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Qatar bets on future as sports mecca

By Regan Doherty

(Reuters) - Biking through the south of France one summer's day a decade ago, Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani was stopped by a pack of cyclists from the Tour de France.

So impressed was he with the peloton racing past that he phoned famed Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx and asked him to organize a similar bike race in the Gulf Arab state.

Thus began a 10-year love affair with sport which would eventually see the tiny country do what most thought impossible: win an audacious bid to host the 2022 soccer World Cup.

But Qatar's bold ambition in the realm of sport does not end there. Buoyed by its successful World Cup bid, the country has begun to indulge a seemingly insatiable desire to host global sporting events.

Last month Qatar officially launched a bid to host the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. It has submitted a bid for the 2017 World Athletic Championships, and has expressed interest in hosting the Grand D��part for the 2016 Tour de France.

This is all bolstered by Qatar's sponsorship of a myriad of sports events and teams.

State-owned Qatar Airways was the official airline for this year's Tour de France. A Qatari investment vehicle earlier this year bought a 70 percent stake in French soccer club Paris St Germain for an undisclosed amount.

Doha-based broadcaster Al Jazeera recently bought a share of the domestic television rights of French league games from 2012 to 2016. The network paid 90 million euros ($129 million) a year for rights to broadcast two live games a week and for other associated rights over four seasons between 2012 and 2016.

The timing couldn't have been better.

"By giving Qataris -- especially the youth -- more access to sport and bringing the world's best sporting stars to Qatar, Qatar's elite are quite simply and understandably boosting their own popularity domestically," said David Roberts, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute based in Doha.

Unlike neighboring Gulf countries, Qatar has been notably free of the unrest that has swept the region in recent months. As the country with the world's highest per capita income, estimated at $90,149, it can afford to spend lavishly on bids for sporting events.

Qatar is likely to spend an estimated $100 billion to host the 2022 tournament. It spent $2.8 billion on the Asian Games, which it hosted in 2006.

Qatar's emir has closely associated himself with sport throughout his reign, promoting access to sporting facilities in the late 1980s and early 1990s and bringing the FIFA Youth (under 20) World Cup to the country after he came to power in 1995. It turned out to be a shrewd strategy.

"Qatar's foray into sport and other youth-oriented initiatives has helped boost the government's popularity and helped it connect with a new generation of Qataris," said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center.

"The World Cup bid, as well as the flurry of sporting, education, and cultural activities, have all shown the Qatari government to be both active and innovative, offering a sharp contrast to most other Arab regimes."

As in neighboring countries, decision-making is dominated by the emir and a small group of family members, with cabinet and an unelected Shura Council advising, though there is one elected municipal council.

Summer temperatures can reach as high as 50 Celsius -- although temperatures are much milder in winter -- making it an unlikely cycling hub. But the emir's daughter Sheikha Mayassa organised a women's bike race in 2009. It is now an annual event.

"The ladies tour is a political statement from Sheikha Mayassa, to show that Qatar is an open, liberal country where women as well as men can play sports. It exists to show that there are no restrictions to sporting in Qatar," said the race's organizer Dirk DePauw.

"Qatar wants to be a country where sport is very important. They want to do it for the young people, and to help with obesity and the health problems," said Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx, who helped launch the race.

"The whole (royal) family loves cycling. He bikes, the whole family bikes. And he wants the people here to bike."

RACE FOR REVENUE

Though its greatest success has undoubtedly been the 2022 World Cup coup, Qatar has seen some defeats along the way. A bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics, eventually won by Rio de Janeiro, floundered on its insistence on holding the Games in October. Qatar is now bidding for the 2020 Games and Olympic officials have allowed a shift in dates to avoid the extreme desert heat.

A close U.S. ally that hosts a large U.S. military base, Qatar is the world's largest exporter of liquefied natural gas and gained global attention recently with high-profile purchases such as that of London department store Harrods.

Bolstering Qatar's image as a modern sporting venue would help the country plan for a future without gas.

"Sports tourism is one of their primary focus areas in terms of overall diversification. It's a clear strategic focus for them," said Raghavan Seetharaman, chief executive officer of Doha Bank.

"The bigger picture is that they have to diversify, and the diversification has to come from multiple sources. Investments they've done via the sovereign fund. They've invested billions in sports facilities, and 2022 will create even more momentum. They can leverage it beyond 2022, if they can create the right traffic through sports tourism," Seetharaman said.

"They (the royal family) are passionate about sports. That's why they went after 2022. It's something that no one in the region has ever done," the Chairman of Qatar's Tourism Authority Ahmed Abdullah Al-Nuaimi said in an interview with Reuters.

"And it's not only for Doha, it's for the whole region. People will see the Middle East in a different way, not just as a struggle, as a political problem, but as offering something else."

(Edited by Sonya Hepinstall)