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  • Writer's pictureCharlotte Salmon

Qatar Airways carries soft power throughout the globe

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

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Qatar understands that it confronts an uncertain future as a small nation that depends on migrant labour, foreign knowledge, and oil money. With barely 250,000 citizens and few military resources, Qatar looks to be a new global actor. During the last decade, the State of Qatar has been investing in soft power strategies to gain visibility in the international order.

What is Soft Power?

The emerging concept of soft power in global politics emphasises reputation management over traditional hard power. Instead of using financial coercion or military force, it focuses on cooperation and attractiveness through culture, values, and foreign policy, as defined by Joseph Nye. Soft power gained popularity and created opportunities for small countries to maximise their limited political, economic, and strategic capabilities while overcoming some of their physical or geographical limitations.

The State of Qatar has been using soft power strategies to build new narratives about the country. Notably, since Qatar was blockaded by its neighbouring countries from 2017 to 2021, it sought to gain further support from other nations to protect itself.

Qatar has attempted to exert considerable influence by participating in and investing in sports, journalism, education, humanitarianism, and hosting significant international events such as the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) World Cup 2022, which global media call for a boycott due to Qatar’s human right violations.

Additionally, Qatar Airways, the state-owned airline of Qatar, seems to play an increasing role in Qatar's international relations. With nearly 200 aircrafts travelling to 150 locations on five continents, Qatar Airways has become one of the aviation industry's fastest-growing carriers. It is also the first Middle Eastern airline to join the Oneworld aviation alliance.

How is Qatar Airways used as a soft power tool?

Humanitarian operations

The airline's aircraft have frequently transported humanitarian supplies to locations impacted by natural catastrophes, such as the Southeast Asia tsunami of 2006, and to areas with challenging humanitarian conditions, such as Darfur in Sudan and the Gaza Strip. However, international media have accused Qatari-based institutions of funding terrorist organisations, such as Hamas.

During the worst of the Covid 19 epidemic, Qatar Airways Cargo provided aid to the impacted countries for the safety of people worldwide by relying on Doha's infrastructures at Hamad International Airport (HIA). By giving and transporting 300 tonnes of medical supplies to Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou in February, the airline aided China. Additionally, six tonnes of medical supplies that the State of Qatar had provided in March were flown by Qatar Airways to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Regarding its regular business operations, Qatar Airways Cargo stated it is making sure importers can continue to provide countries all over the world with fresh fruit and medications through its cargo operations at considerably reduced costs. By a memorandum of understanding (MoU) agreed in February 2021, Qatar Airways Cargo completed its contribution to the Unicef COVAX program by carrying more than 154 million COVID-19 vaccinations, giving five years' worth of vaccine.

Likewise, Doha's logistical capacities were crucial when evacuating refugees from Afghanistan in 2021. More than 120,000 individuals, from which 60,000 were evacuated from Afghanistan by Qatar as the evacuation situation at Kabul Airport developed. While the situation in Afghanistan remains tense, in January 2022, Qatar Airways agreed with the Taliban on behalf of the U.S to arrange two weekly aircrafts to evacuate their people and at-risk Afghans.

Qatar’s mediation efforts build the State’s image as a trustworthy and impartial mediator necessary to promote peace. In the examples, Qatar Airways contributes to humanitarian, development and peace initiatives in line with Qatar National Vision for 2030, which sees international collaboration as crucial in fostering national and international development. Therefore, in an effort to improve Qatar's reputation, the airline is acting as the country's ambassador overseas, conveying the State’s foreign policy and values.

Branding and marketing

The branding and marketing of Qatar Airways attempt to deliver to visitors the idea that Qatar's economy is well developed. Qatar Airways aircraft make it possible to accurately determine which country the plane belongs to and that it has a large and diverse fleet. Most significantly, Qatar Airways offers top-notch service, earning the title of greatest airline due to its commitment, cabin innovation, and exceptional customer service. The quality of the service has a significant influence on passengers' decisions about which airline to fly with. As a consequence of Qatar Airways' excellent service, more passengers will pass through Doha's Hamad Airport, and more tourists will be enticed to the country to enjoy its culture and history. Additionally, Qatar Airways' entertainment program onboard aims to provide passengers with the "right" information about the country, enhance its reputation, and persuade visitors to spend as much time as possible in the country, even if Doha is just a layover on the route to another country. Thus, by displaying an attractive culture and values, the branding and marketing of Qatar Airways serve as a tool of soft power to move away from Qatar's tarnished reputation.

Football Sponsoring

Qatar Airways signed a sponsorship agreement with FIFA in 2017 and supported significant European football teams, including Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich. When Qatar Airways sponsored FC Barcelona from 2013 to 2017, it wasn't just the players that wore jerseys with the airline's logo; the supporters of the clubs from all over the world also helped to promote the logo. Interestingly, this type of investment is unique because it takes advantage of football's widespread appeal and ability to be enjoyed by everyone. Consequently, airlines that engage in these sponsorships set themselves apart from other industry rivals, especially in light of the financial difficulties faced by American and European companies whose operations are under threat from the hegemony of Gulf airlines such as Qatar Airways, Emirates, and Etihad.

Hence, sports sponsorships enabled Qatar Airways to export the brand globally, allowing for greater visibility of Qatar. Due to its close ties to Qatar's fundamental identity, Qatar Airways is a crucial component of the country's international branding initiatives.

However, if Qatar is seen as buying its power through Qatar Airways, there could be a global backlash, even in the nations that have benefited from Qatari investments and foreign aid. Qatar should speed up the pace of its own democratic transition and adopt labour reforms for the millions of migrant workers who drive the country's economic and building boom if it wants to be regarded seriously. Failure to do so may subject Qatar to unwarranted international scrutiny, which might harm its reputation and, in turn, its capacity for soft power.

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