Since being awarded the 2022 Fifa football World Cup in December 2010, Doha has spent millions of dollars assembling teams of internationally-renowned public relations (PR) consultants to advise it on how best to use the tournament as a means of increasing Qatar’s status and influence in the world.

So far, however, Doha’s spending appears to have bought little in the way of tangible gains. Under the intense spotlight that the World Cup has shone on Qatar, the world’s richest country per capita has floundered among a seemingly endless torrent of negative headlines in the international media.

Plan backfires

These stories have focused on issues ranging from corruption to allegations of labour abuse and even accusations that Doha has been financing terrorism. Taken collectively, they have fanned the concerns of critics about Qatar’s role in the international community rather than winning it new allies.

Among the most damaging stories was an expose on former Fifa executive member for Qatar Mohamed bin Hammam, which was published by the UK’s Sunday Times in June 2014. The article cited leaked emails and accused Hammam of making payments worth $5m to accounts controlled by the presidents of 30 African football associations in order to garner support for Qatar’s World Cup campaign.

Efforts to communicate a positive image have been stultified by the nature of decision-making”

David Roberts, King’s College London

More damage was dealt in early 2015, when the UK’s Telegraph newspaper published more than 20 negative stories about Qatar in the space of three months, many accusing Doha of financing terrorism. On top of all this, the UK’s Guardian newspaper has run a sustained campaign highlighting the high fatality rate among labourers and flaws in Doha’s labour laws.

But while it has become an established practice for the international media to criticise the hosts of world events, it is Doha’s inability to get control of the agenda despite the help of an army of PR firms that is greatest cause for concern. These include the UK’s Blue Rubicon, which counts  Coca Cola and the British Cabinet Office among its clients. It has been employed by the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, Qatar’s World Cup committee, since 2012.

Qatar Foundation, a quasi-governmental entity that has spearheaded the country’s efforts to become a regional leader in science and culture, employs its own fleet of PR companies. Since 2011, its core briefs have been handled by UK-based Grayling and Brown Lloyd James (BLJ) Worldwide, while a separate list of PR contracts deal with the institutions that come under the foundation’s umbrella.

One of Qatar’s newest PR signings is Portland Communications, an agency built out of the remnants of the New Labour communications team that helped Tony Blair secure three terms as UK prime minister.

Since signing a contract with the Qatar prime minister’s office in August 2014, Portland Communications has struggled with a brief that is said to be “a broad remit ranging from government affairs through to nation branding”, according to the trade publication PR Week.

In September 2014, Greg Dyke, the head of the governing body for football in England, questioned Portland Communications’ ethics after an investigation by UK broadcaster Channel Four revealed it had anonymously set up a sports blog that attacked critics of the 2022 World Cup, including Dyke himself, football commentator Gary Lineker and journalists working for the Sunday Times.

“The site was created by a former employee, and our digital team gave some help when the platform was built, but Portland does not run it,” Portland Communications said in a statement. “It is not part of our work for the government of Qatar.”

BBC arrests

More recently, another Portland Communications initiative became a PR disaster when a BBC news crew, which had been invited to Qatar by the prime minister’s office on a tour of construction worker accommodation, was arrested and detained for two nights by Qatari security services. The press trip had been devised by the firm as part of a drive to silence critics who accused the country of using forced labour and failing to enforce basic safety standards for workers. Instead, the arrests caused a media frenzy and prompted renewed criticism of Qatar’s record on worker conditions.

When contacted by MEED to discuss the challenges of representing Doha, Portland Communications declined to comment, saying it did not speak publicly about any of its clients.

But the blame for these mistakes does not sit entirely with the consultants. There are several reasons why Qatar’s teams of PR advisers are struggling to stem the flow of negative stories about the Gulf state, many of which are beyond their ability to control. According to figures close to the country’s political system, these include a failure by political leaders to create a cohesive message on issues such as labour abuse, and a failure to put in place concrete changes that address these same issues.

“Efforts to communicate a positive image have been stultified by the nature of decision-making,” says David Roberts, a lecturer on Gulf relations at King’s College London. “There is no masterplan or white paper that Qatar is playing from. So there isn’t an ounce of strategic forethought. It’s a set of hunches and general ideas that get filled in as they go along.’

Currently, there is no official government spokesperson and Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani rarely grants interviews to the media, something that has been criticised by Qatar watchers. “The employees of the PR firms repeatedly craft press releases that are never given approval and public appearances that aren’t given the green light,” says a Doha-based diplomatic source. “They keep telling officials that someone senior needs to speak out and give the Qatari viewpoint, but no one wants to do it.”

Roberts agrees that reluctance by senior officials to talk directly to the media on a regular basis has allowed Qatar to lose the initiative when it comes to influencing media narratives. “Qatar’s Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiyah is very eloquent,” he says. “When the ambassadors were removed from Doha by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE last year, he went to Europe and wrote numerous editorials.

“This helped remind European leaders why Qatar is an important player on the global stage. The problem is it took an abject crisis to force anyone from Qatar to engage in any kind of systematic way with the media, and even then it was only for a short period of time.”

The other major challenge for the PR firms is Doha’s failure to address the criticisms levelled at it by Western media and human rights groups. By far the most damaging of these has been the criticism of the sponsorship (kafala) system, which is used to monitor migrant workers, and has been likened to a form of modern-day slavery by the International Trade Union Confederation. Under the system, Qatari nationals earn money by sponsoring migrant workers and have the power to prevent employees from changing jobs or leaving the country.

Critics say this leaves workers vulnerable to exploitation and is connected to the reported high rate of fatalities among labourers working in the country. In May 2014, Doha promised to abolish the kafala system, but has yet to deliver on this promise. A timetable for the passage of the law and its implementation is still to be announced and the proposed changes are seeing resistance from the Chamber of Commerce.

“One simple reason why the reforms to Qatar’s kafala system are being blocked is that it will make things more expensive for businesses,” says Roberts.

National security

Another reason for Qatar’s foot-dragging is fears about national security. According to one diplomatic source, the country’s native population of about 300,000 Qataris is worried by the prospect of a possible shift in the balance of power if it grants new freedoms to the migrant worker population, which stands at about 1.8 million.

“The reluctance doesn’t just come from the fact that Qataris benefit from the kafala system financially,” says the diplomat. “There is also a fear they will lose control of their own country. If you can deport a worker at a moment’s notice then you have control.”

Reform is also being held back by bottlenecks within Qatar’s bureaucracy. Doha observers say the government lacks a workforce with the capability to implement wholesale change, and is blocked by conservative elements that want to maintain the status quo.

In order to win over public opinion abroad, Qatar needs to demonstrate it is taking issues such as worker abuse seriously, and will have to do far more than employ PR agencies. Senior officials need to create real change in the way business is done at home and how the government deals with foreign media organisations.

“Qatar is seen as a benign autocracy and there is an expectation that the emir can click his fingers and get things done, but he loses a lot of political capital if he tries to do this,” says Roberts. “I’m pretty sure if Sheikh Tamim could click his fingers and get these changes he would, but in reality the current system is very resistant to change.”