Is the World Cup a soft power win for Qatar? It’s too early to tell

6 December 2022, 0900 EST

Millions of people around the world are watching breathlessly as teams compete in the World Cup, held in Qatar. Many others–like me–tune it out, turned off by that guy in grad school who spent a semester in Barcelona and then pretended to be a life-long Spain fan. But this year, the World Cup caught my attention for a nerdier reason: the constant talk of Qatar’s “soft power” through the tournament.

My fraught relationship with soft power

Soft power is one of my scholarly areas of interest. I’ve written on conceptual issues with the way people discuss soft power, and have a chapter in a forthcoming volume on religious soft power. My single-authored book, due out next year with Cornell, looks at the way states appeal to religion in power politics, what some may consider soft power.

As defined by Joseph Nye, it is the ability to “get others to want what you want,” rather than do what you want. That is, it is attractive, rather than coercive power. But power it remains; one state exerting its will over another.

I’ve always found the term useful but frustrating. It recognizes the force of cultural and symbolic attraction, which can amplify or substitute for material resources (for more on this point, see Goddard and Nexon’s work on power politics). It directs policy debates towards things like the State Department, cultural exchanges, and public diplomacy. But discussions of the term are often confusing. People talk about everything that isn’t military as “soft power.” When “soft power” isn’t sufficient to explain something, pundits come up with new terms like “sharp power.” People sometimes discuss popularity as soft power. Academic interest is minimal, partly because we’re wary of dealing with a poorly-thought out policy buzzword.

But there’s something there, and I’d rather deal with the frustration than ignore this important and policy-relevant aspect of international relations.

What people are saying about Qatar and soft power

That brings us to Qatar.

Many have been discussing the World Cup as a soft power tool for Qatar. Qatar’s hosting of the tournament is part of its broader push to increase its regional and global prominence. This includes the establishment of new cultural centers and museums: I visited several during one visit to Qatar several years ago. And there are signs that Qatar hopes to use the attention the World Cup brings to expand its political influence. One expert noted the World Cup may “expand Qatar’s ability to find solutions to political problems and establish partnerships in times of need.”

It’s hard to deny the World Cup has been a net positive for Qatar (so far). Despite anger and concern over its treatment of migrant laborers and restrictive anti-LGBT laws, people seem either satisfied with the steps Qatar has taken or have just forgotten about these issues in their excitement. There was initially anger that Qatar would not allow beer to be served in the stadiums, but people have gotten over that (I can attest from my time in Qatar that, while alcohol is restricted, it’s not hard to find). There is evidence the World Cup will be an economic and tourism boon for neighboring states as well. And numerous positive stories are emerging about fan experience at the tournament (you can follow many through the Twitter account of Khristo Ayad, a Doha-based analyst).

This has led some to argue the World Cup “exhibited Qatar’s soft power.”

Why the World Cup isn’t a soft power win…yet

But let’s take a step back.

Yes, the World Cup is not as much of a PR disaster for Qatar as it seemed it would be. Qatar may come out of this with greater visibility among sports fans and credibility as an efficient and responsible state. There are some signs that Qatar’s popularity among regional societies has increased due to the game. So I would agree that Qatar’s international standing has increased thanks to the World Cup (barring any last minute disasters).

If Qatar wields influence that would have been impossible without the World Cup that is soft power.

But, and I’m going to say this loudly for the people in the back: THAT IS NOT SOFT POWER. Soft power is not just popularity. Soft power is the argument that popularity and attraction are as important as military and economic resources. What Qatar has gained is potential soft power. Until it successfully leverages this to gain support from other states on international initiatives, the World Cup has not granted Qatar any soft power.

What World Cup soft power would look like for Qatar

So we’ll need to wait and see if other states in the region flock to Qatar’s side in its next dispute with Saudi Arabia because of World Cup-induced goodwill. We’ll need to wait and see if soccer fans, returning home after a satisfying World Cup, pressure their governments to improve ties with Qatar.

In the spirit of public-facing scholarship, however, I thought I’d clarify what soft power would look like in this situation, and how Qatar could leverage the World Cup.

Qatar needs to demonstrate it can preserve its culture without undermining universal human rights.

From an analytical perspective, we could identify soft power if Qatar wields influence that would not have been possible without the World Cup. If newfound credibility–gained by coordinating this massive undertaking–leads other regional states to put Qatar in the lead of some international initiative, that would suggest Qatar had gained soft power. If the recent visit of the UAE President to Qatar turns out to be related to goodwill gained through the World Cup, this would be an example of soft power.

From a policy perspective, what can Qatar do to leverage the World Cup into soft power? Qatar can point to the World Cup as an example of its positive leadership, but critics–both activists outside the region and rivals in the region–will point to its rights record. This will undermine any potential soft power Qatar gained (I made a similar point when interviewed by a Chinese publication about China’s soft power; the interview never came out). Qatar needs to demonstrate its economy is not built on exploitation and that it can preserve its culture without undermining universal human rights. If not, there will be a limit to any soft power it wields.

UPDATED to add a reference