The next few weeks will be a reminder of how the clash of values between the liberal West and the wealthy Arabs can play out on the international stage and upset everyone.
First of all, Qatar’s human rights record is abysmal. Democracy in name only, the country is ruled by the autocratic Al Thani dynasty, which imprisons LGBTQ people who have consensual sex. British human rights activist Peter Tatchell was deported last week after protesting outside the National Museum of Qatar. On German television last week, Khalid Salam, Qatar’s official World Cup ambassador, called homosexuality a form of “mental damage.”
Then human damage is calculated. In Qatar, 6,500 migrant workers died while building the tournament’s glittering, purpose-built infrastructure, including a superhighway, hotels and eight exhibition stadiums (one modeled after a Bedouin tent, another built from 974 recycled shipping containers). Authorities say they have since cleaned up labor practices.
Even Sepp Blatter, the former FIFA president and international soccer authority, has described the decision to award the 2010 World Cup to Qatar as a “bad choice”. “This is too small a country,” Blatter said in a recent interview with the Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger. “Football and the World Cup are too big for that.”
The decision was marred by controversy and corruption. Last July, a Swiss court acquitted Blatter of fraud charges. The US Department of Justice also alleges that FIFA members were bribed to vote in Qatar, a charge the country has repeatedly denied.
However, things do not look good from Qatar’s perspective. Qatar’s bid to host the World Cup is a huge propaganda coup as it competes with the United Arab Emirates for commercial privileges in the Persian Gulf. The Al-Thanis have billions to spend, and the West wants their money and liquid natural gas. Qatar already owns several major European league football clubs; Why shouldn’t the kingdom get its reward?
Power-hungry Western bureaucrats who organize international sporting events such as the World Cup and the Olympics are happy to oblige. As long as the game runs as scheduled, these officials don’t care about politics. It’s just business.
Mussolini’s Italy in 1934, Argentina’s brutal military junta in 1978, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia in 2018 milked the World Cup for propaganda purposes. So why choose Qatar, which is poor and little rich, which wants to make friends with everyone and guarantees its 300,000 citizens. A very comfortable life if they keep their heads down?
Moreover, competitive bureaucrats know that autocrats get results. Their major development projects avoid all the messy compromises and complicated delays associated with democratic planning. Think how long it would take to build a single railway line in the UK and an airport in Germany. Never mind Qatar’s historical support for the Muslim Brotherhood, the usual restrictions on Islam in Qatar can be relaxed (slightly) to tourists during the tournament with the ruler’s solid gold pen.
Western greed and hypocrisy coexist. Many celebrities, models and sports figures who support liberal ideals at home have been photographed at gay pride events and are happy to receive money from Qatar to promote the World Cup. For Al Thanis, it seems that everything and everyone in the West is for sale.
In any case, if the West wants to influence Arab monarchies, it needs to get involved. “Gone are the days when the Gulf was an off-limits area for the United States and, to some extent, Britain,” said Lord Charles Powell, a diplomatic figurehead of several British prime ministers. China and Russia are emerging as important trade and security rivals in the region. Iran and Israel maneuver to the east and west. We cannot ignore these relationships. Yet one minute Washington is calling up the human rights records of friendly regimes, the next they’re asking for help capping oil prices.
Of course, I will support the England team next week with my compatriots. But no doubt what you’re watching is going to be great football, but winning the World Cup is a really ugly game.
This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP or its owners.
Martin Ivens is editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Previously, he was editor and chief political columnist for the Sunday Times of London.
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