"Since we have been honoured with hosting the World Cup, Qatar has been a target of an unprecedented campaign that no other host country has faced,” the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, said in a speech before the country’s Shura Council.
From the moment Qatar was awarded the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, its suitability for the task has been questioned, with criticism intensifying in recent weeks. Topping the contenders’ list is Doha’s treatment of migrant workers, particularly those involved in building the World Cup infrastructure.
A media report published in March claimed that over 6000 workers from south east Asia had died in Qatar since 2010. Ahead of the qualifiers, the teams of Germany, Norway, and the Netherlands staged an on-field protest to highlight Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers.
Others raised the issue of climate unsuitability and warned of the dangers of high temperatures to players. By equipping the eight World Cup stadiums with air-conditioning systems, Doha still came under fire from environmentalists. LGBTQ+ illegality and the ban on the public consumption of alcohol were also cited as disqualifying elements.
In his speech, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad pointed out that from the outset, his country dealt with the concerns in good faith, saying that constructive criticism was taken into account and has helped Doha tackle issues in need of improvement.
Between 2017 and 2021, Qatar implemented major changes to its labour system. In 2021, the government introduced the region’s first non-discriminatory minimum wage law, soon followed by the launch of a complaints platform to enable employees to report violations of the law.
The controversial kafala, a sponsorship system which binds employees to their employers, was also revised. Migrant workers no longer require the approval of their employers to change jobs. In 2018, responding to calls to compensate migrant workers, the Qatari government set up the Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund, which reportedly paid out a total of $600m to 36,000 workers up until the end of 2021.
The reforms may be unfinished business and only time will tell how effectively they are carried out. But they are, nonetheless, progressive and well ahead of the region’s countries, which granted Qatar the praise of the UN’s International Labour Organisation.
For Qataris, Doha has gone to great lengths to meet the demands and needs of all parties. Such demands, many contended, were not as severe, if at all present, during the Russia 2018 World Cup and the Beijing Olympics in 2008. This is despite the two countries’ poor human rights record, which far exceeds in gravity, type, and scale anything the Gulf state has been accused of.
Neither the reforms nor Doha’s successful hosting since 2010 of nearly 600 international events - including the 2015 World Handball Championship - has had a meaningful impact on the mostly Western scepticism of the country’s World Cup suitability.
The Emir of Qatar spoke of double standards, alluding to the instrumentalisation of human rights concerns to serve ostensibly political purposes.
Indeed, depoliticised football is a notion as real as Don Quixote’s windmill giants: what we wish for but never is. The anti-Qatar campaign, as such, cannot be analysed separately from the larger regional competitions.
Hosting the World Cup elevated Doha’s traditional role and self-perception, and enhanced its regional and international profile. The ‘new prestige’ was hard to accept by some of the country’s neighbours, particularly the UAE, which for years engaged with Qatar in a battle of one-upmanship for regional influence.
The UAE was accused of hacking the Qatar News Agency in 2017 and planting provocative quotes from the country’s ruler, which jumpstarted the blockade by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt. During the three and a half years of blockade, a sustained media campaign by the quartet was waged on Qatar’s leadership to damage the country’s reputation, with a core target to strip it of the 2022 World Cup.
At the height of the crisis, the UAE cyber army launched the hashtag #UAEwillhosttheWorldCup, claiming the emirates would snatch the World Cup from Qatar. UAE foreign minister, Anwar Gargash, said soon after that Qatar should be denied the World Cup “unless it stopped supporting terrorism and extremism.” It was the first time the tournament was linked to one of the quartet’s preconditions to lift the blockade.
US and British lobbyists and PR companies were hired to substantiate the smear campaign internationally. The Qatar lobby in the West waged a counter-campaign to defend the country. Respectable media outlets like The Guardian were caught in the middle of the battle of narratives, falling prey to unsubstantiated reports slandering Doha.
The anti-Qatar narrative in those media outlets - some purposely funded, others caught in the trend - was so large that many reports coming from the country, no matter how mediocre, were utilised to “confirm” Doha’s unsuitability for the World Cup.
Had Western media been truly operating on a human rights-based metric, argues David Roberts of Kings College London, then there are substantially more serious offenders to look at. It is unlikely, he adds, that Western journalists would have cracked down on the United States if it were chosen to host the next World Cup, despite the country’s appalling human rights record worldwide.
This is hardly speculative whataboutism, but a reflection on the inconsistency, selectivity, and disproportionality in the media coverage of Qatar. If anyone remembers Germany’s 2006 World Cup, Berlin was hardly scrutinised by the media despite the serious concerns about the German police ill-treatment of detainees and asylum seekers.
It is mostly the Western media selectivity that brings to our attention the possibility of racial prejudice against the Gulf state. The Guardian report on Qatar’s migrant workers, for instance, reads that roughly 12 South Asian workers have died each week since the end of 2010.
The official statistics do not include only “migrant workers,” but the total number of deaths of nationals of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, across all occupations and with various causes of death. The apparent assumption is that South Asians were only hired to work on World Cup infrastructure, when in reality the South Asian community has been an essential workforce across all sectors in Qatar for decades.
At the outset, officials, including FIFA’s President Sepp Blatter, spoke of possible racist motivations behind the vitriol against Qatar, during and after the tournament selection process. Former Qatari Foreign Minister, Khaled al-Attiyah, was more forthcoming in calling the anti-Qatari sentiment racist. “It is very difficult for some to digest that an Arab Islamic country has this tournament, as if this right can’t be for an Arab state,” he said to Reuters.
Some critics in and from the region agree. Salah al-Qadari, a researcher at the European Social Science Institute, suggested that political boycott of sport events is not uncommon, yet in Qatar’s case, there are indications that racism is also a factor: “There is an atmosphere of aggression toward Arabs and Muslims in the West. The Islamophobic right in particular was unhappy about a Muslim-majority Arab country hosting this important international tournament.”
Arguably, not only did the newly acquired ‘prestige’ prompt political jealousy, it also, potentially, changed Qatar’s racial profile. Theoretically, a change in the racial and ethnic frame of one group can challenge the worldview of another and generate a negative reaction from them.
In other words, Qatar, much like the rest of the Middle East, has long been locked into an Orientalist, othering framework and was perceived and judged accordingly. Stepping outside the circle of stereotypes may be threatening to certain parties’ self-perceived superiority.
This is evident in the Eurocentric assumption that if Qatar does not abide by certain, strictly Western liberal values, then the country must not host the World Cup. It matters not if some of these values violate the cultural and religious character of the conservative Gulf state, a prospect that would have sparked an uproar in Western societies had the case been reversed.
With such a spirit, the German Interior Minister, Nancy Faeser, said last week that for the German government, Qatar’s hosting of the tournament was "very tricky,” and “there are criteria that must be adhered to and it would be better that tournaments are not awarded to such states.” The statement was met with Qatari protest and the German ambassador in Doha was summoned.
Qatar 2022 CEO, Nasser al-Khater, refrained in an earlier interview with Sky News from discussing whether the anti-Qatar prejudice was racist, but instead asked people attending the World Cup to be respectful of the culture.
He also pointed out that 95% of the tickets have been sold and that the event is going as planned.
Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.
Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.