Ahead of the first FIFA World Cup in the Middle East, Qatar is spending billions not only to keep physical threats at bay, but also to prevent cybersecurity breaches during the event, which runs from Nov. 20 to Dec. 18.
The risk of cyber attacks increases during mega sporting events such as the World Cup. Cybersecurity experts predict that hackers could target institutional services such as ticketing and hotel bookings, as well as individuals traveling to Qatar. Phishing and social engineering could be used to steal personal or financial information from anyone using the internet, especially on public Wi-Fi at the stadiums. While fans may be the easiest targets, businesses and even the event’s organizing committee may be subjected to more sophisticated attacks.
The Qatari hosts have invested $1.1 billion in cybersecurity to prevent incidents during the World Cup and beyond, according to Tasmu Digital Valley, a program developed by the Qatari government to enhance digital systems in the country. In addition, Qatar signed a joint agreement with Morocco last Sunday to have the country deploy a team of cybersecurity experts to the host country ahead of the World Cup, The Qataris have been monitoring specific threats from within the Arab world.
With the exception of their closest neighbor, Saudi Arabia, the Qataris are on good terms with governments in the region, including Iran, as well as non-state actors such as Al Qaeda, Hezbollah and Hamas, according to Andreas Krieg, a senior lecturer at the School of Security Studies at Kings College in London.
“But below the threshold of war, there’s a lot of intent there to delegate to surrogates and proxies in the cyber domain,” Krieg said.
Officials from Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, the government body running World Cup preparations, declined to comment for this article. But Qatar’s sports industry has dealt with hacking before. According to a WTO report from 2020, Saudi Arabia set up and financed a pirate streaming service called beoutQ and distributed dozens of sports broadcasts from Qatar’s beIN Sports without the company’s consent. The organization ruled that Saudi Arabia helped breach international piracy laws in relation to beoutQ, despite the country insisting there is no link between its government and the alleged piracy. Saudi Arabia removed all pirate websites when informed of them but never accepted blame.
Cyber attacks like this, Krieg said, are designed to bring international ridicule to the country. “It’s about trying to show the world all the countries can’t actually host a massive event like this. And I think that’s probably where the greatest vulnerability lies.”
For the World Cup, Qatari officials are not leaving any room for error. On March 25, Interpol gathered a group of global cybersecurity experts together in Doha to analyze threats ahead of the World Cup. The meeting was part of Project Stadia, established by Interpol in 2012 and funded by Qatar, which aims to contribute to security arrangements for any major sports event but with special emphasis on the World Cup.
“In addition to visitors and athletes, national critical infrastructure is always a prime target,” Mohammed Al-Kayed, co-founder and director of Jordan-based cybersecurity company Black Mountain, told Sportico over Zoom from Amman.
“We’ve seen other attacks in the past with other countries, not necessarily during the World Cup,” he said, “but of course, having that embarrassment live on TV is 10 times more worth it from hackers perspective.”
Al-Kayed’s team is not working directly with Qatar’s Supreme Committee, but it has been hired to assist a handful of contractors, from food services to technology. “It is part of the deal; every contractor that works for the Qatari gov for this organization has to have its own cybersecurity,” Al-Kayed said.
Qatar has also spent billions of dollars to secure the country from physical threats well beyond the 30-day tournament.
“The Qataris have spared no expense,” Tim Bean, the president and COO of Fortem Technologies, told Sportico. The Utah-based company specializes in airspace security and has protected U.S. Army bases, Davos and G7 meetings, and “a megasports event that took place in Japan recently.”
Fortem is one of the many companies (and countries) with which Qatar has partnered to provide security during the World Cup. Turkey is sending 3,250 riot police to assist Qatari police on the streets. The United Kingdom has dispatched Typhoon military aircraft, while France is sending four airborne warning and control systems to track airborne threats. Earlier this year, the Qatari navy signed a new contract with Italian firm Leonardo to develop a Naval Operation Center (NOC) for the military service, the first of its kind in the country. South Korea is providing counter-terrorism officers, and in August, Pakistan’s cabinet approved a draft agreement that allows the government to provide troops for World Cup security. NATO will also provide security during the event.
“This is probably the most secure and secured World Cup in history,” Krieg said. “And that’s by the nature of where it is geographically.” Qatar is a peninsula that has two entry points: the airport and its land border with Saudi Arabia. In comparison to any other country that ever hosted the World Cup, Qatar has the best border security and surveillance capability.
But even with plenty of security, mega sports events are prone to incidents, no matter how experienced the host country is. In 2021, thousands of ticketless fans forced their way into Wembley Stadium during the UEFA European Championship final in London; in 2022, thousands of Liverpool fans were stuck outside Stade de France at the UEFA Champions League final in Paris.
“We have also seen at the Saudi Arabian F1 Grand Prix this year, how wider geopolitical conflicts can directly impact sports events,” Simon Chadwick, professor of Sport and Geopolitical Economy at Skema Business School in Paris, told Sportico. Last March, Yemen’s Houthi rebels attacked an oil depot in Jeddah, a few miles away from where the Grand Prix was being held.
Chadwick said the disruption caused by security breaches can have an economic impact as well as on the image and the reputation of the host country.
“The latter is especially important for Qatar, which has spent lavishly the last three decades to make itself a tourism and sports destination, an ambition that would undoubtedly suffer if the World Cup watchers perceived it to be an unsafe country.”
(This story has corrected the spelling of Andreas Krieg’s name throughout.)