David Beckham left Doha before the world’s media descended on Qatar last week which meant there would not be so much as even an awkward question shouted over the shoulders of his security detail to the most famous English name hired by the organizers of the 2022 World Cup finals .
Beckham’s meetings with Qatari royalty, as well as those with the activist Malala Yousafzai, and the Afghan Girls Robotics team evacuated from their country last year, took place at an earlier date, to be fired out the cannon of the prodigal son’s Instagram account days later . That gold-plated Beckham content certainly encompassed a lot of what Qatar would like to project to the world, including the Doha Forum, attended by Beckham himself and addressed, among others, by the Ukraine president Volodymr Zelensky.
Beckham was interviewed at the same forum, a diplomatic showpiece event, by Sheika Al-Mayassa Al Thani, sister of Qatar’s ruling emir, and he declared it an honor to discuss “the role of sport in culture and creativity”. By Wednesday the Beckham Instagram feed was back on more familiar ground, the famous inked wrist adorned with a new watch endorsement. The official reason given for Beckham senior leaving Doha when he did was to fulfill his part in the preparations for the wedding of his eldest son, Brooklyn. It is a busy diary.
What is Beckham up to? A man whose popularity has been built in part on a steadfast refusal to adopt any strong view one way or the other has made the most political decision of his life for him to sign up to Qatar. The £150 million fee for the 15-year contract he signed with the Gulf State, is broadly accurate albeit a deal with many different commercial partners and not all the funds guaranteed. For football’s premium heritage brand, deployed shrewdly around the world those are very good numbers, albeit a gamble of sorts too.
A ban on same-sex relationships. The deaths of around 6,500 migrant workers building the Qatar World Cup infrastructure. A rotten bidding process from which 15 of the 22 Fifa executive committee members who voted on that Zurich day 12 years ago have been accused of criminal charges or faced bans. All of this is part of Qatar 2022, and now in its way it is part of Beckham too. He has been co-opted into Qatar’s endless earnest talk about legacy and transformation which ignores all the things that could be changed in Qatar immediately if there was the will to do so.
Of course, Beckham does not believe in the denial of basic human rights, and one is assured he wants labor reforms to progress as quickly as possible. What the Beckham machine is banking on is that Qatar’s promise of change is authentic. It can be thin gruel to hear Hassan Al-Thawadi, the 2022 secretary general, advance the view that Qatar would be a much more conservative place without the changes hosting a World Cup has wrought. Yet that seems to be the key thrust of the defence: things could be worse.
There is some cover too for Beckham in Qatar, including the decision by Unicef, the humanitarian charity to which he has long allied himself, to open an office in Doha. There is the Formula One, and the many figures from the world of fashion and art, who have been courted. All of them are putting something at stake and in Beckham’s case it is that unique universal appeal that he wields: to be rich but not too venal, a star but never inaccessible, and never on the wrong side in the big arguments. Qatar, and its innate conservatism, is his most problematic client, and also his most lucrative.
Those around him are at pains to point out that he has done his due diligence on Qatar. That the technocrats of the modern state, like Al-Thawadi have assured Beckham that change is coming. Beckham is of the view that boycotts are not the way forward and that football can be an agent for change. He has been there around six times since Covid travel restrictions were lifted last summer and he believes that the Gulf State is making true progress. He likes to earn a living too and no doubt that he focuses the mind to see the best in a country.