Qatar World Cup: Controversy, Racism, and Our Orientalism

This mid-November air felt like an autumn season after a long bleak pandemic tarnished the globe and a world enraged by regional conflicts. It seems the world is taking a month’s break along with the playground whistle blows, sports enthusiasts are excited about nationals and their analytical discords about matches, teams, and winners. Like of previous installments, an impeccable sense of oneness is again breathing now. Despite this joyous overtone, Qatar World Cup 2022 has been a controversial spectacle in the legacy of FIFA, marred by the alleged corruption, immigrants’ death, and sportswashing. The Western debate on LGBTQ+, and alcoholism further complicated the scenario.  

Despite FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s call “to focus on football” and not “to be dragged into” existing ideological and political dialogues, different fronts are storming and pushing the world cup into different political realms. The ‘most politically charged’ group-round match between the USA and Iran could not hold out the Iran team to abstain from singing the national anthem, Iranian fans miming Masha Amini, wearing T-Shirts symbolizing the restrained freedom that they face at home.

However, staging the world cup or Olympics to fashion out political activism is not a new thing as previously observed in the 1968 Mexico Olympics or the 1998 France Football World Cup. The political significance that Qatar World Cup perhaps bears in its important realization to the world cup itself that the game is more about money and politics.

The controversies around Qatar World Cup have been going around since the 2010 host country bidding. Former vice-president Michel Platini, also a former fervent supporter against Qatar’s world cup hosting, changed his mind along with the complete FIFA voting poll in support of Qatar. This twisted transformation had possibly occurred after the powerful Elysee meeting happened in November 2010. French president Nicolas Sarkozy, Qatar PM Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani including his son attended the meeting to have a positive persuasion on the bidding process with promises of future foreign investments in Qatar. Since then, the controversies boiled up around bribery and corruption allegations against the executive committee board; inadequate stadium capacities, exhausting summer of Arab Gulf State, and conservative policies also held Qatar as an unfit choice in the eye of the West.

But, Qatar did not stop there. Throughout a decade, the country has gone through a massive nation-building project spending over USD 300 billion to build up new seven stadiums, a renovated metro system, a newly developed airport, and numerous hotels beating up the US hosting investment in 2010. Now the world cup has started, controversies have shifted to different dynamics- Qatar has been alleged to ‘Sportswash its severe discriminating policies leading to thousands of immigrants’ death, religious-cultural stand on LQBTQ+ rights, ban on alcoholic beverages and other human rights issues.

However, notably missing is any discussion on the western ‘Media Washing’ regarding Qatar World Cup 2022. Almost all of the media channels, newspapers as well as the European football teams have muscled up to be a vocal partner in support of these narratives, essentially from a politicized background to demean the world cup efforts taken by Qatar. Perhaps this world cup has not been as much of a politically charged sports event as has been a text-book example of Western racism towards an Arab country. If the western liberal values promote inclusion, diversity and support religious freedom, shouldn’t they also respect a particular country’s religious values and beliefs when it comes to its world cup hosting? Isn’t the way the media signaling or framing human rights also prompting the absolutism of liberal and western cultural values or a form of cultural imperialism? Shouldn’t we also expect to accept restraints on alcoholism in Qatar if we are to accept diversity? Shouldn’t we respect the rich middle-eastern culture where public display of LGBTQ+ issues, and alcoholism have no place?

 No world cup is an outcome of a single country’s efforts rather consists of the sustained global effort efforts by other countries. Take Bangladesh’s four lakh migrant workers working in Qatar of which 15,000 work as drivers in various capacities in the country; a large portion of their income come back home to their family while also contributing to the national economic force. The Bangladesh embassy in Qatar has also put a special upskill training program for Bangladeshi drivers in Qatar on this occasion. Bangladesh has also produced 600000 official t-shirts and official jersey of several national teams, thanks to the country’s world class ready-made garments industry. Like Bangladesh, many other countries have also contributed to this global event undertaken by Qatar. Reducing these inter-’national’ efforts in a globalized world only to corruption and ‘debatable’ human rights violations are simply a way to overlook the migrants’ contribution from developing regions in making this world cup successful.

It would be naive to think that Qatar has been willing to host a world cup without any political or economic motivation. Several scholars have accredited the idea that the world cup serves as a soft-power tool for a host country, a form of public diplomacy and also a signal of global engagement in entertaining forms. Especially for Qatar, a natural gas-oil resource-abundant country, grand sports have been a key for its micro-state supremacy, an active form of international acceptance, and a confronting form of its national health crises. Not only gaining international recognition and geopolitical legitimacy, hosting mega sports events also serves as a checkpoint for economic take-offs, as has been for South African hosting of 2010 albeit observing a mixed relationship with the country’s political stability. Already an economic bull, for Qatar this would be an extraordinary opportunity to shift to the tourism industry and welcoming more foreign direct investments.

As for the geopolitical mapping, Qatar also serves a crucial departure from previous trends in hosting world cups. It is the first time that a Middle Eastern Arab country is receiving the grandeur home honor, a region that is mostly recognized with oil-money and regional conflicts. However, FIFA hosting regional dynamics is absolutely not a dynamic one. Only from 2010, the hosting bids are going to Africa and from 2022 this has extended to the Arab region. In a geopolitical sense, this has been a major concern for America’s Arab policy. This has added fuel to the already broiling fire enkindled by the deep oil production cut of OPEC+ amounting almost 2 million BPD from this November. The USA has been slowly marching towards energy independence since 2005, an energy long-march that oscillated in the Obama and Trump administration, but demand only increased nevertheless. However, OPEC+ cut would negatively impact the oil price in global market, a perennial energy hamstring that the USA finds helpless to take part in. Money begets power- a truth realized in 1980s by the OPEC has come to the point of hosting the world cup- the developments that western powers never heartily accepted.

Not surprisingly, the cynical brandishing of Qatar World Cup has also partly come from the long torn geopolitical relations and Eurocentric/orientalist conflict between the West and Arab countries. Western liberal values on equality, freedom and liberty do not apply equally, perhaps depending greatly on the country’s geographical location, financial mobility and temperament of diplomatic ties. The widening conflict of interest between the USA and Qatar is probably one of the many reasons that the west has been furious over Qatar’s hosting the world cup. Qatar by its international milestone is one step further from gaining more international visibility and political legitimacy all over the world. The west has been acting on it as a motif to instrumentalize its universal liberal values and norms. The same liberal cultivation was totally absent in decades of war in the Middle-East including Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. I am not saying that Qatar has appeared as a purely noble host in hosting this mega event. My point here is that the way of instrumentalizing these issues from the west perspective is not definitely a noble one, rather a pursuit driven by a geopolitical backcloth.

The FIFA World Cup is not an event for one month. The making of a single world cup event involves decades of economic planning, hosting a country’s political-development plans, regional geopolitical equations, and not to mention lives and dreams of billions of people. The Qatar World Cup has been the most controversial world cup that has happened till now, yet the controversies themselves should not blind us to the very construction of the controversies itself. Only then do we see despite the precept of oneness that every world cup preaches, the world may not be one but an earth divided by money, power and politics.

Towkir Hossain
Towkir Hossain
Dhaka based Independent Researcher