The next few weeks will show us how the conflict of values between the liberal West and the rich Arab states can lead to widespread dissatisfaction on the international stage.
First, Qatar’s human rights record is patchy. A democracy in name only, the country is ruled by the autocratic Al Thani dynasty, which imprisons LGBTQ people who engage in consensual sex. Indefatigable British human rights activist Peter Tatchell was kicked out of the country last week after organizing a one-man demonstration outside Qatar’s National Museum. Qatar’s official World Cup ambassador Khalid Salam chose this moment on German television last week to describe homosexuality as a form of “damage to the spirit”.
Then there is the human toll. Some 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since Qatar won the right to host the World Cup, many constructing the tournament’s gleaming, purpose-built infrastructure in Qatar, including highways, hotels and eight flagship stadiums (one built in the style of a Bedouin tent, another built from 974 recycled shipping containers). Authorities say they have since cleaned up the labor practices.
Even Sepp Blatter, the former president of FIFA, football’s highest international authority, now describes his decision to award the 2010 World Cup to Qatar as “a bad choice”. Blatter recently told the Swiss daily Tages-Anzeiger: “It’s too small a country. Football and the World Cup are too big for that.”
The decision was mired in controversy and allegations of corruption. Blatter himself was acquitted of fraud charges by a Swiss court in July. The US Department of Justice also believes that FIFA members were bribed to vote for Qatar, although the country has repeatedly denied this.
But from a Qatari perspective, things don’t look any better. Qatar competed with the United Arab Emirates for economic supremacy in the Gulf, so winning the right to host a World Cup is a huge propaganda coup. The Al Thanis have billions to spend, and the West wants their money and liquid natural gas. Qatar already has several European top-flight football clubs; why shouldn’t the kingdom get its prize?
The power-hungry Western bureaucrats who run international sporting events like the World Cup and Olympics happily oblige. These officials don’t care about politics as long as the games are going according to plan. It’s just business.
The World Cup was milked for propaganda purposes by Mussolini’s Italy in 1934, Argentina’s vicious military junta in 1978, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia in 2018. So why lash out at poor little rich Qatar that wants to be friends with everyone and guarantees its 300,000 citizens a very comfortable life as long as they keep their heads down?
Also, the tournament bureaucrats know that autocracies deliver. Their grand building projects avoid all of the messy compromises and tortuous delays associated with democratic planning. Just think how long it takes to build a single railway line in Britain or an airport in Germany. And not to mention Qatar’s historic support for the Muslim Brotherhood, normal Islamic alcohol restrictions in Qatar can be relaxed (easily) on tourists during the tournament at the flick of the ruler’s solid gold pen.
Western greed and hypocrisy go hand in hand. Many of the celebrities, models and athletes who pose for photos at gay pride events and support liberal causes at home are happy to take Qatari money to promote the World Cup. To the Al Thanis it must appear that everything and everyone in the West is for sale.
In any case, if the West wants to influence the Arab monarchies, it has to get involved. As Lord Charles Powell, Diplomatic Eminence of several British Prime Ministers, says, “Gone are the days when the Gulf was off-limits to the US and to some extent Britain.” China and Russia are becoming increasingly important trading hubs in the region. and security competitors. To the east and west, Iran and Israel are maneuvering themselves to an advantage. We cannot afford to neglect these relationships. But one minute Washington is evoking the human rights record of friendly regimes, the next it’s begging for their help to keep oil prices under control.
Of course next week I will be cheering for the English team with my compatriots. But be unequivocal, although what you will see will be great football, winning the World Cup is an ugly game.
(Updates fourth paragraph with additional details.)
This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Martin Ivens is editor of the Times Literary Supplement. He was previously Editor-in-Chief of the Sunday Times of London and its chief political commentator.
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