Sporting soft power is cheaper than hard power but not always successful

Photo: Thomas Søndergaard/Play the Game

James Corbett. Photo: Thomas Søndergaard

28.10.2015

By Steve Menary
Qatar’s success in securing the rights to host the 2022 World Cup will be cheaper than fighting a war and could improve workers’ rights but may not prove successful in garnering soft power. That was the message from a session titled ‘Qatar and the Soft Diplomacy of Sport’.

In the opening address, Andy Stevens, a senior lecturer at the University of East London (UEL), gave an entertaining and insightful talk comparing the cost of staging a mega-event with the cost of fighting a war.

UEL is in the heartland of the site for the 2012 Olympics in London and using this event as a gauge, Stevens compared the cost of staging mega-events with buying military hardware to gain hard power through fighting a war.

The London 2012 transport budget could have been used to procure a fleet of tanks, the £710 million spent to date on the Olympic Stadium could have paid for a military communications system and rather than building the Velodrome, a single Chinook helicopter could have been bought.

“Hard power involves considerably more expenditure than soft power,” said Stevens, who also said that the only place where spending on soft power in terms of sporting mega-events outstripped military spending was Qatar.

“Soft power is a resource but what is the output?,” questioned Stevens, who said that the attendance for the 2012 Olympics was equal to the amount of people that watched football at the five London clubs over a Premier League football season.

The 8.2 million people who attended the Olympics was the largest number of visitors to a UK event in 2012, but the National Museum still attracted 5.5 million visitors every year, said Stevens.

Attracting foreign fans is important
The 2022 World Cup in Qatar is unlikely to be anywhere near that popular argued Doctor Susan Dunn from the Northwestern University in Qatar.

Dunn suggested that a combination of construction delays, lack of domestic appetite for football, difficulties obtaining alcohol for western fans and a dearth of hotel rooms and entertainment will curtail attendances.

“It’s common to entice fans with free tickets and still see empty stadia,” said Dunn, who added: “That’s why attracting foreign fans is so important.”

Dr Dunn said that the 310,000 foreign fans who attended the 2010 World Cup in South Africa is a better comparator than the one million fans who went to Brazil last year or the influx of two million foreign supporters to Germany in 2006.

Dunn, who presented along with Vibhav Gautam, also from Northwestern University, warned: “Expect empty stadia. The use of soft power will be unsuccessful.”

Inaccurate press reports
Soft power may not be obtained but James Corbett, a freelance journalist based in Ireland, argued that the 2022 World cup could help improve workers’ rights not just in Qatar but across the Middle East if the west’s relationship with the Gulf is reassessed.

In a his presentation, Corbett contended that a good deal of what had been written about Qatar since an exposé by The Guardian in 2013 was misleading.

He said: “The Guardian’s exposé and subsequent follow ups were the sort of devastating, passionate and balanced pieces of journalism that inspire young people to enter the profession.”

“Yet rather than inspiring other journalists to follow up the story, it seemed to inspire a race to the bottom: one which hypothesised a maximum amount of suffering and human misery arising from World Cup 2022 with the minimum amount of on the ground reporting and fact checking.”

Corbett went on to regale the audience with an insightful tour that exposed some of the nuances behind the image often portrayed about Qatar and the 2022 World Cup.

There are, says Corbett, no official figures for workers’ deaths and the figure of 4,000 since widely used was obtained solely from the embassies of India and Nepal. It did not include other countries with many workers in Qatar, such as the Philippines and was based on average deaths of 400 per year to produce 4,000 deaths over the next decade.

However, the figures that are available are not linked to the workplace and do not relate directly to the workplace yet have become established ‘fact’ said Corbett, who showed a New York Times story from June 2014 that claimed hundreds of workers had already died.

“There were not even hundreds of people working on stadia projects then,” said Corbett, who also dismissed a similar Washington Post story on Qatar 2022 that went viral as “clickbait”. 

He added: “This level of reporting requires an investment that most editors are not prepared to make.

“The debate has become so polarized that large parts of the western media can see no right in Qatar, and large parts of the Qatari establishment view no wrong, because everything is framed as a conspiracy.

“I spent a week on the ground there and no construction worker that I spoke to saw themselves as a victim. Everyone I spoke to had made a conscious decision to come there. No-one saw themselves as a slave.

“Everyone had a story to tell about being ripped off, but the real problem was the middle men.”

Limited kafala reforms expected
Corbett found conditions in accommodation offered by contractors on projects directly linked to the 2022 World Cup better than on other construction schemes.

However, he warned that despite claims that the kafala system of employment of foreign workers that has faced much criticism had not stopped despite the widespread condemnation and coverage in the media.

“I suspect that before the 2022 World Cup there will be limited reforms of kafala and some improvements in labour conditions, but this is not enough,” said Corbett, who added: “If Qatar is stripped of the World Cup, that would only allow the abuses to continue." 

“I would like to see the European Union take action and professional sport to reassess its relationship with the Gulf,” said Corbett who highlighted the number of clubs or competitions sponsored by Gulf states using the kafala system.

“I really struggle to see why carrying the sponsorship of a nation or brand that endorses kafala is any more acceptable than giving an event to a country that does so,” said Corbett who concluded with a call to ensure workers rights are given more consideration by governing bodies in awarding mega events.

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