelona, Paris Saint Germain and The Shard. Despite rapid development and eye catching purchases, Qatar is still a developing country with a number of teething problems and in my opinion not being able to control its image has been a major issue. This has created a problem in that FIFA sponsors including Coca-Cola, McDonalds and Budweiser are facing increasing pressure from groups to pull out of sponsoring the 2022 World Cup due to the allegations. So far, a few have voiced concern, but none have pulled out. A move which could be explained by the monetary and advertising value that the World Cup can bring.
Overall, Qatar’s PR juggling act is a tough one. On one side they are trying to promote the 2022 FIFA World Cup as a great event and a unique opportunity to showcase Qatar as a country, but on the other it is trying to counter negative press around current teething problems as a developing country. It will always be remembered for being the first World Cup in the Middle East, the first World Cup to be held in the winter and also being known as one of the most controversial decisions in the history of sport. Qatar needs to work on its global image and make sure that any activity is appropriate and doesn’t open it up to further criticism. Global sporting events magnify a country’s flaws and I look forward to observing with interest how Qatar’s leaders overcome them in the years prior to 2022. The clock is ticking and solutions and demonstrable change needs to be seen. Organisers have a chance to promote Qatar for the right reasons and to deliver a memorable tournament to live up to the campaign hashtag, #ExpectAmazing.