Rêvons Plus Grand: Lionel Messi and the Persian Gulf ’s Scramble for Global Soft Power
By Justin Wong (he/him)
Most have not seen it coming.
Lionel Messi, arguably the best footballer in the sport’s history and the glittering icon of Catalan giants Barcelona, left the only club he has played for to Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) in France, signing a two-year contract in August.
It was a dramatic turn of events in which Messi agreed to sign a new contract, but Barcelona was forced to pull the plug because of "financial and structural obstacles”, as the club is faces mounting debt.
However, the transfer is a coup for PSG, as the club signed a player who has won 35 major trophies and the Ballon d’Or, the most prestigious individual award in world football, for a record six times. For free.
But, rather than being shocked by the news, one country will be jubilant that PSG pulled off perhaps the highest-profile transfer in football’s history – Qatar.
PSG is owned by Qatar Sports Investment (QSI), a subsidiary of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund Qatar Investment Authority that bought the Parisian club in late 2011.
Since then, Doha has invested more than €1.6 billion into PSG, amassing superstars like Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, and transformed the Parisians into a formidable force in European football. It also managed to win the hosting rights for next year’s World Cup, making it the first Arab country to do so.
It is all part of a project to reshape Qatar’s future and extend its influence across the world.
In 2008, Doha launched the Qatar National Vision 2030 plan which “aims to transform Qatar into an advanced country” that is “capable of sustaining its own development” by 2030.
Part of the vision would see Qatar diversify its economy by gradually reducing its dependence on oil and
gas exploitation, and shift towards a knowledge-based economy instead.
“Future economic success will increasingly depend on the ability of the Qatari people to deal with a new international order that is knowledge-based and extremely competitive,” the plan said.
Critics have accused Doha of ‘sportswashing’ – using sports to launder its international reputation, or using Human Rights Watch Director of Global Initiative Minky Worden’s words, “egregious human rights abusers using sports to scrub their awful human rights abuses.”
Qatar’s human rights record has been a concern for several non-governmental organisations, with Human Rights Watch describing its policies as discriminatory against women and LGBTQ+ individuals.
The treatment of migrant workers, which make up almost 95 per cent of Qatar’s total labour force, also came into question with problems of forced labour, poor accommodation and working conditions, and wage abuses. It was recently highlighted again after the Guardian revealed in February that more than 6,500 workers have died in Qatar since it was awarded hosting rights of the World Cup a decade ago.
It was recently highlighted again after the Guardian revealed in February that more than 6,500 workers have died in Qatar since it was awarded hosting rights of the World Cup a decade ago.
It is likely that Doha will use Messi’s image not only to maximise commercial opportunities at next year’s World Cup, but to also create a positive image for the tournament and the country itself and a distraction from Qatar’s negative issues.
Furthermore, Messi’s arrival is one of the spillovers of the regional conflict between Qatar and its neighbours into the footballing world.
Simon Chadwick, a global professor in Eurasian Sport at Emlyon Business School, wrote in The Conversation that PSG acquiring Messi means more than bringing in shirt sales, sponsorships, and other commercial deals for Qatar.
“Qatar is not simply in the business of national strategic development, it also retains grand political ambitions,” he said.
“Its government is not afraid to use football as the means of achieving other political ends.”
Qatar has long standing tensions with its neighbours.
Throughout the Arab Spring, Doha openly supported Islamist organisation Muslim Brotherhood, which the absolute monarchies in neighbouring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) saw as a threat to their rule.
In June 2017, a number of countries led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE cut all diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing them of supporting militant groups including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State within its borders – an accusation that Doha has long denied. Relations were only restored in January this year.
But, only months after the crisis started, PSG signed Neymar from Barcelona for a record-breaking €222 million.
Professor Chadwick said the message sent by Qatar from signing Messi is identical to the Neymar transfer four years ago.
“Qatar used that [Neymar] deal to show the world (and its immediate neighbours, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) its financial muscle and independence.
“It also symbolised how the government in Doha sees football as part of its soft power armoury, a way of engaging global audiences intrigued by the signing of football’s best talent.
“Some will view Lionel Messi signing for PSG in the same way. His expected contribution to the club’s success will ensure that Qatar’s projection of soft power continues, while the status, image and reputation of ‘brand Qatar’ are further burnished.”
Accusations of sportswashing are not just limited to Qatar in the Gulf’s soft power struggle.
Since buying English football club Manchester City in 2008, UAE's deputy prime minister and senior Abu Dhabi royal, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, has invested more than £1 billion into the club, transforming the team into Premier League giants.
Although the UAE faces criticisms of abusing detainees and practicing oppressive policies against women and those who identify as LGBTQ+, fans of this PR campaign (“that played fifty games a year to an audience of millions”) still unfurl banners and sing songs to thank their rich owners.
Meanwhile, the Saudis’ strategic interest became sports-centric in November 2016 after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman set up the Sports Development Fund to promote new sports events as part of the kingdom’s own Vision 2030 plans to improve its ultra-conservative reputation.
Despite Saudi Arabia’s historic oppositions against Western-influenced sports events and atrocious human rights record against critics and dissidents, Riyadh has hosted events such as boxing fights and even WWE women’s wrestling matches.
The kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund also backed an attempt to buy Premier League club Newcastle this year but it withdrew the bid in July.
Football has evolved beyond the idea of the beautiful game – the sport is now awash with money and has become a powerful tool for oligarchs or states to assume more power over the world.
As of writing, PSG have already embarked another campaign to finally claim Europe’s biggest footballing prize – the Champions League – and they will be feeling it is now achievable with the sport’s icon.
Using sports to achieve political gains is nothing new, but with the playbook set in stone by the Gulf states, no doubt more will go this way, and fans can do little about it.