On 3 August, Neymar Jr., the greatest Brazilian footballer of his generation, completed a US$263m move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain (PSG). This not only broke the world record for a fee paid for a football player, but doubled it. The move has been viewed worldwide as a huge coup for PSG, who will now see one of the sport’s great icons plying his trade in the City of Lights, but also for the club’s owners in Qatar – a nation besieged by sanctions and in desperate need of good press.
Qatar is the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, and also the richest nation per capita. As a tiny gulf state, its rulers have learned that in order to project its influence it must make the most of its soft power. This has included funding the popular Al-Jazeera news network; buying acres of prime property in Western cities, notably London; and founding Qatar Airways – officially judged the “world’s best airline” in 2017 in the Skytrax World Airline Awards.
Breaking into the world of sport
Many resource-rich gulf states have dabbled in footballing investment. Among the most eye-catching are Abu Dhabi’s purchase of Manchester City and Dubai’s Emirates airline sponsoring Arsenal, Real Madrid, AC Milan and Benfica. That said, Qatar has gone further than the others in grasping the potential that heavy investment in the beautiful game can provide.
Qatar Sports Investments bought PSG in 2011 and have set about building a club that can compete with the game’s traditional elite. Qatar also launched kit sponsorship deals with Barcelona – firstly with the Qatar Foundation and then Qatar Airways. Most importantly, having brushed off widespread allegations of corruption and vote buying, Qatar won its bid to host the World Cup in 2022.
In spite of the fiscal tightening that occurred as a consequence of the fall in the world oil price, Qatar has continued to makes high profile investments in the West. This, combined with delicate diplomacy in the Middle East, had helped the country to quietly make a respectable name for itself. That was until June 5, when a collection of Arab nations, led by Saudi Arabia, placed sanctions upon the Qataris.
Qatar’s capital, Doha. Photo Credit: holidayme.com
A political cauldron in the Gulf
The Saudi-led bloc, which includes Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, has closed all land borders with Qatar, withdrawn ambassadors and demanded that all Qatari nationals leave their territories. They claimed that Qatar had been supporting “terrorist” organisations – citing Doha’s funding of Hamas in Gaza and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. They also demanded that Al-Jazeera be closed down, accusing it of proliferating hate speech and supporting extremism.
Where does Neymar Jr. fit into all of this?
Qatar is determined to be seen as undeterred by the Saudi-led sanctions, and has responded by finalising agreements to procure seven warships from Italy and a number of F-15 fighter jets from the U.S., according to Bloomberg.
Further, in a speech on July 21, two weeks after the sanctions were put in place, Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, stressed the need to respond by “developing [Qatar’s] sources of soft power at the international level”.
Two weeks later, the Neymar deal is done. Barcelona had placed his release clause at US$263m for a reason – they presumed that the sum would be well beyond the financial reach of any rival. Indeed, Spanish league’s president, Javier Tebas, complained of “financial doping by a club-state” in an interview with Spanish newspaper AS. The fact that PSG were able to offer double the amount paid for any player, ever, is proof that Qatar retains a long reach.
Qatar flexes its muscles
“Having the best player in the world shows the rest of the world that if Qatar is determined, they still have the largest assets to draw from and if needed they will use the money that they have to further their agenda,” claimed Andreas Krieg, a political risk analyst at King’s College London, in an interview with AFP.
The Neymar Jr. purchase “sends a very strong signal to the sporting world and a very strong signal of defiance towards the UAE and Saudi Arabia,” he added. “They wanted this player and they used the money to buy him at whatever price.”
The spectacular nature of the acquisition also offers another benefit: distracting people from the problems caused at home by the blockade. As Simon Chadwick, sports enterprise professor at the University of Salford, told Bloomberg, “the last thing Saudi Arabia wants is people all over the world talking about Qatar”.
For how long Qatar can bask in the glow of its shiny new acquisition remains to be seen. Qatar needs a box of tricks even larger than that at the disposal of the brilliant Brazilian to haul itself out of the diplomatic doldrums in which it currently flounders.