As this year’s Qatari National Day coincided with the final of the FIFA World Cup, Sheikha Hind bint Hamad Al-Thani posted an adorable picture on Instagram congratulating her brother, Sheikh Joaan bin Hamad Al-Thani, on the success of hosting one of the biggest sporting events in the world.
In her message, Sheikha Hind referred to their tribal identity, deeply rooted in the Qatari population, showcasing how it goes alongside their sports diplomacy achievements.
Indeed, most of this year’s big winners at the World Cup were outliers. Japan, Croatia, Morocco, and even Saudi Arabia all performed unexpectedly well, and sparked two significant regional, if not global, debates.
Firstly, Qatar’s last-minute U-turn on banning alcohol at the stadiums was welcomed by many foreign families. Secondly, even Sheikh Tamim's gesture of gifting Lionel Messi with gold embroidered bisht was a sign of honor and had a strategic tribal connotation to it. Last but not least, Moroccan players sharing their victories with their mothers, bringing them forward onto the field, grabbed the world’s attention. Although the Arab world was cheering for them, despite its many differences, it made them feel united, primarily because of the shared value system, including deep respect for their mothers. It is the same system which ended Zinedine Zidane’s career in the 2006 World Cup final game, when he reacted aggressively to Italy’s Marco Materazzi allegedly insulting his mother.
What has changed between then and now? The pandemic changed it all.
This World Cup is very memorable, not only because it was hosted in the Middle East for the first time, but because it represented a cultural shift at its best.
COVID-19, isolation, and logistical disruptions uncovered a global problem — an identity crisis. Many countries had to move from a global to a more national approach to become increasingly self-sustainable, in case humanity faces another pandemic-like situation. It made people look inwards, and turn toward their families. Europe nowadays is not only facing an energy crisis but also a major family crisis. Their ultra-individualistic approach almost destroyed the family as an institution, making chances for prosperity increasingly far-fetched.
On the other hand, GCC countries exploited their tribal, familial mentality to organize and keep communities safe. Tribes usually treat each member as family, making no distinguishments; everyone knows their role and responsibility, relying on the leader for his guidance and wisdom. The latter two are in abundance, thanks to the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, respectively. Undoubtedly, they have big plans for their nations.
Part of Saudi Vision 2030 is to promote sports diplomacy more, to have Saudi Arabia host the biggest sports events in the world, engage citizens in sporting activities more. Herve Renard was hired to do something almost impossible, and he did not disappoint by leading the Saudi national team to a famous win against Argentina, which made every Saudi proud.
Then, there are rumors of Al-Nassr Football Club signing Cristiano Ronaldo to play for them in January 2023. However, are they betting on the 37-year-old’s talent or his 500 million social media followers (if combined with his girlfriend)? Georgina Rodriguez looked fabulous while expressing cultural appreciation for Arab hospitality in Qatar, dressed in an abaya. Imagine if the power couple showcased foreigners the real Saudi Arabia, and not the stereotypes the Western media displays. Well, suddenly, the $200 million price tag might be a wise investment in the county’s future.
This World Cup is very memorable, not only because it was hosted in the Middle East for the first time, but because it represented a cultural shift at its best. The world has changed; the West no longer has as dominant a say in how others should conduct their business, because societal values, especially in Muslim countries, are more vital than ever, and governments are willing to stick to them, as showcased by Qatar.
Finally, the GCC is not blindly following foreign consultants’ advice anymore; they are building a strategy on their terms, with a new, progressive yet still tribal leadership. Therefore, these countries’ policies and economic structures should be of secondary importance to foreign investors and businesspeople. Rather, cultural understanding of the social fabric should be a pillar in navigating the region's business environment.
• Anastasiia Stoiatska is a Harvard-certified human behaviorist who delivers cross-cultural communication trainings across the GCC. Anastasiia is currently based in Dubai, helping foreign businesses navigate local cultural intricacies for successful community integration. She is fluent in six languages.