LONDON: Many Arabs have cried foul over Qatar’s link to the record-breaking $263 million transfer deal for Neymar — as it emerged that such a fee could have paid for much of the outstanding humanitarian aid required in Palestine this year.
Qatar is expected to continue splashing the cash in football in a bid to boost its reputation, experts claim, despite evidence the strategy is failing and the backlash that followed Neymar’s mega-bucks move to the Doha-owned Paris St-Germain (PSG).
The fee for which the Brazilian football player left Barcelona for PSG last week — which does not include future wages — was more than twice the previous record.
The transfer resulted in disbelief among some of the biggest names in football — as well as in the Arab world, amid a rising tide of questions surrounding Qatar’s investment in football as a “soft power” bid to boost its reputation.
Arsene Wenger, the manager of Arsenal Football Club, reacted with disbelief at the astronomical transfer fee paid by the Qatar-owned team.
“You cannot rationalize the numbers anymore. The inflation is accelerating,” he was reported as saying.
“Ownerships have completely changed the whole landscape of football in the last 15 years. Once a country owns a club, everything is possible. It becomes very difficult to respect Financial Fair Play.
“Today the price of a player depends on the financial potential of the buyer.”
The Neymar transfer also attracted widespread disbelief and some mockery among Arabic-speaking social-media users — including some claiming to hail from Qatar itself.
One Twitter user, who claims to be Qatari, wrote: “Those billions, which is supposed to be for Qataris, are spent on a single player while, unfortunately, half of the people are unemployed and wait for a job.”
Another wrote: “The Qatari (government) remind me of a baby who has a lot of money and doesn’t know what to buy,” wrote one.
User @halflasi1 wrote: “Qatar wants to prove that its economy is fine through buying Neymar, while it’s importing poor-quality products for its people. Who is important, Qataris or Neymar?”
Another Twitter user alluded to the terror-financing allegations made against Qatar by its Arab neighbors Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt andBahrain.
“Qatar buys players and terrorists,” wrote user @F_lash_1.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the 2017 aid requirement to help 2 million people in need in the occupied Palestinian territories stands at some $551.9 million.
Around 40 percent — or £220.5 million — of that funding has been received, leaving a shortfall of some $331.4 million. The $263 million transfer fee paid by the Qatar-owned PSG, plus Neymar’s wages over five years — at a reported €30 million ($35 million) a year — would have more than covered that.
The negative press over the Neymar deal follows the string of accusations over Qatar’s bid to host the 2022 World Cup, which continue to haunt the tournament.
There is a more general discontentment among some fans that football clubs have become tools for “soft power” grabs by far-distant countries and companies about which they know little.
Some have cast doubt over whether Qatar’s soft-power strategies — which range from big-money football deals to its control of media channels — are actually paying off.
According to a recent YouGov/Arab News survey, nearly half of Americans polled are unsure about whether Qatar is a friend or foe, while 31 percent consider it “unfriendly” or an “enemy.”
Half of respondents said they do not know enough about the Gulf state to pass judgement. Yet the next highest response rate — at some 34 percent — reflects those whom associate Qatar with the accusations of terror financing made against it. Only 16 percent of Americans associate Qatar with the 2022 FIFA World Cup, one of the biggest sporting events in the world.
But experts cast doubt over whether Doha will be deterred in its brash buying sprees in the world’s most popular sport, despite the short-term backlash it may cause.
“With moves like (Neymar’s) there are usually two responses,” Kieran Maguire, lecturer on football finance at Liverpool University, told Arab News.
“One is the knee-jerk ‘this is an outrage’ response. The other is a more nuanced one that appreciates that PSG have brought into the brand and Neymar will give them a huge lift on social media.
Chris Doyle, director of the London-based Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) said he expects Doha to continue spending money to boost its reputation.
“Qatar will continue to invest in sport in order to gain soft power, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t,” Doyle said.
“It invests in all sorts of areas around the world, not just football, and will continue to do so.”
Other commentators said that Qatar’s power plays have backfired. David Weinberg, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a non-profit, non-partisan policy institute focusing on foreign policy and national security, said that Doha’s soft power ambitions had seen it build relationships with “terrorists.”
“Ever since Qatar saw Kuwait get gobbled up by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1990, it has sought ways to diversify its security support beyond Saudi Arabia. In part, Qatar has sought to achieve this by investing in property, sports, and other initiatives in Western countries to ensure that the United States and Europe will be friendly to Qatar and come to Qatar’s aid in the event of a crisis,” Weinberg told Arab News.
“Qatar’s soft-power efforts have also extended into its desire to be the essential mediator to every dispute in the region, even if it means building problematically close relations with terrorists and other violent extremists. In that sense, Qatar’s efforts to build soft power have backfired, decreasing Qatari security by turning many of its important neighbors against it.”