Keeping Score

Why Qatar is Spending $200 Billion On Soccer

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South Africa — a country of some 50 million people — spent around $2.7 billion to stage the 2010 World Cup. Brazil’s 2014 World Cup costs have been rising, and have driven recent mass protests: how can a government pour so much money into sports, when so many citizens lack access to basic health care and education? Brazil has 192 million people: World Cup investment will likely top $14 billion.

In a recent poll, 65% of Russians said that government spending for the 2014 winter Olympics was either “ineffective” or “completely ineffective,” or said they thought the funds were “simply being stolen.” Russia — population 143 million — is set to spend $50 billion, making it the most expensive Olympics ever.

For Qatar, this is all chump change.

According to a report released this week, from Deloitte, Qatar — population 2 million, with only 225,00 or so Qatari citizens — will spend $200 billion on the 2022 World Cup. That’s $100,000 per capita, compared $350 per capita for the Sochi Games, $73 per capita for Brazil, and $54 per capita for South Africa. Qatar will spend 286 times more money per capita on the World Cup than Russia will on the most expensive Olympics ever, the Sochi games. The country will spent 1,852 times more capita to stage the same event that South Africa did in 2010.

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Qatar is one of the richest countries in the world, and is basically building its sports infrastructure from scratch. Still, these figures are striking, especially given the evidence that public sports spending rarely pays off long-term. “Indeed, the numbers are amusing at first,” says Shaul Gabby, an international studies professor at the University of Denver, and a Qatar expert. “But the spending is deeper in its motivation and interest. The most important value in Arab culture and tradition is honor, which brings respect and the fear of possible adversaries. This is even more important in a time of turmoil and instability in the Middle East, where the basic legitimacy of old, traditional regimes are publicly and visibly shaking.”

The Arab world, says Gabbay, will enjoy a psychological lift if Qatar can successfully host the World Cup. So Qatar is sparing no expense to guarantee its success. And the investment has practical benefits for Qatar. “By 2022, Qatar will have moved to more natural gas, as opposed to oil, exports,” says Gabbay.  “Oil fields are projected to deplete around 2023. This requires investment and cooperation from foreign countries, who will be eager, but concerned about the stability of the country. Which is why the projection of stability, and visible investment, through a long-run project like the World Cup has tremendous and fundamental importance to Qatar.”

Ever since Qatar was awarded the World Cup in December 2010, skeptics have wondered if such a tiny country — it’s smaller than Connecticut — with such extreme heat conditions can successfully host such a massive event. “No question about it,” says Gabbay. “Qatar is never going to be a superpower. But it has ambitions to be a player on the world stage, and in the international business community. The World Cup is an amazing opportunity, and Qatar will do everything to make sure it works.”

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