Internationalization and Its Discontents: Qatari Influence in a Sports-Crazed World
SAIS Review of International Affairs, Winter/Spring 2022
Why and how do autocrats use international law to their advantage? These questions have grown in urgency
as more governments trend toward autocracy and more countries pivot to a period of great power
competition. But to date, analysts have largely focused on the “how,” cataloguing the quirks of international
institutions when placed in the hands of particular regimes. As a result, these analyses have yet to account
for the range of autocratic actors and tools shaping global governance today. This paper presents a novel
case—the rise and reach of Qatar’s sports empire—to untangle two forces underpinning the lawfare of
autocratic states. The first force, internationalization, offers a gauge of how embedded Qatari stakeholders
are in the football industry. The second, legalization, sets the expectations around what they can do with
industry institutions. These forces together help illustrate Qatar’s far-reaching influence in the sport, where
Qatar’s legal options (e.g., forum-shopping, institution-shifting) are contingent on its embeddedness. This
paper’s findings reveal the emerging geopolitics of the pitch, where international law affords autocrats
sophisticated tools to disrupt open and closed societies alike.
Sarath K. Ganji is a Penn Kemble Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy and a former U.S.
Fulbright Scholar based in the Arabian Gulf. He previously worked with the U.S. Department of State,
including in Washington, DC, as a communications expert in the Office of Foreign Assistance, and in Dubai,
UAE, as a political-economic expert at the U.S. Consulate-General. His past fieldwork and publications have
explored civil-military relations in Israel, medical tourism in the UAE, and labor rights in Qatar—the last of
which focused on Qatar’s World Cup preparations amid growing pushback from actors in open societies.
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In June 2017, a quartet of Arab autocracies, led by Saudi Arabia, announced a full blockade of regional rival
Qatar—and in response, Qatar launched a campaign of lawfare.
One layer of its campaign was institutional,
addressing norms, rules, and principles. Qatari agencies invoked documents like the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights (1948) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial
Discrimination (1965) to call out restrictions on Gulf residents’ rights to free expression, health and
education, and family reunification.
Another layer of its campaign was organizational, addressing
multilateral initiatives, forums, and bodies. Qatari officials engaged venues like the UN Security Council
and International Court of Justice to adjudicate the effects of the blockade.
So steeped in legality was the
Qatari effort that, in 2019, its top diplomat to the UN warned member states that the blockade was replacing
the rule of law with the “law of the jungle.”
Qatar’s turn to international law for recourse was, in many respects, surprising. After all, Qatar is
an autocratic state, governed since independence as an absolute monarchy. If autocrats are unwilling to
trust their own citizens with administering the rule of law, why would they trust other states—anchored in
the anarchy of the international system—with it? Qatar also has a poor human rights record, rooted in the
limited rights and liberties enjoyed by its majority-migrant population. If autocrats are frequent targets of
democratic states’ disapproval, why would they engage international bodies—stocked full of democratic
actors—and risk inviting further scrutiny of their behavior? Additionally, Qatar commands vast natural
resources that underpin its influence abroad. If autocrats are in a position to exploit their country’s
economic might, why would they lean on international norms and venues that may constrain action as much
as enhance it?
These questions are not limited to Qatar, nor is Qatar’s turn to international law limited to this
example. Over the years, the Gulf state has signed several agreements with UN agencies, supporting their
efforts in areas as varied as development, refugees, and counterterrorism, and has even campaigned to have
a Qatari national lead one of them, UNESCO. Indeed, as more governments trend toward autocracy and
more countries pivot to a period of great power competition, international legal life has come to resemble a
sector, much like finance or education, in which state actors exercise influence using the tools available to
Two intersecting forces shape why and how autocrats use legal tools to their advantage. The “why”
comes from internationalization: the processes by which national firms pursue, and national sectors
entertain, cross-border activities. In effect, internationalization is a gauge of how embedded states are in
particular sectors of the global economy.
It is because Qatari actors were so invested in international
regimes like trade and commerce that the state could claim damages resulting from the blockade. The “how”
comes from legalization: the processes by which international institutions and organizations impose legal
constraints on governments. In practice, legalization sets the expectations around what states can do with
It is because so many rights-related institutions existed—and so many Arab states were
party to them—that Qatar could engage multiple forums to level its claims against the quartet. While
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legalization receives the lion’s share of attention from observers of autocratic behavior, internationalization
offers a better analytical starting point.
Accordingly, this paper takes up the case of Qatar’s sports empire to make three arguments: first,
that the state’s embeddedness affords it considerable influence; second, that the state, at turns, exercises
this influence using legal tools, including forum-shopping and institution-shifting; and third, that its use of
these tools reveals the disruptive effects of autocratic influence. The paper’s findings draw on an original
dataset that comprises roughly 630 unique Qatari investments in international sports—obtained from
media reports, scholarly articles, and industry releases—as well as official documents leaked as part of the
FIFA Files, Football Leaks, and the Pandora Papers. The paper concludes by outlining lessons to inform
how democratic actors might approach the emerging geopolitics of the pitch.
Just weeks before Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine in February 2022, US President Joe Biden hosted
Qatar’s emir, Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, to discuss natural gas supplies for an anxious Europe. The
meeting concluded with Biden pledging to recognize Qatar as a major non-NATO ally, a statutory
designation with material benefits. The announcement was a milestone in Qatari history, affirming a central
objective of the state’s foreign policy over the last quarter century: to enlist powerful stakeholders in Qatari
security through investments in strategically important sectors.
From defense and commerce to education
and culture, Qatar has burrowed itself into several economic hives buzzing with cross-border activity. This
section explores one of those hives—sports—from the vantage of its internationalization.
Autocracy, Kleptocracy, and Sports
Theories of internationalization have their origin in the study of private actors “going out” in search of
opportunities abroad. Beginning in the 1960s, academics observed growing interest from government,
business, and union leaders in the international activities of private firms. The concept of
internationalization came to describe these firms’ “increasing involvement in international operations.”
Today, this concept captures the interplay between two sets of national units: national firms—as they
expand their geographic presence—and national sectors—as they field activity from abroad.
But in autocratic and kleptocratic contexts, internationalization assumes a difference valence.
Here, government power is concentrated in the hands of a few and country resources are held in the pockets
of the powerful. As a result, private actors become extensions of the state, taking the form of state-owned
enterprises (SOEs) and government-organized non-governmental organizations (GONGOs). As private
actors “go out,” they become a delivery vehicle for illiberal regimes exporting their practices elsewhere,
including to open societies. And as these actors discover opportunities abroad, they stake positions in
loosely regulated sectors indifferent—if not conducive—to autocratic entry and activity. Put differently,
internationalization frames the opportunity environment in which autocrats exert global influence.
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A scan of the literature on autocracy and kleptocracy bears passing mentions of the above. Writing
for the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), researcher Mark Galeotti uses the term “mobilization
state” to describe how kleptocrats, like Russian President Vladimir Putin, commandeer institutions of all
kinds—for example, businesses and criminal gangs—to carry out missions abroad.
In a report for the
German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMFUS), analyst Josh Rudolph catalogues the white-collar
professions that underwrite the illicit dealings of many a malign actor, from Colombian guerrillas to
More broadly, both NED and GMFUS maintain online portals to map media
reports of autocratic interference in quarters as sprawling as commerce and technology, taking as their cue
the “opportunities presented [to authoritarians] by globalization and integration.”
Yet, what hangs these
disparate tools, actors, and sectors together is not altogether clear.
Where these accounts supply the “what” of autocratic influence, internationalization offers a
powerful “why”—with association football a case in point. From afar, sports may seem to be an unlikely
object of state, particularly autocratic, interest. After all, what do sporting clubs and competitions have to
do with the way states size up one another or pursue policies of band-wagoning or balancing? A glance
around the pitch of a European football match suggests otherwise. One might see a Thai company executive
seated in the owner’s box, a Russian Gazprom sign plastered across a billboard, or a Qatari beIN camera
stationed by the sideline. Football, to differing extents, factors into the foreign policies of a growing number
Multiple elements contribute to the growth of autocrats’ involvement in football. One is the sport’s
popularity. Football’s worldwide valuation exceeds $100 billion—more than any other sport; its
competitions draw significant viewership, into the billions for its top contests; and its team brands are
among the world’s most valuable, rivaling the Dallas Cowboys and New York Yankees.
A second factor is
the sport’s operations. Many teams’ personnel pipelines originate continents away; as a result, countries
like Brazil and Argentina have become talent exporters, while Europe’s “Big Five” leagues (i.e., England,
France, Germany, Italy, and Spain) have developed into talent importers.
A third is the sport’s governing
structure. Football is regulated by a panoply of international, regional, and national bodies—some nested
(e.g., FIFA and Europe’s EUFA), others overlapping (e.g., Asia’s AFC and North America’s CONCACAF),
and still others parallel (e.g., England’s Football Association and the United Kingdom’s Department for
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport).
These elements mark the latest phase of football’s development,
following extended periods of professionalization and commercialization.
The implications of this internationalization are two-fold. First, internationalization yields an
industry with low entry barriers. Football’s sprawling supply chains afford actors multiple ways to get
involved, while the sport’s web of nested, overlapping, and parallel bodies weakens overall governance of
Consequently, over the past two decades, national markets have experienced surging interest
from foreign actors (through sports ventures, alternative investors, and sovereign wealth funds) clamoring
for a piece of the game’s profits.
Second, internationalization produces an industry with high visibility.
Football’s variety of brands and sources of revenue are rooted in an ecosystem of powerful actors, from
governing bodies and broadcasters to corporate sponsors and owners. As such, the sport serves as a kind of
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force-multiplier for foreign actors seeking to build relationships and brandish reputations.
together, these attributes expose the football industry to autocratic actors, like sovereign wealth funds, and
to autocratic designs, like buyouts.
Qatar’s Sports Empire
Among these autocracies is Qatar, which for decades has exploited the internationalization of sports
through its considerable investments in the sector, particularly in football. In some cases, these investments
come from ventures owned by Qatar Investment Authority, the state’s sovereign wealth fund. In other cases,
they originate with SOEs and GONGOs linked to the ruling family. Ultimately, though, Qatar’s football
empire spans four areas: (1) hosting and (2) broadcasting sporting events, and (3) sponsoring and (4)
owning sporting properties. Individually, each area represents an entry point into the industry; collectively,
they provide a measure of Qatar’s embeddedness in it.
Qatar’s first foray into football came in 1976, when it hosted the Gulf Cup, a regional tournament
contested by seven men’s national teams. Through the 1970s and 1980s, Qatar staged several similar
football competitions—alongside an annual auto race for regional participants—and then in the 1990s
expanded into tennis, track and field, and golf, launching annual competitions in those sports as well. Not
until 2006, though, did the city-state emerge as a player in global sports by hosting the Asian Games, the
second largest multi-sport event behind the Olympic Games.
That edition was a first for the Games in two
respects—the first to enjoy full participation from the continent, and the first to have its feats broadcasted
beyond Asia. The event’s successful staging lent credibility to Qatar as it pursued other big bids, including
cycling’s 2016 Road World Championships and track and field’s 2019 World Athletics Championships. By
the end of 2021, Qatar had hosted 382 international events featuring 39 different sports. Over ten percent
of those were football competitions, with its most consequential yet—a FIFA World Cup—set for November
In tandem with Qatar’s rise as a host nation was its arrival as a broadcasting force. Al Jazeera,
Qatar’s state-funded global media network, moved into the live sports market in 2003 with its launch of Al
Jazeera Sport (AJS). AJS’s first splash came regionally in 2009, when it purchased broadcasting rights to
the FIFA World Cup for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region—twenty-three territories in all.
The deal capped off a decade of liberalization and monopolization across the region’s media markets,
positioning AJS as MENA’s premier content provider.
Its next development came internationally in 2011,
when AJS won the right to beam French Ligue 1 matches to TVs in France. The move, as the New York
Times reported then, was “an escalation in the broadcaster’s global ambitions.”
Both lines of expansion
continued apace in AJS’s second decade; the broadcaster struck multi-year deals to distribute Big Five
content and established new divisions to compete in additional local markets. In 2014, AJS was spun off
into a separate company, still reportedly state-funded, called beIN Media Group.
As of last year, that
company was organized into five regional divisions responsible for broadcasting premium content—
including programming beyond football—in forty-three markets stretching from North America to Oceania.
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Beyond broadcasting, these markets also clocked Qatari influence in the form of commercial
sponsorships. In sports, observers of the 2006 Asian Games were likely the first to glimpse a Qatari
company—Qatar Airways, the country’s flag carrier—in the sponsorship space. In football, though, pundits
would probably submit Spain’s FC Barcelona and France’s Paris Saint-Germain as Qatar’s most prized—
and expensive—commercial partners. From 2011 to 2016, the Qatar Foundation—a Qatari non-profit—and
then Qatar Airways sponsored FC Barcelona’s jerseys in deals worth $276 million. And beginning in 2011,
multiple Qatari companies, as well as a state agency, concluded agreements with Paris Saint-Germain
totaling over $1.7 billion. Neither relationship was without controversy. The former revealed the long
shadow cast by the Qatari state, such that one of its corporations could replace one of its non-profits with
no drop-off in promotional value. The latter, meanwhile, sparked multiple investigations by UEFA,
concerned that the large sums spent by Qatari entities were upending European football’s competitive
balance. Through 2021, Qatari sponsors—all but one, SOEs—had sealed sixty-five agreements with twenty-
eight partners comprising football clubs, competitions, and confederations on five continents.
While some Qatari stakeholders chose to sponsor teams, others resolved to own them. Qatar’s most
consequential stake in global football came in 2012, when Qatar Sports Investments (QSI), an arm of the
country’s sovereign wealth fund, took over Paris Saint-Germain for $131 million.
The move shored up
Qatar’s emerging football network in France, complementing earlier deals struck by sponsor QNB and
broadcaster beIN. Tellingly, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, chair of QSI and close friend to the emir, became president
of the Parisian football club and, soon after, head of beIN—consolidating the network’s leadership.
France lies Qatar’s other football network, this one anchored in Doha. Its centerpiece, the Aspire Academy,
opened in 2004 with the aim of scouting and training athletes, particularly footballers, who could later
compete for Qatar’s national teams. Within a few years, the initiative was incorporated into a wider
organization, the Aspire Zone Foundation, to realize the country’s sporting ambitions on multiple fronts.
These included Aspire Academy, which, among other programs, screened thirteen-year-old prospects
worldwide; Aspetar, which provided orthopedic and sports medicine services; and Aspire Logistics, which
managed sporting events and facilities.
Separate from QSI, the Academy acquired two teams of its own,
Belgium’s KAS Eupen in 2012 and Spain’s Cultural Leonesa in 2015, and it established partnerships with
clubs in England, Austria, and India—all with the aim of shuffling players and coaches, scouts and analysts,
around the network.
By the end of last year, Qatar’s football empire was formidable, indeed.
With empire come certain privileges. One is Qatar’s rolodex of relationships, built through its
extensive hosting, broadcasting, and sponsorship record. Qatari stakeholders have done business with team
owners, league administrators, national authorities, and governing officials, cultivating contacts to coax
additional investment opportunities. A second is Qatar’s portfolio of properties, sorted between its
ownership networks in Paris and Doha. The football economy—in many ways fragmented—has become self-
enriching for Qatari stakeholders: Qatari sponsors and broadcasters contribute funds to Qatari teams,
upgrading their talent, and then the teams use that talent to promote Qatari sponsors and broadcasters,
boosting their bottom lines. Taken together, these privileges reflect the payouts of Qatar’s embeddedness
in international football.
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Twice in 2015, US and Swiss agencies launched coordinated campaigns against FIFA, raiding offices, seizing
documents, and arresting officials. Their objective was to counter systemic corruption in global football—
an objective that, ostensibly, animates FIFA’s purpose, too. The row was a familiar, if fraught, scene in
global governance: multiple enforcers contesting the same rules. Scenes like this are often indicative of
institutional complexity—of a glut of organizations charged with enforcing a patchwork of procedures.
football, one set of enforcers is linked vertically through geography, the limited jurisdictions of some
organizations (e.g., UEFA) nested within the more expansive jurisdictions of others (e.g., FIFA). Another
set of enforcers is interposed horizontally by specialty, their jurisdictions (e.g., US Department of Justice,
World Anti-Doping Agency) crisscrossing and preempting the former’s. How states navigate these
incongruities depends on the legal tools they have and the outcomes they seek. This section examines two
such tools—forum-shopping and institution-shifting—native to international law and familiar to Qatari
stakeholders embedded in global sports.
Sometimes, actors attempt to resolve cross-border disputes by engaging existing organizations and
procedures. They may be familiar with these institutions’ inner workings, or they may have formed
connections with their power brokers, or they may lack the resources to pursue other options. Whatever the
reason, these actors seek venues favorable to their desired outcomes—that is, they shop forums in which
they believe they can make a persuasive case.
In global football, the nested jurisdictions of vertical
enforcers preclude such shopping; teams upset with UEFA’s financial fair play rules will find no more
receptive an audience in either national federations or FIFA. On the other hand, the specialized jurisdictions
of horizontal enforcers introduce enough complexity—enough overlap among dissimilar procedures and
organizations—to permit shopping. Here, within the institutional landscape of football, lie the nooks in
which state actors are most likely to practice forum-shopping.
A case in point is Qatar’s years-long dispute with Saudi Arabia over piracy in sports broadcasting.
In August 2017, just months after beIN’s channels were banned in the kingdom due to its blockade, a
satellite broadcaster called beoutQ emerged, pirating beIN’s programs and simulcasting them to Saudi
audiences. Executives at beIN caught wind of the operation and issued a statement pinning the piracy on a
Saudi communications company and calling on national authorities to pull the pirated content.
officials denied any link to beoutQ, so Qatari stakeholders began shopping international forums to publicize
their claims and enlist others’ support.
Among available forums, Qatari stakeholders focused on three intergovernmental bodies,
leveraging the country’s position as a member state to claim piracy-related damages. In October 2018, the
Qatari government filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO), alleging that the Saudi
government had violated multiple parts of the WTO’s bedrock intellectual property agreement.
day, beIN submitted an arbitration claim with the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law
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(UNCITRAL) and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), citing over $1 billion in damages
resulting from Saudi contravention of the OIC’s investment rules.
Qatar’s simultaneous submissions
reflected the idiosyncrasies and incongruities of these forums. Where the WTO regulates international
trade, UNCITRAL facilitates international investment; where the WTO resolves disputes lodged by
governments, UNCITRAL entertains lawsuits filed by businesses. Tellingly, the core of the WTO case rested
on whether the complaint was within the body’s jurisdiction—the Qatari side calling the dispute a trade
matter and the Saudi side classifying it a national security one. Such distinctions mattered less to the
UNCITRAL case, which was expected to return much wider findings.
Both efforts were suspended in early 2022, following the Gulf states’ prior declaration ending their
years-long standoff. By then, the WTO had issued a ruling—which the kingdom soon after appealed—that
scolded the Saudis for failing to take criminal action against beoutQ but affirmed their denial of legal
counsel to beIN representatives, should the company seek legal redress in Saudi courts. To what extent final
rulings in either forum would have advanced the Qatari cause is unclear.
Still, the example demonstrates how the pitch can play host to geopolitical rivalries. For the Arab
quartet, what began as a blockade of Qatar by land, sea, and air spread to other domains of the city-state’s
influence, including sports. This may have proved suffocating for Qatar were it not for the advantages of
empire—among them, the country’s relationships with European actors. In 2020, as Saudi Arabia’s
sovereign wealth fund closed in on purchasing an English Premier League team, it encountered resistance
from the League’s owners and directors, who were wary of entertaining an entity in the crosshairs of their
long-time broadcaster, beIN. The WTO’s initial ruling, according to media reports, weighed on their
Consequently, the takeover, expected to conclude within weeks, stretched into months before
being abruptly terminated. The sale was closed a year and a half later, only after Saudi Arabia lifted its ban
on beIN. Qataris’ connections, it would appear, had blocked Saudis’ ambitions.
As the WTO case illustrates, forum-shopping can fall short of delivering on actors’ expectations. It may be
that available forums are inhospitable to particular arguments, outcomes, or actors. Or perhaps leading
forums are innoculated against institutional capture. In either case, at issue is these forums’ machinery—
their roles and responsibilities, principles and priorities, cultures and capabilities. Where these institutions
portend failure, alternative ones may offer more promising outcomes. So, actors take their business
elsewhere—that is, they shift their efforts to institutions whose machinery can be repurposed to advance
their own interests.
While football’s vertical enforcers present few opportunities for forum-shopping, they
supply many for institution-shifting. National federations, regional confederations, and FIFA—these
enforcers preside over sprawling supply chains and weak governance structures. It comes as no surprise,
then, that probing actors profit from these bodies’ multiple points of entry, be it hosting or broadcasting
events, or sponsoring or owning properties. The result is an institutional landscape in which state actors
make agents out of football’s principal enforcers.
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Here, too, the beoutQ example reveals how actors can take advantage of sports’ many enforcers.
Qatari stakeholders began shopping intergovernmental forums to litigate their complaints in late 2018, yet
they had little to show for it by early 2020. During this period, several of beIN’s commercial agreements—
including its rights to Big Five matches for MENA—were set to expire. Consequently, the media company
started engaging national football federations, leveraging its mammoth broadcasting deals to place
intellectual property at the top of their agendas. In other words, beIN shifted its focus from international
institutions to national ones, likely viewing the latter as more susceptible to capture and, therefore, more
receptive to its overtures.
This approach apparently worked in England. In December 2020, beIN renewed its rights to the
English Premier League in a three-year deal worth $500 million. When announcing the agreement, beIN’s
chair stated, “This deal demonstrates that rights-holders who do the most to protect their intellectual
property also do the most to protect the value of their media rights.”
What he may have been referencing
was a letter the English Premier League sent months earlier to the Office of the US Trade Representative
asking it to keep Saudi Arabia on its Priority Watch List.
The agency did just that, releasing a report soon
after that, among other things, called out the kingdom’s failure to take action against beoutQ.
While beIN’s approach found success in England, it foundered in Germany. In 2015, beIN sealed a
five-year deal with the Bundesliga for $237 million. As the contract neared its end, though, the Qatari
company declined to renew. In a statement on the matter, one beIN executive offered, “In the Middle East
and North Africa—as we have warned for years—piracy has crippled the market, so we have made the
decision not to renew with Bundesliga there.”
When the new football season commenced, Germany’s top
teams were without a MENA broadcaster. Taken together, these alternative forums seem to have delivered
Qatar mixed results.
BeIN’s leverage in these examples exposes the vulnerabilities of democrats caught up in the
contests of autocrats. Italy’s experience was indicative. Where English football generally accepted—and
German football seemingly rejected—beIN’s appeals, Italian football went another route. In early 2018,
Italy’s football federation concluded a $500 million deal with beIN to broadcast Serie A games in 35
A few months later, it struck a separate deal with Saudi Arabia’s sports authority to stage multiple
editions of its super cup competition in the kingdom. BeIN responded to the latter, first, by warning Italian
football officials of the financial fallout from Saudi-backed piracy; then, by directing a week-long blackout
of Italian football games across its markets; and finally, by opting not to bid on a new rights package for its
MENA markets. With beIN accounting for half of Serie A’s foreign broadcasting income, its absence dealt
the league an unexpected blow. The league’s head even suggested that beIN executives had “prohibited all
of their friends and intermediaries [from making] offers for their countries,” lamenting, “that makes it very
complicated and difficult for us.”
Qatar’s half-a-billion-dollar embeddedness in Italian football proved
more consequential—and more disruptive—than Italian officials appreciated.
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Shortly after its successful bid to host a FIFA World Cup, the Qatari government outlined in a strategy
document its vision to use sports to “forge friendships and improve relations between nations worldwide.”
Such pronouncements, at the time, caused little stir among observers of autocracy or the region, keen
instead to code the city-state’s latest global venture as an extension of its distinctive approach to world
The implications of this vision, however, have become clearer in the decade since.
The rise of Qatar’s sports empire, on the one hand, mirrors the country’s—and football’s—recent
transformations. In the mid-1990s, Qatari leaders recalibrated the state’s foreign policy, prioritizing sectors
that could increase the peninsula’s interdependence with more powerful states. Football administrators,
meanwhile, accelerated the sport’s internationalization, encouraging cross-border activities that could
boost its lines of business. In this new phase of football, Qatari stakeholders spotted opportunities to forge
the very interdependencies their leaders envisaged. Accordingly, what began in the 1970s as a trickle of
tournament stagings grew, by the 2000s, into a flood of them, complemented by a burgeoning portfolio of
global broadcastings, sponsorships, and buyouts. These investments reflect the depth of Qatar’s
embeddedness in the global sports industry.
The repercussions of Qatar’s sports empire, on the other hand, underscore the geopolitics of
football. With embeddedness came greater familiarity with the sport’s machinery—the rules of the game
and the bodies charged with enforcing them. Qatari stakeholders used this familiarity to their advantage,
employing legal tools to sway football’s vertical and horizontal institutions in ways conducive to Qatar’s
own interests. Where autocratic rivals aggravated those interests, Qatari actors shopped international
forums to deal geopolitical blows; where democratic partners appeared useful, Qatari actors shifted to
native forums to augment their impact. Along the way, some partners became bystanders, bearing the
blowback of Qatar’s cross-institutional moves. These tools prefigure the potential consequences of Qatari
influence in global sports.
So, what should open societies, enmeshed in internationalized sectors, do to guard themselves
against the disruptive practices of autocratic up-and-comers? This paper’s findings offer two lessons for
observers of global autocracy, especially research analysts, sports administrators, and national
policymakers. The first is to use internationalization to evaluate the risks associated with particular sectors.
Internationalization, as noted earlier, frames the opportunity environment in which autocrats exert global
influence: sectors with weak governance structures and fragile financial ecosystems are more vulnerable to
autocratic activity. Economic anxiety heightens these vulnerabilities; where cash-strapped democracies
retreat, resource-rich autocracies advance. It was during and after the global financial crisis, for example,
that European football teams and leagues began welcoming Qatari capital to shore up their operations. As
such, analysts can use internationalization as a radar to locate which of today’s sectors and actors are in a
position to sow tomorrow’s disruptions. Similarly, national firms—including teams and leagues—can use
internationalization as a ruler to measure the reputational, legal, and strategic risks associated with
entering particular sectors or embracing particular autocrats.
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Despite these risks, actors in open societies will continue to do business with autocrats. Therefore,
a second lesson is to use internationalization to assess what leverage democratic actors actually hold vis-à-
vis their autocratic counterparts. “Leverage” is frequently invoked or implied as justification for democrats
to engage—and even extend opportunities to—autocrats. For over a decade, Qatar and its democratic
boosters have cited the transformative potential of the World Cup as reason enough to downplay
widespread reports of forced labor, human trafficking, and indefinite detention linked to the country’s
construction and hospitality sectors.
This line of argument is premised on exposure—that bumping elbows
with liberal actors will force illiberal ones to change course. Qatar’s sports empire alternatively shows that,
as much as internationalization increases democrats’ chances to influence closed societies, it also multiplies
autocrats’ opportunities to disrupt open ones. National firms and policymakers would do well to remember
this—or else risk alienating democratic constituencies loathe to see their pastime reeling from an own-goal.
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The governments of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt cited Qatar’s support of Israel,
Iran, and Islamist groups as justification for their blockade. The roots of the diplomatic row, however, can be traced
to wider and long-standing disagreements between the Gulf states. See Richard Nephew, The Qatari Sanctions
Episode: Crisis, Response, and Lessons Learned (New York: Center on Global Energy Policy, 2020), 10-15,
State of Qatar, National Human Rights Committee, Three Years of Blockade on the State of Qatar, https://nhrc-
Ammar Saed Aldien, “Qatar: A New Beginning for International Law in the Middle East,” New York University
Journal of International Law and Politics 52, no. 2 (Spring 2020): 686-690.
United Nations, “Speakers Call for Reinvigorated Multilateralism, Stronger Diplomacy to Address Global Crises,
as General Assembly Marks International Day,” Meetings Coverage and Press Releases, April 24, 2019,
Steven Bernstein and Benjamin Cashore, “Globalization, Four Paths of Internationalization and Domestic Policy
Change: The Case of EcoForestry in British Columbia, Canada,” Canadian Journal of Political Science 33, no. 1
(March 2000): 67-75.
Ian Hurd, How to do Things with International Law (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 2-3.
See, for example, Tom Ginsberg, “How Authoritarians Use International Law,” Journal of Democracy 31, no. 4
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Qatar and the Arab Spring: Policy Drivers and Regional Implications (Washington,
DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2014), 3-6, https://carnegieendowment.org/2014/09/24/qatar-and-
Lawrence S. Welch and Reijo Luostarinen, “Internationalization: Evolution of a Concept,” Journal of General
Management 14, no. 2 (1988): 34-37.
Christopher Walker and Melissa Aten, “The Rise of Kleptocracy: A Challenge for Democracy,” Journal of
Democracy 29, no. 1 (January 2018): 22-23.
Josh Rudolph, Regulating the Enablers (Washington, DC: German Marshall Fund of the United States, 2021), 3-
Christopher Walker, “Dealing with the Authoritarian Resurgence,” in Authoritarianism Goes Global: Challenges
to Democracy, eds. Larry Diamond, Marc F. Plattner, and Christopher Walker (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Press, 2016), 216-217.
“Why the Sports Industry is Booming in 2020 (and Which Key Players Are Driving Growth),” Torrens University
Australia, February 10, 2020, https://www.torrens.edu.au/blog/why-sports-industry-is-booming-in-2020-which-key-
players-driving-growth#.YhRIipPMI-R; FIFA, “More Than Half the World Watched Record-Breaking 2018 World
Cup,” media release, December 21, 2018, https://www.fifa.com/tournaments/mens/worldcup/2018russia/media-
releases/more-than-half-the-world-watched-record-breaking-2018-world-cup; Mike Ozanian, “World’s Most
Valuable Sports Teams 2021,” Forbes, May 7, 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/mikeozanian/2021/05/07/worlds-
Raffaele Poli, Loic Ravenel, and Roger Besson, Expatriate Footballers Worldwide: Global 2021 Study, CIES
Football Observatory Monthly Report no. 65 (Neuchatel: International Centre for Sports Studies, May 2021),
https://www.football-observatory.com/IMG/sites/mr/mr65/en/; Raffaele Poli, Loic Ravenel, and Roger Besson,
Demographic Changes and Unconventional Clubs in European Football, CIES Football Observatory Monthly
Report no. 69 (Neuchatel: International Centre for Sports Studies, November 2021), https://www.football-
Jens Alm, ed., Action for Good Governance in International Sports Organisations (Copenhagen: Danish Institute
for Sports Studies, 2013), 138-140.
John Forster, “Global Sports Governance and Corruption,” Palgrave Communications 2 (2016): 2-4.
Marc Rohde and Christoph Breuer, “The Market for Football Club Investors: A Review of Theory and Empirical
Evidence from Professional European Football,” European Sport Management Quarterly 17, no. 3 (2017): 265-289.
Sarath K. Ganji, “The Authoritarian’s Guide to Football: The Reach and Repercussions of Qatar’s Sports
Empire,” Journal of International Affairs 74, no. 2 (forthcoming).
Michael Attali, “The 2006 Asian Games: Self-Affirmation and Soft Power,” Leisure Studies 35, no. 4 (2016):
- 12 -
Mahfoud Amara, Sport, Politics and Society in the Arab World (Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillion, 2012), 59-
Eric Pfanner, “Al Jazeera’s New Goal in Sports,” New York Times, July 31, 2011,
Nick Vivarelli, “Qatar’s beIN Group Calls on Hollywood to Help Fight Private Broadcaster Allegedly Backed by
Saudi Arabia,” Variety, January 21, 2019, https://variety.com/2019/tv/news/qatar-bein-media-pirate-beoutq-saudi-
“Qataris Buy Remaining 30 Pct of Paris St Germain,” Reuters, March 6, 2012, https://www.reuters.com/article/
David Hynter, “Nasser al-Khelaifi, Paris Saint-Germain’s Mr Big, Has Dream to Match,” Guardian, September
20, 2012, https://www.theguardian.com/football/2012/sep/20/nasser-al-khelaifi-paris-saint-germain.
Aspire Zone Foundation, Annual Report 2011/12, 2012, 17-87, https://www.aspirezone.qa/annual-
Michael Henry, “Les Coups Tordus d’Aspire, l’Usine à Jeunes Footballeurs Africains du Qatar,” Mediapart,
November 12, 2018, https://www.mediapart.fr/journal/international/121118/les-coups-tordus-d-aspire-l-usine-
Karen J. Alter and Sophie Meunier, “The Politics of Regime Complexity,” Perspectives on Politics 7, no. 1
(March 2009): 13-16.
Marc L. Busch, “Overlapping Institutions, Forum Shopping, and Dispute Settlement in International Trade,
International Organization 61, no. 4 (Autumn 2007): 736-737.
Ali Younes, “Qatra’s beIN Calls on Saudi to Shut Down Pirate Channel,” Al Jazeera, August 31, 2017,
World Trade Organization, Report of the Panel, “Saudi Arabia – Measures Concerning the Protection of
Intellectual Property Rights,” WT/DS567/R, June 16, 2020, 32-35,
beIN Corporation vs. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Notice of Arbitration (October 1, 2018), https://www.italaw.com/
“WTO Verdict Summary on Saudi Piracy Operation beoutQ,” Al Jazeera, June 16, 2020,
See, for example, Sean Ingle, “Newcastle Takeover in Serious Doubts as WTO Rules Pirate TV Channel is
Saudi,” Guardian, May 26, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/football/2020/may/26/newcastle-takeover-in-
Laurence R. Helfer, “Regime Shifting: The TRIPs Agreement and New Dynamics in International Intellectual
Property Lawmaking,” Yale Journal of International Law 29, no. 1 (2004): 10-18.
Rohith Nair, “BeIN Sports Secured Premier League Rights Till 2025 in $500m Deal,” Reuters, December 17,
PA Media, “Premier League Asked US to Keep Saudi Arabia on ‘Piracy’ Watch List,” Guardian, April 30, 2020,
Office of the United States Trade Representative, 2020 Special 301 Report (Washington, DC: USTR, 2020), 54,
Tom Bassam, “BeIN Declines to Renew Bundesliga Rights Over MENA Piracy Concerns,” SportsPro, September
22, 2020, https://www.sportspromedia.com/news/bundesliga-tv-rights-bein-mena-piracy-saudi-arabia-beoutq/.
Sam Carp, “BeIn Restores Serie A Broadcasts as League Accepts Discounted Deal to End Blackout,” SportsPro,
June 29, 2020, https://www.sportspromedia.com/news/serie-a-bein-sports-tv-rights-blackout-resolved-discounted-
Andrew Dampf, “AP Interview: Serie A CEO Ready for Big TV Rights Fees Drop,” AP News, March 22, 2021,
Qatar Olympic Committee, Sports Sector Strategy, 2011-2016, Doha, Qatar: Qatar Olympic Committee, 2011,
- 13 -
See, for example, Regan Doherty, “Qatar bets on future as sports mecca,” Reuters, September 7, 2011,
Sarath K. Ganji, “Leveraging the World Cup: Mega Sporting Events, Human Rights Risk, and Worker Welfare
Reform in Qatar,” Journal on Migration and Human Security 4, no. 4 (2016): 237.