Far from acting as a bridge between different cultures, the first football World Cup hosted by an Arab Muslim country has ended up mired in recrimination and ill-feeling, less a celebration of sport’s soft power and reach than a display of its limits.
Instead of burnishing Qatar’s image in the west in these globalised but polarised times, it looks to have tarnished it. Inside the small, fabulously wealthy peninsula state, which plays an extremely active role on the world stage, the drumbeat of criticism is no longer interpreted as perplexing and frustrating, but instead as something born of jealousy and racism.
In a speech to the Shura council, the state’s legislative body, on 25 October, Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, expressed a degree of bitterness about what he saw as a decade of relentless attacks. The emir did not quite say he wished his country was shot of the whole jamboree, but he certainly sounded as if it was through with apologising to westerners.
“Since we won the honour of hosting the World Cup, Qatar has been subjected to an unprecedented campaign that no host country has ever faced,” he said. “We initially dealt with the matter in good faith, and even considered that some criticism was positive and useful, helping us to develop aspects that need to be developed. But it soon became clear to us that the campaign was continuing, expanding and including fabrication and double standards, until it reached a level of ferocity that made many question, unfortunately, [its] reasons and motives.”
Qatar has come in for severe criticism on a number of fronts, but in particular for its treatment of migrant workers, anti LGBTQ+ laws, and restrictions on freedom of speech.
Sheikh Tamim insisted the World Cup would still serve as a great advert for Qatar, but as the clock counts down to the opening match on 20 November, the challenges to Qatar’s narrative of a modernising, dexterous Gulf state are mounting.
The Danish team will wear shirts with a “faded” manufacturer’s logo, because the maker Hummel “does not want to be visible in tournaments that cost lives”. Australia’s team produced a video raising concerns about the “suffering” of migrant workers and about Qatari LGBTQ+ people’s inability “to love the person that they choose”. Eight of the 32 teams plan to wear a form of rainbow armband in support of LGBTQ+ rights.
London declared that it would not host fan zones or public screenings of matches. Paris – home of the Qatar-sponsored Paris Saint-Germain – and several other French cities did the same. The BBC quoted the mayor of Lille as describing this year’s tournament as “nonsense in terms of human rights, the environment and sport”. In Britain, the Labour party said it was boycotting the World Cup, and MPs who have visited Qatar on free trips have been called out in the press.
A Netflix documentary, Fifa Uncovered, hardly added to the sense of legitimacy of the event, raking over allegations – denied by all the parties involved – that Qatar bribed the World Cup selection committee.
One Qatari official complained: “The UK media is the worst. Everything gets twisted. We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.” He highlighted a Guardian article from 2021 that said 6,500 migrant workers had died in Qatar since it was awarded the tournament in 2010.
The biggest diplomatic row so far has involved Germany’s interior minister, Nancy Faeser, who before a long-planned visit said: “There are criteria that must be adhered to and it would be better that tournaments are not awarded to such states [as Qatar].” In response, Qatar summoned the German ambassador.
Qatar’s World Cup now divides not just high politics but celebrity culture. Richard Madeley, the British TV presenter, recently opined: “Robbie Williams going to Qatar for money, and Black Eyed Peas going to Qatar for money, and David Beckham endorsing Qatar for money … they’re all endorsing the regime. Well, they don’t have to say yes, they don’t have to go.”
Everyone now has an opinion about Qatar, and not just in the west. In some parts of the noisy Middle East social media, a mood of angry, patriotic Arab unity has grown, including in Gulf states that have been at loggerheads with Qatar for a decade. One popular hashtag says in Arabic: “I am Arab and I support Qatar.”
In a post that is typical of the mood, one person said: “Everyone who claims to love Qatar has to prove what he says. Doha today is subjected to the most heinous attacks from the arrogant west, which sees us as just Arab societies from the third world and sees Qatar hosting the World Cup as a wrong decision.”
The anger does not seem to be manufactured. At a recent game in Iraq, fans from the Baghdad-based Air Force club unfurled a banner saying: “We stand with Qatar 2022.” An Arab League meeting in Algiers even included in its final declaration a rejection of “the malicious campaigns of distortion and scepticism that affect [the tournament]”.
A recent cartoon on the front cover of the French satirical magazine Le Canard enchaîné, showing bearded Qatari footballers brandishing axes, guns and rocket launchers, led to further outcry.
The challenge to Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers is being branded as deeply hypocritical, given Europe’s own sometimes callous treatment of migrants. Al Jazeera Arabic, part-owned by the Qatari government, heavily advertised a documentary investigating the treatment of Arab and African migrants along Greece’s border with Turkey. The trailer for the film said: “Greece recruits shadow army mercenaries to expel, strike, intimidate and prevent refugees.”
In this increasingly polarised atmosphere, those calling for understanding struggle for a hearing. Sigmar Gabriel, the former German foreign minister, briefly put his head above the parapet to suggest greater mutual tolerance. “It also took us decades to become a liberal country,” he said on 29 October. “Progress does not come overnight, but step by step. That was true for Germany and is true for Qatar now. The UN, the International Labour Organization praised the country for its reforms. Only we Germans insult it every day.” Gabriel, it was pointed out, sat on the supervisory board of a bank owned by Qatar.
Faeser, after her eventual visit which lasted only 24 hours, also looked for common ground, saying: “Even now there are signs that Qatar is on the right track, especially compared to other states in the region. When you see Qatar is the only country far and wide that has a minimum wage, and where salaries not paid are taken over by the government, that at least encourages me.” German media pointed out that German utility firms badly need Qatar’s liquid gas.
Qatar’s initial reaction to criticism after winning the World Cup was largely to keep its head down and wait for the storm to pass. Some in the country’s army of PR people now acknowledge privately that it took too many deaths and campaigns by international unions – ranging from safety standards to hours worked in the searing summer temperatures – for Qatar’s business community to address the systematic exploitation of migrant workers.
Labour unions as well as the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO), which has had a permanent office in Doha since 2018, say there has now been not just engagement with the problem but a “transformation” in Qatar’s approach to migrant workers.
In 2018, reforms finally allowed workers to leave the country without first securing an exit permit, and in 2020 workers were allowed to change jobs before the end of a contract without employer permission, in effect abolishing the exploitative kafala system. In a report published on 31 October, the ILO said more than 348,450 applications to change jobs had been approved between 1 November 2020 and 31 August 2022. It acknowledged, however, that “a number of unscrupulous employers have retaliated against workers who applied to change jobs. This retaliation can take the form of threats of deportation, cancelling residency permits or filing absconding charges.”
In March 2021, a minimum wage was introduced, worth $275 a month, along with minimum standards for food and accommodation. It was not raised in 2022. Outdoor work is prohibited between 10am and 3.30pm from 1 June to 15 September, a significantly longer period than in any other country in the region
But the ILO report shows there is still a widespread problem of late payment of wages, and 21,000 complaints were filed to the ministry of labour in 2021 alone. An Amnesty International-backed plan for a $420m (£350m) compensation fund for the families of workers who died building the stadiums has been parried by Qatar, which says it is a matter for Qatar and a compensation fund exists.
One Qatar official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “It may be trendy to bash Qatar, but there is a danger other Gulf states are going to look at how Doha has been rewarded [for its reforms] and ask is it worth following suit.”
Another adviser said Qatar’s leadership “feel the goalposts keep shifting. They feel they engage with the criticism in good faith and then everything they do gets banked as either not enough, or the caravan moves on to other issues, such as homosexuality, that are less negotiable for a conservative society.”
A carefully planned protest in late October by the campaigner Peter Tatchell has been another flashpoint. He surprised the Doha authorities by staging a demonstration, unprecedented in the city, outside the National Museum of Qatar with a sign that read “Qatar arrests and subjects LGBTs to conversion” while wearing a T-shirt with the hashtag #QatarAntiGay.
Tatchell, speaking to the Guardian from Sydney, defended himself from a charge of cultural imperialism levelled by some in the region. “I don’t take the view that west is best or west versus the Arab world,” he said. “To me the principle is universal human rights. I am fighting for the same rights in Britain, Russia and the Middle East. Qatar is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states categorically all people are entitled to equal protection. All I am doing is asking Qatar to honour the commitments it signed up to under the UN.”
One of the ironies is that although many Muslims accuse the west of now trying to export its moral depravity, it was British colonialism, under the guise of modernisation, that in the 19th century introduced penal codes making homosexuality punishable.
Tatchell said: “I accept ultimately change has to come from within, but I am supporting the very brave Qataris who are trying to bring that change,” adding that there was nothing in the Qur’an that set a punishment for homosexuality.
Again, the facts about Qatar are in dispute. Human Rights Watch documented six cases of severe and repeated beatings and five cases of sexual harassment in police custody between 2019 and 2022. It said security forces mandated that detained transgender women attend so-called conversion therapy sessions at a government-sponsored “behavioural healthcare” centre. Tatchell said he had personally counselled one Qatari gay person who was broken and humiliated by attending a conversion course.
Qatar likes to defend its conservative culture, saying “we are not Dubai”, yet at the same time there is sometimes a gap between the law and its enforcement. “What people do in the four walls of their hotel is up to them. If two guys book a hotel room together or show some PDA [public displays of affection], there is no morality police here,” said one official.
This stance was undercut on 7 November when Khalid Salman, a former footballer and an ambassador for the tournament, told a German reporter that homosexuality was wrong because it was “damage in the mind”.
A question now is how Qatar emerges politically and emotionally from its bruising World Cup experience. Will it be less active on the global scene?
Regardless of its physical size, Qatar will remain a country the west cannot afford to ignore. It produces 77m tonnes of liquefied natural gas a year, about a quarter of the world’s production, making it as big a player as Australia and the US.
That figure will increase to 126m tonnes by 2026-27, an expansion being undertaken in conjunction with Shell and the French firm Total. With German private household gas prices rising by 17.7% in the first half of this year as it weans itself off Russian gas supplies, Qatar becomes critical.
Qatar, a believer in long-term contracts lasting as long as 15-20 years, feels it is in a strong bargaining position. Europe, for its part, probably only wants LNG up to 2030 at the latest, owing to its decarbonisation agenda.
Much will turn on Qatar’s elusive political trajectory. In The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Spring, the Lebanese academic Gilbert Achcar wrote about how Qatar’s previous emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, was different from his Gulf peers.
“Rather than automobiles, weapons and the hunt (the Gulf sheikh’s traditional pastimes) or even business, the post-independence generation’s more recent hobby,” he wrote, “the emir would appear to be enamoured of foreign policy,” using the state’s huge resources to pursue an international influence out of all proportion to the size of the state.
Qatar’s leaders insist they will still see the west as an ally and not just a location for investments. In a sign of Qatar’s importance to the US, Joe Biden in January officially appointed Qatar as a non-Nato strategic ally, a status few countries enjoy.
But it knows the enemies that surround it in the region may have withdrawn only temporarily and could return if, for instance, Donald Trump is re-elected. It was Trump who in effect give his blessing to a Saudi-led effort launched in June 2017 to throttle the country’s independence by imposing a land, sea and air boycott. From that point, anything was fair game, including Qatar’s World Cup bid, as the two sides hacked into each other’s internet, spread disinformation and rendered the Gulf Cooperation Council obsolete.
Qatar, with its innovative Al Jazeera channel, had during the Arab spring infuriated Riyadh by showing its independent streak in backing Muslim Brotherhood groups in Libya, Syria and Egypt.
Qatar may well have only survived as an independent state because two members of the Republican administration, Rex Tillerson and Jim Mattis, managed to quell Trump’s support for the Saudi campaign. They pointed out that Qatar, far from being a pro-terrorism state, hosted the largest no-conditions-asked airbase in the Gulf, something Trump, enveloped in ignorance but courted by the Saudis, had overlooked.
Since the end of the blockade in 2021, the core differences in the Gulf remain. Qatar has continued to base its approach to geopolitical security on gas, soft-power projects such as the World Cup, and ferocious international diplomacy.
Qatar’s foreign ministry acts like a mini UN mediation service, hosting radical groups such as Hamas and the Taliban, not out of support but instead in pursuit of conflict resolution and dialogue. From Darfur to Afghanistan to Iran, it offers its services with mixed outcomes.
It is an irony that this advocate of dialogue and mutual understanding has found it impossible to stop the World Cup turning into such a divisive event.
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