by Kenneth Wardrop
Forbes Magazine in February 2012 identified the Gulf State of Qatar as the world’s richest country with GDP per capita of more than €67,376 for 2010. Qatar’s wealth is based on its substantial natural gas and oil reserves (the natural gas reserves are estimated to be the third largest in the world). When working recently in Qatar I was struck by the extent of large scale construction projects that are underway, and based on the crude measure of the ‘crane count‘ on Doha’s skyline – the city is in a global recession defying phase of growth. Doha has replaced Dubai as the Gulf’s construction boom city. ‘Qatar: As independent as you are’ the title of this piece is the Qatar Tourism Authority’s current brand slogan for the country.
From a destination development and promotion perspective Qatar’s ambitious economic diversification vision and development plan is ambitious. As the country gears up to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022, this means that this small Gulf state of just 1.7 million people (of whom circa eighty percent are expatriate workers), is increasingly going to be on everyone’s radar in the decade to come.
Visitors to Qatar cannot fail to be struck by the intent with which the nation is pursuing its repositioning on the global stage. I believe that the country and its fast track and ambitious development agenda represents a fascinating, ‘if money were no object?’ case study in destination development, branding and promotion.
Raising global awareness of brand Qatar is already being achieved through the Qatar Foundations 2010 five year €153 million shirt sponsorship deal with Barcelona Football club. Raising Qatar’s profile as a football loving nation and ensuring as witnessed on my recent visit enthusiastic local support for Barca. The Qatar foundation is a non-profit organisation focused on educational projects in the Middle East. Last year the Qatar Investment Authority ( a sovereign wealth fund) bought the French football club Pairs Saint-Germaine attracting some vitriol in French press. Qatar sovereign wealth funds other high profile investments include a 95% stake in ‘The Shard’, London’s newest skyscraper.
Al Jazeera Broadcasting is headquartered in Doha, and owned by the State of Qatar, and is respected for its free exchange of information and fair reporting in the Arab World – and as it too extends its global reach also represents a key instrument in defining the country’s international identity, and is defining the country’s spheres of influence.
The national airline Qatar Airways has one of the fastest growing global route networks with over a hundred routes with this set to double in the next 5 years based on an expanding fleet of over 250 aircraft. The airline carried 16 million passengers in 2011. In the next few months Doha’s new international airport, being built at a cost of c. €120 million, will open with a target of handling 50 million passengers per annum by 2015. Qatar Airways is another key tool being used effectively by the country to extend brand reach.
The country under the leadership of the Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani has set out a clear vision to 2030 (Qatar National Development Strategy 2011 -13: Towards Qatar National Vision 2030 [Source: http://www2.gsdp.gov.qa/NDS/e_book/en/index.html#/0 ] ), to achieve the country’s economic diversification agenda, with a major focus on tourism, and major strategic aspect of which is the hosting of ‘mega’ sporting events.
A key milestone for Qatar was the successful hosting in 2006 of the Asian Games, with the opening and closing ceremonies and venue infrastructure reaching a scale and level that these games previously have never experienced. As part of the investment in the 2006 Asian Games was a legacy programme of sports development and participation. The experience of hosting these International Olympic Committee games led to Qatar successfully bidding to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022. Qatar’s successful bid for the World Cup was based on promoting a transformational social and cultural programme linked to hosting the tournament, and an impressive level of investment in facilities and infrastructure. The country continues to pursue ambitions to be a future Olympic Games host nation.
Hosting the World Cup in 2022 has created a focus for an astonishing level of urban and physical development across the country, based on an initial committed spend on infrastructure projects in the period 2011 to 2016 of a staggering €61 billion. At the same time €38 billion has been allocated to the creation of a new metro system for Doha, a countrywide rail network, and a significant contribution to a regional high speed rail network for the Gulf. The scale of and timescale for development is ambitious, and as stated earlier given the current ‘crane count’ in Doha (always a good economic indicator) is off to a flying start.
Qatar Tourism Authority (QTA) has set a target of growing the tourism industry by 20% in the next five years. A key focus being on the Meetings, Incentive, Conference and Exhibitions (MICE) market (currently 97% of Qatar’s visitor market is based on business tourism), to help realise these growth targets a new state of the art convention and exhibition centre in Doha is currently nearing completion.
The QTA’s stated destination marketing strategy draws on the country’s ancient Arabic culture and the wow factor of its current visitor facilities including stunning hotels such as Doha’s new W hotel. The iconic and impressive Museum of Islamic Art opened in 2008, and designed by the ‘celebrity’ Architect I.M.Pei, seeks to emulate the Guggenheim effect in Bilbao. This museum is a powerful symbol of Qatar’s intent and ambition. A new and iconic National Museum of Qatar is also on the drawing board.
Qatar I believe represents a case book example of the ‘fast track’ creation of a destination brand. I believe that it represents a ‘laboratory of place making’. An aspect of the fast pace of this development agenda is some significant cultural, environmental, economic, and social challenges, that will require significant adjustments for the local population as the country becomes a global destination.
These environmental, social and cultural challenges are particularly pronounced in relation to the role of host to the World Cup. A particular challenge for the country will be balancing traditional cultural values and norms with western cultural attitudes and behaviours (which for national football fans can often be ’high spirited’).
The speed of change and scale of ambition and transformation in this relatively small country I believe is unique given the unparalleled levels of funding and investment at the country’s disposal. The scale and ambition of Qatar‘s vision from the stand point of a current European perspective, where the economic outlook remains pretty bleak, is one of the most striking impressions on visiting the country.
I look forward to following Qatar’s transformation and tracking how successful it is in balancing the challenges, and in realising the bold ambitions from the investment in the different component elements of place making and promotion. Qatar is certainly going to be a fascinating case study for place making and promotion academics and practitioners to monitor in the decade ahead.