How Qatar became the biggest player in the world of sport
Arab emirate has designs on Silverstone and Tour de France as it uses sport for political ends
WITH a population of just 1.7 million, Qatar is unlikely to ever produce a generation of world beating athletes. Nevertheless, the once obscure Gulf state is emerging as an international sporting powerhouse with an insatiable appetite for all things athletic.
Last year the world was shocked when Fifa awarded the 2022 World Cup to the Arab emirate, whose national team is ranked 92nd in the world and where temperatures reach 50C during the summer. Since then it has been relentless in pursuing other opportunities.
The latest is an attempt by a Qatar-backed consortium to take control of the British racing circuit Silverstone for the next 150 years. The move has the backing of Formula One ringleader Bernie Ecclestone but has traditionalists up in arms.
But that pales in comparison to some of the Arab state's other ambitions. The not-for-profit Qatari Foundation now sponsors Barcelona, the most famous football club in the world, after it signed a £125m, five-year shirt deal, the first in the Spanish club's history.
Qatar is also bidding to host the 2020 Olympic Games (having missed out on the 2016 event), and next week it goes up against Britain for the right to host the 2017 World Athletics Championships.
Its residents are also keen on horse racing, and last month £3m in cash from Qatar funded the richest day in British racing history at Ascot.
Astonishingly, the state has even asked if it can host the opening stage of the 2016 Tour de France.
Qataris have also been buying up football clubs in Europe. In Spain, Malaga was bought by billionaire businessman Abdullah bin Nasser bin Abdullah Al Ahmed Al Thani, or Sheikh Abdullah for short, a distant relative of the current ruler, Sheikh Hamad.
Earlier this year the Qatari Investment Authority bought a controlling 70 per cent stake in French football club Paris Saint Germain. The QIA had previously been linked with a £1.5 billion takeover of Manchester United, and in 2008 reportedly almost bought Everton.
As result, both Malaga and PSG are suddenly being linked with the best and most expensive players in the world, and can rival the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City for clout.
Just to back it all up, the Qatar-based broadcaster Al Jazeera, which has bought the rights to the French football league until 2016, is planning to launch a rolling sports news channel.
So where is all the money coming from? Qatar is the richest country in the world and sits on the world’s third largest gas field, and it has global ambitions.
Last year Steve Wilson wrote in The Daily Telegraph: "As a benign dictatorship, anything with the Qatar name on it - from the airline to the telecoms company - has the same source. It is effectively state-owned by the ruling Al Thani family."
He added: "Self promotion is always the name of the game. And the Qataris are proving the masters of the art... Sport is a short cut to international recognition."
Legend has it that Sheikh Hamad's fascination with sport began a decade ago when he saw a stage of the Tour de France while on a cycling holiday in France. He was so impressed he ·