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Does it pay off for authoritarian regimes to organize major sports events? The case of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar (PAYOFF)

The 2022 FIFA World Cup is held in Qatar, one of the most autocratic regimes in the world. Authoritarian regimes increasingly use major international sporting events to improve their international reputation and distract from human rights abuses.

They assume that hosting such events will polish their image abroad by exhibiting the strength of their nation, state, and political leadership to the world. However, it is not a given that organising a major sporting event has a positive effect on the host autocracy in legitimising the incumbent regime. While Qatar wants the tournament to strengthen Arab identity and create acceptance for its political regime both at home and abroad, other actors aim to counter this strategy by pointing to the gap between the portrayed image and the regime's actual practices. Qatar is criticized internationally for exploiting migrant workers, its continued discrimination of women and LGBTQ individuals, and an increasing curtailment of freedom of speech. The tournament was also surrounded by allegations and accusations of corruption and, hence, has become a contested object of regime legitimation.

The project PAYOFF aims to show whether hosting “authoritarian games” influences public opinion abroad, and whether it pays off for authoritarian regimes to host a major sporting event like the 2022 World Cup to increase their legitimacy in the eyes of external audiences.

Research Interest

It is not clear whether Qatar’s efforts will play out as expected by the regime. While the economic and domestic impacts of major sporting events have received some scholarly attention, the effects on the legitimacy of authoritarian governments have been only very rarely in the focus of academic research. In open societies with free media, legitimation efforts are mediated by public debates and public discourse. The research team argues that outcomes cannot only vary in degree but even in whether they have a positive or negative effect on public attitudes depending on the quality of the media and the public debates.

PAYOFF investigates whether autocratic regimes achieve their goal of improving their reputation with external audiences and to which extent this manipulative legitimation of autocracies can be successful even in (more) liberal societies. It might also be the case that the efforts of autocracies backfire. Such large-scale events bring a lot of attention, and it is impossible for autocracy to control fully what is reported beyond their borders. Hence, critical reports might have the exact opposite effect to what countries like Qatar want to achieve when holding such events on their territory.

Research Approach

Public opinion surveys are conducted in eight European countries (Croatia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, Sweden and the United Kingdom). A longitudinal-panel design is applied, meaning that the same respondents are asked before, during, and after the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. This allows to trace changes in public opinion about Qatar at the individual level over time.

The data is collected in cooperation with Bilendi, which is a service provider for translations, scripting, implementation and access to online panels. In all eight countries, the project relies on high-quality online-access panels and quota sampling is applied to increase representativeness. In the first wave, about 1800 respondents were interviewed in each country.

The questionnaire includes standard items as well as survey experiments. In terms of content, various issues regarding the World Cup, comparative evaluations of Qatar, respondent’s attitudes towards political issues or democracy and many other aspects are covered. This allows to show whether the World Cup has any effects and who might be more affected than others.

Research Question

(1) How does organizing and holding the FIFA World Cup affect attitudes towards Qatar?

(2) Do such effects differ when comparing (a) general sympathy and cultural attractiveness of the host country, (b) acceptance of economic cooperation, (c) perceptions of an efficient and functioning state, or (d) “whitewashing” of the human rights situation and the democratic quality of the host country?

(3) Does positive and negative information about the situation in Qatar (related to the World Cup) actually change citizens’ attitudes?

(4) Who is actually following the World Cup and, therefore, a potential victim of whitewashing?

Relation to the Liberal Script

The project addresses the question to what extent the image polishing and whitewashing of illiberal regimes finds traction in liberal and semi-liberal societies alike, hinting at the relative attractiveness of alternative scripts. Since the protection of the political and social rights of minorities are one of the major bones of contention in Qatar, it also speaks indirectly to one of the major components of the liberal script (Börzel and Zürn, 2020; Zürn and Gerschewski 2021). In other words, it investigates the potential effect of manipulative legitimation in a country which violates core elements of the liberal script on a daily basis.