Geopolitical expert and scholar, Prof Natalie Koch, spoke about the role of sport as a means of exerting political influence, in a lively discussion at Northwestern University in Qatar ( NU-Q).
“Qatar’s changing geopolitical dynamics and relations have been covered extensively in local and international media,” said Everette E Dennis, dean and CEO at NU-Q.
“As a rentier state, the government’s plan to transform into a knowledge-based economy by investing in – among other things – the business of sports, makes it a very interesting case to explore. Prof Koch’s expertise puts into perspective the scale of the challenges that will face the nation in the lead-up to the World Cup.”
While “soft power” often refers to the State’s ability to use cultural or economic tactics – as opposed to military – to influence international relations, Prof Koch explained how Qatar’s strategic approach involves leveraging sports to create a geopolitical identity.
In her research, Prof Koch immerses herself in all aspects of a sporting event, which includes evaluating visitors’ interactions and behaviours, then analysing media coverage to identifying prevailing narratives and find correlations between them.
From hosting Asian Games in 2006 to the Men’s Handball World Championship in 2015, and the UCI Road World Championships in 2016, Qatar’s motive was to position itself as “a leader in promoting globalised sport in the Middle East, and modern, diverse, inclusive, and tolerant place,” said Prof Koch.
She explained that government-led initiatives and narratives are often challenged from below, adding that every participant or spectator’s experience may contribute to the overarching narrative. The main challenge, she said “is that people come with their own preconceived notions about the place, and if their own experience does not align with the image promoted, or if they hear a rumour that aligns with their belief, then it will be amplified.”
In this social media era, Prof Koch explained that there is a higher level of risk involved in promising an image that does not reflect the actual experience. Virtual conversations from participants and media coverage from non-affiliated channels could have a significant influence on the reputation of the event, which is often tied with the reputation of the State in which it is held.
“It is imperative for nations to use these opportunities of geopolitical encounters to validate narratives,” she said.
Koch is an associate professor of geography and O’Hanley Faculty Scholar at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. As a political geographer, she specialises in geopolitics, nationalism, and state theory in post-Soviet Central Asia and the Arabian Peninsula.
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