Qatar sees off World Cup criticism to claim diplomatic victory
Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani (left) wraps an abaya around Argentina's forward Lionel Messi (centre) as Fifa President Gianni Infantino stands next to the FIFA World Cup Trophy after Argentina won the World Cup final football match versus France at Lusail Stadium in Qatar on December 18, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

DOHA, Qatar (AFP) — Qatar fought a "culture war", corruption claims, and accusations over rights abuses in hosting the World Cup — but experts say the Gulf state has reinforced its image everywhere except parts of Europe.

The emirate went into the tournament under scrutiny for its treatment of foreign workers and LGBTQ people, but one of the final images to emerge from the event was Qatar's emir putting a traditional Arab cloak over the shoulders of Argentina star Lionel Messi.

"That is what people will remember," said Carole Gomez, a sports sociology specialist at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.

She highlighted fears over the event's organisation and safety, and condemnation faced by Qatar before the World Cup started.

"The politicisation was not as bad as it could have been, and if there were problems they did not get much coverage," Gomez said.

The energy-rich State spent at least US$200 billion on infrastructure projects ahead of the World Cup, which rights groups claim were built by exploiting low-paid foreign labourers who faced dangerous working conditions.

Qatar insists it has since made serious reforms to workers' rights.

Its ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, declared at the end of the competition "We have fulfilled our promise to organise an exceptional championship," the first in an Arab nation.

As a major global supplier of natural gas and an intermediary in conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Qatar already possessed diplomatic clout but it struggled to gain public recognition.

However, the World Cup has left an impression on the Arab world and beyond.

Images of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wearing a Qatari scarf on opening day, and Qatar's emir later draped in green Saudi colours, sealed the neighbours' reconciliation after Prince Mohammed led a regional blockade of Qatar from 2017 to 2021.

The public airing of the Palestinian cause in stadiums and Morocco's surge to the tournament's semi-finals also boosted feelings of Arab pride.

Qatar has already lined up more sporting events to keep it in the international eye. It is also reportedly preparing a bid for the 2036 Olympics, as well as hosting summits and other events including Formula One in 2023.

Western media and international rights groups took aim at Qatar over labour and gender rights before the football gala.

Andreas Krieg, an associate professor of security studies at King's College London, said Qatar had been caught in "a culture war" in Europe, but he thinks the criticisms had little impact in most of the world.

"Qatar has been able to use the World Cup effectively to establish its brand, especially in the Global South," said Krieg.

"This has made Qatar a rallying point for the Arab and Islamic world, which has mobilised in support for Qatar as a champion of regional issues such as Palestine or anti-colonialism," he added.

Since world football's governing body FIFA named Qatar host in 2010, allegations of corruption surfaced. But the organisation says nothing relating to Qatar has been proven and it has shrugged off the controversy.

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