I CAN say with some certainty that I will not be wasting my time at any of the FIFA World Cup football matches in Qatar. The boycott has nothing to do with the venue – it stems from a general lack of interest in “the beautiful game”.
I’ve long struggled to understand why a bunch of men throwing a round object around a pitch should evoke such passion and even fanaticism. Local pride in sporting achievement is one thing, but English, Spanish and Italian clubs (among others) now boast supporters thousands of miles away.
When English team members arriving in Doha were harassed by Indian fans, much of the British press initially assumed the cheering party had been sponsored by the Qatari authorities. But in this case, the enthusiasm turned out to be real.
Qatar faced a spate of free-kicks, mostly from Western institutions, ahead of Sunday’s opening ceremony. Remarkably, the BBC decided to devote its coverage to investigating labor and LGBTQI+ rights issues in the Gulf Emirates and relegated the opening spectacle to a streaming service.
Don’t ignore the hypocrisy behind Western criticism.
There are essentially two things to say about the criticism of Qatar. Much of this is true: working conditions throughout the Arabian Peninsula are a farce; Homophobia, sometimes enshrined in law, is fairly common in the Muslim world; and institutionalized misogyny is not exclusively a Gulf phenomenon, although most other practitioners do not officially descend to the level of statutory “guardianship,” which effectively treats women as male property.
At the same time, it would be absurd not to recognize that much of the anger directed at Qatar rests on multiple layers of hypocrisy. In one sense, there are absolutely no problems with Qatar and its al-Thani potentates as suppliers of natural gas, procurers of Western military equipment, or giant real estate investors.
Qatar is estimated to be the 10th largest landlord in the UK. His properties range from iconic London hotels like Claridge’s, Connaughts and the InterContinental Park Lane to landmarks like Harrods and more – including fractional ownership of this skyline eyesore known as the Shard. Numerous British politicians and members of the royal family, including the new king, are indebted to Qatar’s generosity.
It’s not just Qatar, of course. If anything, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are even more adept at buying their way into the highest echelons of Western power. The 2010 deal to seal the 2022 World Cup hosts could effectively have been finalized at the Elysée Palace under the auspices of Nicolas Sarkozy.
Nor can it be overlooked that it has been twelve years since the World Cup was awarded to a tiny nation with little football history and even less sporting infrastructure. Almost all of the stadiums hosting the games have since been built from scratch. Qatar has reportedly spent $200 billion to host the tournament.
Its predecessor host for 2018 was also announced in 2010 – and Russia was probably grateful that much of the subsequent attention was focused on Qatar. Russian attitudes towards sexual orientation more or less mirror those of the Gulf States, but have not made much headlines. Certain other Eastern European countries, NATO and EU members are as hostile to homosexuality as are key elements of the US Republican right wing.
Furthermore, how is it okay to blithely welcome investment from Qatar and sell Doha the latest weapons, but denounce it as an outlier when it hosts a football tournament? “Sportswashing” is by no means a Qatari invention – the Saudis are particularly good at it, not least in the golf sector. They will also host Winter Olympics and a future FIFA World Cup is hardly out of the question. A much more problematic person than any of the Qatari emirs is likely to be Saudi king by then.
In the case of the assassination and dismembering of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by official Saudi agents, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was predictably selected by the US for sovereign immunity. Qatar can legitimately be accused of other human rights abuses, but has never attempted anything so egregious.
Qatar was once essentially a Saudi proxy. Eventually it went further, striving for an independent foreign policy and attempting, with some success, to establish itself as a mediator in the Middle East. It also houses a key US military base that helped stave off a Saudi-Emirati invasion in 2017 when it was expelled from the Gulf Brotherhood.
Things have changed since last year; MBS saw Qatar become the first host country to lose an opening game. Mind you, past hosts have been Mussolini-ruled Italy (and Argentina under one of Latin America’s most brutal military juntas). Qatar is less an outlier than a symptom of the capitalist corruption that pervades the post-colonial Western order.
Published in Dawn, November 23, 2022