Qatar and Iceland: A Study in Soft Power Strategy

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Qatar vs Vietnam, 2014 © Doha Stadium Plus Qatar

October 10, 2016 14:59 EDT

Qatar should take note of Iceland’s successful use of soccer as a tool of soft power.

The contrast in soccer soft power between Qatar and Iceland speaks volumes. A comparison of the strategies of both countries demonstrates that it takes more than money to leverage soccer to create political, geopolitical and economic opportunity.

Comparing Qatar and Iceland

Money and the desire of FIFA, the global soccer body, to take one of the world’s foremost sporting events beyond Europe and the Americas helped Qatar win the right to host the 2022 World Cup. Six years after the awarding, Qatar is a nation under fire by human rights and labor activists for its controversial labor regime, and it has yet to convincingly counter widespread suspicions of wrongdoing in its campaign to win its hosting rights. It is also suspected by pro-Israeli circles, Christian conservatives and Arab detractors of supporting militant Islamist groups.

Iceland is a nation that is emerging from virtual bankruptcy in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. It lacked the funds to mount the kind of high-profile, flashy sports diplomacy that is central to Qatar’s soft power strategy. Rather than focusing on attention-grabbing moves, Iceland built its strategy around performance on the pitch that took many by surprise and embedded it favorably in the consciousness of soccer fans around the world.

Oil and gas money has bought Qatar entry into the boardrooms of major corporations; catapulted it into being a major player in financial markets; and allowed it to employ sports, arts, air transport, high-profile real estate acquisitions, state-owned broadcaster Al Jazeera, and a high-powered, fast-moving, mediation-driven foreign policy as building blocks of its soft power. The strategy has enabled the tiny Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) state to punch above its weight. It has also allowed Qatar to host multiple international sporting events and conferences that have helped put it on the map and develop niche tourism.

What all of this did not buy Qatar, however, is popularity and respect beyond the corridors of power. YouGov polls showed that 77% of Brits and 90% of British soccer fans believed that the awarding of the World Cup to Qatar was the result of bribery and corruption, and 78% favored the tournament being moved to another country. A similar survey concluded that Qatar Airways had succeeded where the hosting of the World Cup had failed: 96% of those polled rated the airline from positive to very positive.

Nonetheless, Qatar Airways’ sponsorship of FC Barcelona, which figures prominently in the airlines’ advertising, was extended in July despite an online petition in 2015 that called on the club to ditch the Qataris as its shirt sponsor unless it “treats its workers fairly.” Beyond being a sponsor’s worst nightmare, the petition constituted the first indication of a potential groundswell of fan opposition to Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup. There is little evidence that Qatari reforms of its kafala (labor sponsorship) system have substantially improved the Gulf state’s image.

Qatar’s reputational issues were highlighted this month when the Netherlands Trade Union Confederation (FNV) gave FIFA three weeks to avoid legal action in a Swiss court on behalf of Nadim Sharaful Alam, a Bangladeshi migrant worker. The FNV, the biggest union in the Netherlands with 1.1 million members, is demanding in the first such legal challenge targeting FIFA that the soccer body admit that it should have demanded abolishment of the kafala system as part of the awarding process, or concede that the World Cup should not have been awarded to Qatar.

Iceland and Euro 2016

In contrast to Qatar, Iceland’s stunning performance in the 2016 European Championship and its steady progress in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers have positioned it as the underdog that everyone loves. Not only has it made Iceland a darling of a global soccer-crazy public, but it has boosted the country’s bottom line. Icelanders from the country’s president to its foremost writers and businessmen celebrate the impact soccer has had on their ability to do business.

“I was in Brazil for the Paralympics [in September] and every Brazilian I met said: ‘Iceland did well in the football.’ Iceland now exists in Brazil, as it were. It will be the same in other countries. Iceland has really made itself known through football and that will help the country in many ways,” the country’s president, Gudni Thorlacius Johannesson, told The Guardian.

“I was in America to promote my books in September and everyone you meet has been to Iceland, wants to go to Iceland or their friends have just been there. It’s worldwide. The football team has really put Iceland into focus again,” added Icelandic crime writer Ragnar Jonasson, whose books have been translated into 15 languages and have skyrocketed in France in recent months.

Ua Matthiasdottir, the rights director at Forlagio, Iceland’s largest publishing house, echoed Jonasson’s experience, saying soccer had made it easier for him to forge links to publishers in other countries. “It makes it easier when people know your country actually does exist, and the football certainly helped,” the British paper quoted him as saying.

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Exports of Icelandic products ranging from literature to yoghurt and frozen food have boomed in the wake of Iceland’s soccer success, as have tourism and finance. Dairy producer MS Dairies has enlisted the country’s foremost player, Eidur Gudjohnsen, as its ambassador. Increased passenger traffic has prompted privately-held Icelandic airline Wow Air to order three new aircraft.

Qatar’s soccer team, too, has been performing exceptionally well, raising hopes that it could qualify for the World Cup finals for the first time. The country’s state-owned airline, Qatar Airways, has been continuously expanding its already significant fleet and destination network. None of this, however, has impacted the country’s continued reputational issues.

Soft Power Strategy

The bottom line is that soccer’s potential as a tool of public diplomacy is considerable. It takes, however, more than success on the pitch and money to harness its power. It takes a mix of policies that address both domestic and foreign concerns, an efficient public relations and communications policy, and a measure of transparency and accountability.

To be fair, the issues for Iceland are easier. Unlike Qatar, it is not struggling with a demography in which the citizenry accounts for a small minority of the overall population, which forces the government to walk a delicate tightrope between domestic and foreign concerns. And Iceland does not have the kind of rights issues Qatar is dealing with.

Nonetheless, the comparison between two nations in which soccer has become a key element of their public diplomacy suggests that Qatar could benefit from taking a close look at Iceland’s successful exploitation of the sport. Invariably, Qatar’s issues are complex and cannot be resolved with a stroke of a pen. There are, however, policies and communication strategies it could adopt to significantly increase its return on investment in the world’s most popular game.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Doha Stadium Plus Qatar

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