The very concept of the Geneva International Motor Show Qatar is outlandish, bordering on absurd. Yet here we are, with a show being staged in a blissfully air-conditioned convention centre in the heart of a gleaming modern city carved out of the desert on a small Arabian peninsula some 3000 miles or so from the foothills of the Alps where Geneva is nestled.
Then again, it probably doesn’t sound so outlandish when you consider what Qatar has achieved in recent years, enabled by the vast fortune it has accrued thanks to rich deposits of oil and natural gas. After all, this country with a population of around 2.7 million people (around half-a-million more than Birmingham) last year staged the FIFA World Cup, and now has a 10-year contract to stage a grand prix – which takes place on the same weekend the motor show opened.
Compared to the huge financial outlay required to stage a World Cup in such a small country and to secure a long-term F1 deal, Qatar probably secured the Geneva motor show deal with loose change it found down the back of a sofa.
Now, the name of the show caused much confusion when launched – and continues to do so. This is not, whatever the branding implies, the Geneva motor show. That remains a separate event – albeit one that back in February was cancelled for the fourth consecutive year (organisers insist it will return in 2024). The Geneva Qatar show will be a biennial spin-off, a supplementary event if you will.
Still, it fits the modus operandi of many Qatar investments: the country’s tourist board could easily set up its own motor show – in fact, it has staged one in the past – but it wouldn’t have the prestige or perceived international importance that the 118-year-old Geneva motor show ‘brand’ brings. Qatar is aiming to build itself up as a major tourist destination, and key to that is attracting ‘world-class’ events. The Geneva branding brings attention. So here we are.
That, in turn, raises some uncomfortable questions about why we’re here – the same ones asked about why the World Cup, Formula 1 and other events of note have been staged here. Is the Qatar motor show the automotive equivalent of ‘sportswashing’? Qatar has been criticised by bodies such as Amnesty International for its human rights record and treatment of migrant workers. It also follows strict Muslim laws; there are restrictions on what women are allowed to do, while it is illegal to be in a homosexual relationship.
Those are big issues to consider, especially if you only came here to read about cars. But it’s important to consider, in the same way that you can’t talk about Chinese cars without consideration of that authoritarian regime. Asked about such concerns, Geneva show boss Sandro Mesquita said: “We don’t do politics. We are a motor show. We are bringing here our values, and I’m sure that we are somehow helping the change that is happening. But we don’t give lessons to anyone. We are Swiss. We are humble.”
Leaving that aside, what about those cars? Well, the Geneva branding might have brought attention – although probably not as much as Qatar World Cup ambassador David Beckham popping in for the opening ceremony – but it didn’t bring a flood of world premieres.