Since being declared as the host nation in 2010 for the 2022 FIFA World Cup finals, the gulf state of Qatar has seen unprecedented levels of metropolitan development, an elevated standing on the stage of international diplomacy, and accordingly, increased levels of media scrutiny. Controversial from the outset, the decision to hand the keys of arguably the world’s largest entertainment spectacle to Qatar remains embroiled in ethical concerns as well as reasonably founded questions of corruption. For many observers, the 2022 FIFA World Cup will always carry an asterisk. For the members of the Qatari ruling aristocracy, the organizing committee of the World Cup, and indeed delegates of FIFA, most of the criticism can be brushed off as unfounded, hypocritical and potentially racist at its core. As the Persian Gulf states continue their emergence and development as global economic players, it reasonably follows that they should look to integrate culturally and seek legitimacy on the international stage. Qatar would also not be the first, and certainly not the last to use such a strategy in aid of broader political aims. Brazil, Russia and China provide recent examples of nations with less than satisfactory human rights records benefitting from significant cultural capital after hosting major international sports events. Defenders of the right for Qatar to play host this time around point to this, along with a litany of historic abuses of power from major Western states. The question of whether Qatar is receiving unreasonable levels of scrutiny can be viewed through the lens of Orientalism as conceived by Edward Said, whose contention was that “Orientalism is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West, which elided the Orient’s difference with its weakness” (Said 57). In an attempt to find some balance on the question of whether or not criticism of Qatar’s World Cup is just, it is also worth considering Slavoj Zizek’s sobering hypothesis in The Sublime Object of Ideology: regardless of the ideological perspective, an element of fantasy is always at play to support one’s own notion of reality (Zizek 70).
Casting back to 2010 to the aftermath of Qatar’s successful World Cup bid, the response from the footballing world and the media at large was one of universal shock. On December 2 2010, the day of the award, The Guardian led with an article titled World Cup 2022: ‘Political craziness’ favours Qatar’s winning bid. In it, “a mixture of bemusement and criticism” is how the mood was described, with an Amnesty International publication cited as an indicator of the distinct ethical concerns present within Qatari society (James). In response to any such concerns, the committee chairman of the Qatari bid went on record to suggest the existence of “misconceptions,” and that “[the] perception that women are oppressed is another wrong perception” (James). From day one then, the polarity of worldviews that were about to converge was in evidence. It is easier to look theoretically at the different ideological perspectives than to weigh in on either side’s moral integrity. Clearly by the societal standards those in the West have grown accustomed to, equal rights and respect for LGBTQ persons, women, and those from all ethnic backgrounds are becoming frequently more important. It is however worth stopping short of suggesting that those rights and respects should now be taken for granted in our part of the world. There are enough abuses on a daily basis of all those groups to make moral grandstanding a pointless exercise. Zizek would doubtless argue that, placed in a social structure so overtly dominated by patriarchal customs, and with a vested interest in the fruits of a resource rich economy, any Westerner, male or female, could find recourse to exist relatively harmoniously within Qatari culture. Unsurprisingly, Western criticism of certain aspects of Qatari culture has been seen within the country as merely Western exceptionalism. As Zizek says, “[an] ideology really succeeds when even the facts which at first sight contradict it start to function as arguments in its favour” (Zizek 72).
The murkiness of moral integrity has not been lost on pro Qatar 2022 voices. FIFA’s Gianni Infantino took the opportunity at the opening of the tournament to try to temper some of the negative sentiments surrounding his organisations latest project. His comments the day before Qatar’s tournament opening fixture against Ecuador were designed to address the issues at play head on, but the FIFA president looked increasingly out of touch as he first attempted to liken himself to those marginalised groups most at risk in Qatar, before attempting to diminish any human rights concerns in comparison to historic abuses committed by Western powers (Associated Press). Amongst the great many who took issue with his eulogy of Qatar 2022 was Lise Klaveness, President of Norwegian football: “I think he went too far in reducing reasonable criticism to Western double standards,” she said, continuing “[polarizing] the West versus the East, it’s a bit dangerous. [I] think it’s very important that we give that feedback that we have to gather West and East.” (Church & DeLaFuente) Although not quite fitting the role of Said’s White Man, for whom there is “a very concrete manner of being-in-the-world, a way of taking hold of reality, language and thought,” there is an element of status and power being used to garner a certain image only possible for a man of Infantino’s standing. Where Orientalism is in fact at play is in the dismissal of migrant workers as a kind of wretched other, to whom Qatar chose to throw a bone when they decided to “give them some work […] some future […] some hope” (Associated Press). The lens of Orientalism is generally more useful as a historic understanding of how the Eastern world has been seen, as countries in that part of the world begin to achieve greater economic development and independence from the othering effect of Western hegemony. It remains a useful framework however when analysing the treatment and acknowledgement of migrants and asylum seekers globally, and the case of Qatar 2022 is no exception. The rapid growth of Qatari infrastructure was only made possible by a system know as kafala, under which migrant workers are placed essentially at the mercy of their employers and left open to all manor of abuses (Begum). Although the system has since been rolled back, and reforms such as a locally unprecedented minimum wage and granting of greater worker mobility have been welcomed by human rights observers, in reality these changes were brought in after the majority of work had taken place. Positive progress, as Infantino argued, can be incremental (“How many gay people were prosecuted in Europe?’ […] ‘Sorry, it was a process. We seem to forget”) (Associated Press) and should not be discredited. But factual accuracy remains important, and the estimated 6500 migrant workers who have lost their lives in Qatar since 2010 (Pattisson et al) would perhaps have received greater commemoration in Infantino’s speech were they not the victims of a geography and economy that makes it easy to this day for them to be seen as an abstraction.
Although the concerns of Qatar 2022 have been detailed with relative frequency across a variety of media, the tournament still went ahead as planned and those organisations and individuals with sufficient cultural capital to take a stance have failed to do so. Claims of racism from the Qatari side fail to stand up against the human suffering caused specifically by the hosting of the tournament. Previous years and sporting events have seen ethical concerns aplenty: the clearing of favelas in Brazil for the 2014 iteration, the isolationist policies and foreign interference levelled against Russia amidst the 2018 World Cup, and the questions of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Uyghur minorities in China which offset this years Beijing Winter Olympics. At the risk once again of moral grandstanding, these issues are slightly different in substance from a worker exploitation crisis born specifically out of awarding an event to a host so ill equipped to fulfill the role. The concerns for LGBTQ and women’s rights would appear to speak for themselves, though it is true similar concerns have been levelled against previous hosts. More to the point is that each of these occasions has come and gone, with little change in the ethical concern at play and great economic and cultural gains for the host nations. Brazil 2014 is remembered as a carnival of football, while Russia 2018 was dubbed “a resounding public relations success” in a BBC article (Rosenberg). The same will be true for Qatar, and the othering of those on the fringes will continue to play a role. Said wrote about the Orient primarily as a Western expression of the Arab, but the same “primitiveness [that] therefore inhered in the Orient” (Said 60) is also projected onto nameless masses of migrant workers from across parts of Asia and Africa: how else could the material conditions of their lived reality be essentially squashed in the name of entertainment? The power of the Zizekian fantasy on the moral output of individuals and societies is encapsulated from virtually all sides in the case of Qatar 2022. Criticisms of nefarious policies which disproportionately effect particular ethnic groups are framed as racist. Western hand wringing does little to counter the fact that full scale acknowledgement of exploitation of the vulnerable and oppression of the underrepresented would in fact require an inward look and some very serious home truths. Those on the football side, certainly the least to blame for the awkward position they find themselves in, are at least able to make moralistic statements but still find themselves willingly invested. There is indeed a “hard kernel, a leftover which persists and cannot be reduced to a universal play of illusory mirroring” (Zizek 70). If it were possible to address the kernel outside of the ideological battleground, not just Qatar 2022 but planet earth 2022 may have looked different.
Begum, R. (2022, November 28). Qatar can’t hide its abuses by calling criticism racist. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved December 14, 2022, from https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/11/27/qatar-cant-hide-its-abuses-calling-criticism-racist
Church, B., & DeLaFuente, H. (2022, November 19). ‘crass’ and an ‘insult’. FIFA president criticized for speech on Qatar’s human rights ahead of World Cup. CNN. Retrieved December 14, 2022, from https://www.cnn.com/2022/11/19/football/gianni-infantino-speech-reaction-qatar-2022-world-cup-spt-intl/index.html
James, S. (2010, December 2). World Cup 2022: ‘political craziness’ favours Qatar’s winning bid. The Guardian. Retrieved December 14, 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/football/2010/dec/02/world-cup-2022-qatar-winning-bid
Pattisson et al. (2021, February 23). Revealed: 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since World Cup awarded. The Guardian. Retrieved December 14, 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/feb/23/revealed-migrant-worker-deaths-qatar-fifa-world-cup-2022
Press, A., Prince-Wright, J., Acosta, A., & Mendola, N. (2022, November 23). Gianni Infantino scolds World Cup critics in extraordinary diatribe. ProSoccerTalk | NBC Sports. Retrieved December 14, 2022, from https://soccer.nbcsports.com/2022/11/19/gianni-infantino-scolds-world-cup-critics-in-extraordinary-diatribe/
Rosenberg, S. (2018, July 14). Is Russia the real winner of World Cup 2018? BBC News. Retrieved December 14, 2022, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-44812175
Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. In A. Easthope & K. McGowan (Eds.), A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader (2nd ed), (pp. 55-61). Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.
Zizek, S. (1989). The Sublime Object of Ideology. In A. Easthope & K. McGowan (Eds.), A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader (2nd ed), (pp. 70-72). Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.