The coming weeks will be a reminder of how the clash of values between the liberal West and the rich Arab states can play out on the international stage to everyone’s dissatisfaction.
First, Qatar’s human rights record is spotty. A democracy in name only, the country is ruled by the autocratic Al Thani dynasty, which imprisons LGBTQ people who engage in consensual sex. Tireless UK human rights activist Peter Tatchell was expelled from the country last week after staging a solo demonstration outside the Qatar National Museum. On German television last week, Qatar’s official World Cup ambassador, Khalid Salam, chose this moment to call homosexuality a form of “mind damage.”
Then there is the human toll. Some 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since it won the right to host the World Cup, many while building the tournament’s glittering Qatar-built purpose-built infrastructure, including motorways, hotels and eight showcase stadiums (one designed like a Bedouin tent , another built from 974 recycled containers). Authorities say they have cleaned up the labor practices since then.
Even Sepp Blatter, the former president of FIFA, soccer’s highest international authority, now describes his decision to award the World Cup to Qatar in 2010 as “a bad choice.” Blatter recently told the Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger: “It’s too small a country. Football and the World Cup are too big for that.”
The decision was surrounded by 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 in Qatar, although the country has repeatedly denied this.
However, things don’t look any better when considering Qatar’s perspective. Qatar competed with the United Arab Emirates for commercial 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 owns several European football clubs in major leagues; why should not the kingdom receive its prize?
The power-hungry Western bureaucrats who organize international sporting events like the World Cup and the Olympics are happy to forget this. These officials don’t care about politics as long as the games run on their schedule. It’s just business.
The World Cup was milked for propaganda by Mussolini’s Italy in 1934, Argentina’s vicious military junta in 1978 and Vladimir Putin’s Russia in 2018. So why choose poor rich Qatar who want to be friends of everyone and guarantee its 300,000 citizens a very comfortable life as long as they keep their heads down?
Moreover, tournament bureaucrats know that autocracies comply. Their major construction projects avoid all the messy compromises and tortuous delays that come with democratic planning. Just think how long it takes to build a single railway line in the UK or an airport in Germany. And never mind Qatar’s historic support for the Muslim Brotherhood, the normal Islamic restrictions on drinking in Qatar can be (slightly) relaxed for tourists during the tournament with a stroke of the ruler’s solid gold pen.
Western greed and hypocrisy go hand in hand. Many of the celebrities, models and athletes who appear to pose for pictures at Gay Pride events and support liberal causes at home are happy to take money from Qatar to promote the World Cup. To those in Thanis, it must seem that everything and everyone in the West is for sale.
In any case, if the West wants to influence the Arab monarchies, it must compromise. As Lord Charles Powell, diplomatic eminence of several British prime ministers, says, “the days when the Gulf was a restricted area for the United States and, to some extent, the United Kingdom, are over.” China and Russia are increasingly important trade and security competitors in the region. To the east and to the west, Iran and Israel maneuver for advantage. We cannot afford to neglect these relationships. Yet one minute Washington is calling on the human rights record of friendly regimes, the next it’s asking them for help in keeping the lid on oil prices.
Of course, I will be cheering on the England team next week along with my compatriots. But make no doubt, even though what you are watching will be great football, winning the World Cup is an ugly game.
(Update fourth paragraph with additional details.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Martin Ivens is the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. He was previously editor of the Sunday Times of London and its chief political commentator.
More stories like this one are available at bloomberg.com/opinion