Red-carding Qatar

Published November 23, 2022
Mahir Ali
Mahir Ali

I CAN claim with a fair degree of confidence that I won’t be wasting my time on any of the FIFA World Cup football matches in Qatar. The boycott isn’t related to the venue — it stems from a broader lack of interest in “the beautiful game”.

I’ve long struggled to understand why a bunch of men kicking a round object around a playing field should inspire such passion and even fanaticism. Local pride in sporting accomplishments is one thing, but English, Spanish and Italian clubs (among others) now boast devotees thousands of miles away.

When English team members arriving in Doha were mobbed by Indian fans, much of the British press corps initially assumed the cheer squad had been sponsored by the Qatari authorities. But the enthusiasm turned out to be genuine in this case.

Qatar faced a flurry of free kicks, mostly from Western institutions, in the run-up to Sunday’s opening ceremony. Remarkably, the BBC decided to devote its coverage to probing questions about labour and LGBTQI-plus rights in the Gulf emirate, relegating the inaugural spectacle to a streaming service.

Don’t ignore the hypocrisy behind the West’s criticisms.

There are essentially two things to be said about the criticism that Qatar has faced. Much of it is valid: labour conditions are a travesty throughout the Arabian peninsula; homophobia, sometimes entrenched in law, is common pretty much across the Muslim world; and institutionalised misogyny is not exclusively a Gulf phenomenon, although most other practitioners don’t formally descend to the level of legislated “guardianship” whereby women are practically considered male property.

At the same time, it would be absurd not to acknowledge that much of the wrath directed at Qatar rests on multiple layers of hypocrisy. From certain points of view, there are absolutely no problems with Qatar and its al-Thani potentates as suppliers of natural gas, procurers of Western military hardware, or huge property investors.

Qatar is estimated to be the tenth largest landlord in Britain. Its properties extend from iconic London hotels such as Claridge’s, Connaughts and the InterContinental Park Lane to landmark stores such as Harrods, and much more besides — including part-ownership of that skyline blight known as the Shard. Any number of British politicians and members of the royal family, including the new king, are beholden to Qatari largesse.

It’s not just Qatar, of course. If anything, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are even more adept at buying access to the highest echelons of Western power. The 2010 deal to seal the host of the 2022 World Cup may effectively have been finalised at Elysée Palace under the auspices of Nicolas Sarkozy.

It is also impossible to ignore the fact that it has been 12 years since the World Cup was awarded to a tiny nation with little in the way of footballing history and even less sports infrastructure. Almost all of the stadiums hosting the fixtures have been built from scratch since then. Qatar has reportedly spent $200 billion on hosting the tournament.

It’s predecessor host for 2018 was also announced in 2010 — and Russia was presumably grateful that much of the subsequent attention was focused on Qatar. The Russian attitude towards sexual orientation more or less mirrors that of the Gulf states, but it didn’t figure much in headlines. Certain other Eastern European states, Nato and EU members, are equally hostile to homosexuality, as are substantial elements of the Republican right wing in the US.

Beyond that, though, how is it okay to blithely welcome Qatari investments and sell Doha the latest weaponry, yet to denounce it as an outlier when it stages a football tournament? ‘Sports­­washing’ isn’t by any means a Qatari invention — the Saudis are particularly adept at it, not least in the golf zone. They will also host a Winter Oly­mpics, and a future FIFA World Cup is hardly out of the question. A much more problematic individual than any of the Qatari emirs will likely be Saudi king by then.

In the case of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and slicing-up by official Saudi agents, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has predictably been singled out for sovereign immunity by the US. Qatar can justifiably be accused of other human rights violations, but has never attempted anything so egregious.

Qatar was once essentially a Saudi proxy. It eventually moved on, aimed for an independent foreign policy, and sought to establish itself as a Middle Eastern mediator, with some success. It also hosts a crucial US military base, which helped to avert a Saudi-Emirati invasion in 2017, when it was cast out of the Gulf brotherhood.

Things have changed since last year; MBS witnessed Qatar becoming the first host nation to lose an opening match. Mind you, previous hosts have included Mussolini-ruled Italy (and Argentina under one of Latin America’s most brutal military juntas. Qatar isn’t so much an outlier as a symptom of the capitalist corruption that pervades the post-colonial Western order.

mahir.dawn@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, November 23rd, 2022

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