Seldom has a sporting event generated so many controversies, in this case with regard to human rights, climate change, LGBT+ issues and corruption. Before and during the competition, we witnessed a “cacophony of narratives” as a specialist of the Arabo-Persian Gulf, Kristian Coates Ulrichsen observed in his assessment published by the Washington, DC, Arab Center.1, though, of course, it was quite insufficient. Moreover, the question of sexual minorities remains touchy in all societies of the global South and not in Qatar alone or even in Arab or Muslim countries. And we might even call attention to the breaches of the basic rights of foreign workers on the building sites and in the sculleries of the posh districts of our European cities, urging everyone to put their own house in order.2 In more directly diplomatic terms, the logic of targeting Qatar alone also made it possible to neglect the reprehensible foreign policies of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. Indeed, it was these two countries which spearheaded the Arab counter-revolution after 2011.They are also largely responsible for the destruction of Yemen and the war crimes perpetrated there since 2015.
“We are no longer alone in the world”
Indeed, this sporting event has stressed the fact that “We are no longer alone in the world” to quote the title of a book by Bertrand Badie.
For only by adopting a Western-centric logic, i.e., one that is blind to the upheavals across the planet, is it possible to imagine that the organisers’ main objective was to satisfy the expectations of the public or more exactly the upper classes, in Paris, London or New York. Quite the contrary. By stressing the Arab dimension of the event’s organisation and promoting specific solidarity, the Qatari authorities, and their relays, like the BeIn channels and their star journalist, the Tunisian Raouf Khelif with his grandiloquent commentaries in Arabic, undoubtedly had other priorities.
As the competition proceeded, Morocco’s exciting series of wins allowed Qatar to go on posing as the symbolic champion of the global South, of Arabism, Islam and Palestine. And we may assume that the perceptions of the event in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, including among the middle class of expatriate workers living in Doha who took part in the celebrations or festive gatherings outside the stadiums, were largely positive as well, consolidating Qatar’s influence among its regional rivals.
In the Arab world, and among its neighbours, such as Oman, for example, the public relations operation was an undeniable success, spreading among the concerned populations a sense of recovered pride. Admiring images of the stadiums in Doha, some denizens of Muscat (Oman) wondered when similar athletic equipment would be built in their country. The enthusiasm generated by Saudi Arabia’s win against Argentina during the pool stages, had the same effect in the Emirates as Morocco’s winning streak had in Algeria: it put an end to a de facto boycott by the local media, including those broadcasting in English, like The National. In the face of such an outstanding athletic event, to look the other way seemed pointless, if not perfectly ridiculous. From that point on, Qatar’s symbolic triumph became glaringly evident.
The festive nature of the competition was bodied forth around the expansive personality of Majumba (aka Mohammed Al-Hajiri), Omani actor and trendsetter, present in Doha during the World Cup. He had jinxed nine national teams by wearing their jerseys in the stadium, displaying his picture on Instagram and Twitter to become a media phenomenon. Adroitly, an Arabic-speaking French diplomat stationed in Muscat had posted a humorous video in which he asked Majumba to call a truce and wear a neutral Jersey “white like his heart” for the semi-finale between France and Morocco, sparking thousands of amused feedbacks. Keeping up the suspense till the end, the comedian finally appeared in the stand wearing the French Jersey, implicitly showing he was rooting for the last Arab team in the running.
Accommodating conservative societies
Within Qatari society, while certain accommodations were admitted, like the consumption of alcohol and the extravagant outfits of some female fans during the matches, the competition also went hand in glove with certain staged events meant to mollify the more conservative elements of the local population. Some involved the conversion of foreigners to Islam, that of a Brazilian family, others expressed a proselytism sponsored by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, distributing explanatory kits around the mosques. All attested to the ambivalence of the identity processes at work on these major athletic events, wavering between cosmopolitanism, universalism, nationalism and the exacerbation of differences.
Many videos stressed the opening of the minds of foreigners, especially those from Africa or Latin America, discovering “the realities of Islam” in Qatar. These illustrated the extent to which the World Cup had perhaps acted to correct the criticisms and prejudices spread by Western media. One video was entitled “Islam is the winner of the World Cup”. This type of rhetoric, often tinged with fascination and a reassuring naiveté constituted a genre on the Internet and could sometimes give rise to startling forms of expression, for example Europeans shown in awe of the hygienic virtues of handheld showerheads next to a WC in lieu of toilet paper. The long explanation by an Egyptian geopoliticist close to the Muslim Brotherhood, Saber Mashhour, dealing with foreigners’ astonishment at the Muslim toilets in Qatar, quickly collected 500,000 hits on YouTube.
In connection with the tournament, the debate over the LGBT+ issue was no doubt the most heated. Qatar has explicitly cast itself in the role of a rampart against the normalisation of minority sexual identities and as a consequence has made this issue a marker of tolerance, a kind of thermometer of universalism. The Emirate played this role via the media which it controls, for example when the BeIn commentators made fun of the rapid elimination of the German team because they had protested against the ban on wearing “one love” armbands in favour of sexual minorities and paraded with their hands over their mouths to denounce this censorship. The policy was also implemented when rainbow flags found on spectators entering the stadium were confiscated during security checks.
Quite rightly, the principle of recognition of LGBT+ rights is gradually prevailing in Europe and North America. This is accompanied by a militant rhetoric, universalist in scope. Thus, this sporting event, organised in a society which in many respects is quite conservative and where homosexuality is punished by law, brought about the stigmatisation of Qatar as well as Muslim societies in general. In the Gulf countries, the reaction to this was a feeling of humiliation and a possible blowback. As an Omani intellectual told us, “Qatar agreed to respect the rights of gays during the tournament but by their insistence on those rights and constantly demanding more, Westerners are disrespectful of our culture and religion”.
And indeed the issue remains a delicate one and Western expectations, voiced by various activists before and during the competition are unlikely to be satisfied. It may even be that the mechanism established during the World Cup will deepen the misunderstandings. Ahmed Al-Khalili, the Grand Mufti of Oman, understood this very well when he decided early in December 2022 to bring out a little opus translated into ten different languages condemning homosexuality and thereby making that issue a marker of identity.
By reason of the local religious rhetoric but also on account of clumsy pressures brought to bear by a handful of activists or governments in Europe and Canada, LGBT rights are increasingly seen as a Western and therefore foreign value. The conflictual relations between Arab or Muslim societies and the West being what they are, it is unlikely that the rights of homosexuals in the former will be improved by this sequence, embodied in the World Cup.
From the very start, the organisation of the tournament was perceived as a test for Qatar. The Emirate spared no expense to build new infrastructures (inadequate as it turned out in terms of hotel space) and to accommodate fans, reporters, and athletes. The Emirate had little experience in handling massive tourist flows, including certain fans known to be rowdy or event violent. Its World Cup had been preceded by several misfires, for example during the World Track and Field Championships at the end of 2019. Once the football matches were under way, doubts concerning the quality of the organisation began to be raised. Yet the rounds of charter flights bringing fans from the hotels in Dubai to the stadiums in Doha on game days, though not very virtuous from the climate standpoint, worked well enough.
The regional stakes
Among the sharpest criticisms aimed at Qatar before the inaugural ceremony on 20 November, the question of whether the event was likely to damage Qatar’s image abroad was particularly prominent. “To live happily, live hidden,” says a well-known proverb, and the focus on that tiny emirate with its almost infinite wealth and the polemics over sexual freedom and the conditions of foreign labourers there were liable to constitute very unfavourable publicity. In any case, several media, with varying degrees of sincerity and dexterity, took advantage of the opportunity to deliver a rhetoric which at times resembled out-and-out “Qatar bashing.”
As the matches went by, the victories of certain national teams – Argentina, France, and Morocco in particular – gradually depoliticised people take on the event and the athletic dimension reasserted itself. Soon the calls for a boycott, voiced here and there in Europe, appeared quite unreal. This was chiefly the case in those French cities which had refused to organise “fan zones” with giant screens, and with certain media which would probably have preferred a quick elimination of the French team to avoid having to make too much of the event, giving the impression of reneging on their criticisms.
The fact remains that at the same time, the relative discretion observed by Saudi Arabia, the Arab Emirates or Kuwait could appear to be a winning rival strategy. While in the media and Western public opinion, Qatar became the very embodiment of arrogance, intolerance, and corruption. This rhetoric, spread by a few do-gooders, aware of the possible exploitation of their declarations in a highly polarised regional context, called special attention to Qatar. And in any case provided arguments for those who, like the Qatari Emir, conflated criticisms of the host country with racism or even Islamophobia. Moreover, this point of view found a real echo among the citizens of the Gulf countries who, at the heart of the event, considered many of the criticisms unfair and voiced their feelings in private conversations and on the social networks.
Contempt for Arabs?
From their point of view, these calls for a boycott remained largely grounded in the Western contempt for Arabs. They saw it as a new variant on the old “double standard”. Conveniently enough and at times quite deliberately, the rhetoric aimed at Qatar neglected the extent to which the deplorable state of workers’ rights, environmental absurdities or restrictions on sexual freedom remain common to all the Gulf monarchies. In this respect Qatar was no exception and according to the NGOs dealing with human rights, the World Cup had already fostered some actual progress regarding certain practices associated with the kafala [[An adoption procedure specific to Muslim law which corresponds to a guardianship without filiation.
2Joseph Massad, “Qatar World Cup : White outrage, colonialism and a game of capitalist greed”, Middle East Eye, 28 November 2022.