Catch 2022 for Qatar

The prospect of Qatar hosting a World Cup has prompted a whole lot of prejudice-venting against the Middle East.

Graham Barnfield

Topics Politics

There are losers and there are sore losers. More than a few pundits got their football shorts in a bunch over England’s failed bid to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup. After the allegations that BBC Panorama was trying to derail David Beckham’s efforts – and a front page apology from the Sun – such grumpiness found a new target straight away.

Russia secured the 2018 event. Next came the surprising news that Qatar had been voted in as host of the 2022 tournament. From here, the British press responded as if Qatar had somehow snatched the opportunity from under England’s nose, in defiance of some divine right to ensure that ‘football’s coming home’ every 20 years or so. News flash: England did not lodge a 2022 World Cup bid with FIFA, yet the sight of sporting minnows going global has got London grunting and groaning in complaint. Simultaneously, embittered American commentators seemed to be reviving the Special Relationship (albeit without invading an oil-rich Middle Eastern state, although I gather some would like to). The failed US bid – which did actually lose out to the Qatari one – threw further fuel on the fire. It seems it’s just wrong to have the World Cup in Qatar.

As a declaration of interest, I should note that I once did paid public relations work for one of Qatar’s major national sporting bodies, ending in early 2008. This means that what I am about to say next could well prompt the response of ‘yes, you would say that, wouldn’t you?’ Sadly these days such work no longer pumps riyals into my pockets, but I can still find Doha on a map faster than many of those moaning about it. Conflicts of interest aside – once you strip out the petty jealousy and narrow-minded nationalism – it is difficult to make sense of these objections. On what basis would one argue against the World Cup having a four-week stay with Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani? (There’s is pretty much zero chance of the hosts actually winning the competition and keeping the trophy for four years.)

Qatar’s success has brought together a diverse coalition of the unwilling. From US President Barack Obama to former England boss Graham Taylor – himself no stranger to World Cup failure – it seems that everyone is criticising the decision to give the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. These objections seem to break down into four main categories.

The first objection is that Qatar is the kind of Middle East location where US ‘soccer’ fans will end up being decapitated on al-Qaeda YouTube videos. Naysayers know this from, er, movies such as The Kingdom set in Saudi Arabia (but filmed in Arizona and Abu Dhabi). Granted, a US military installation in Qatar was destroyed by the evil Decepticons in the first Transformers movie (2007), but – newsflash – this is a work of fiction. Apart from the tragic and nihilistic bombing of a 2005 performance of Twelfth Night, attributed to the Tanzim Jund al-Sham group, there’s little to suggest a pattern of anti-Western terror in Doha. Indeed, among the recent data deluge from Wikileaks are indications that the al-Thani dynasty uses frequent pay-offs to armed Islamists to keep the peace there. Only a dogmatist would treat the levels of risk as the same in all Islamic states; you can meet US marines out of uniform in Dubai’s Wild Wadi theme park, but not in Helmand province in Afghanistan. Even stripped of its post-9/11 context, some of the whining resembles the pessimism of those who predicted that the 2010 World Cup would be the pretext for an orgy of robbery, rape and murder across South Africa.

The second strand of bid-baiting involves treating the 2022 hosts as football minnows. ‘Where is the heart and soul of football in Qatar? And yet that decision has been made’, chuntered Graham Taylor to BBC Radio 4’s PM programme. This embittered mood was caught nicely in a fake Sam Allardyce tweet doing the rounds on the internet: ‘Qatar? Holding a World fucking Cup? They probably play the beautiful game on fucking elephants. What an outrage!’

However, if we look at previous successful bids for sports mega-events, there’s plenty of evidence that non-sporting criteria can motivate the eventual decisions. The run-down east end of London is not an obvious choice for the 2012 Olympics. ‘The Olympics? In Newham? You have got to be joking.’ Yet because urban renewal has been part of the Olympic orthodoxy post-Barcelona, this rationale is accepted. Qatar’s approach to FIFA takes elements of creating a ‘legacy’ for a truly twenty-first century nation and combines them with the Beijing 2008 mentality of declaring, through sport, that the host nation is now a major player on the world stage.

Qatar’s claims to grandeur need serious evaluation. Around 14 per cent of the world’s known natural gas supplies are below its surface, making it a significant energy supplier. Cynics suspect some of this revenue may have found its way into the pockets of FIFA panel voters in order to clinch the bid. Such allegations have been heard before; when Qatar’s national sporting academy launched a huge football talent-scouting exercise in Africa it was assumed this was an attempt to buy a future World Cup after making the cream of African football talent into Qatari nationals. (Pragmatically, Aspire Africa replied that a rising tide would raise all boats and having local kids train alongside future pros would help raise the overall standard.)

Anti-corruption wittering – as perpetrated by Panorama – ignores a basic fact: its (lucrative) dependence on fossil fuels locks the Qatari state into a pattern of trading and global relationships that is essentially that of a developing nation. One difficulty facing Qatar’s national economy is how to incorporate activities outside of oil and liquified natural gas production into its division of labour, as opposed to garnishing the fuel business with miscellaneous vanity projects. Yet it makes little sense to bundle these economic observations with criticisms of FIFA which, after all, already uses plenty of non-football criteria in much of its decision-making. Given that the 2010 World Cup was not just about showing off the arrival of African football, but also about demonstrating how far the world has come along since the end of apartheid, it is moving the goalposts to moan that hosting rights are being awarded for apparently arbitrary reasons. (At least it’s not Eurovision where, like it or not, the winners always become the following year’s hosts.)

Choices of location are clearly important since success is not guaranteed; it’s legitimate to wonder whether FIFA has got it wrong. In the hotel bars near the Corniche, one can probably find long-term expat sportswriters who recall the waterlogged, logistically hellish experience of the 2006 Asian Games in Doha. Sixteen years on, it is more likely – but not inevitable – that things will unfold more smoothly. FIFA could be overlooking these past difficulties in favour of its own attenuated summary of global news, while turning fact into cliché by reminding us how this is the event’s ‘first time in the Middle East’. Hinting at a (perceived) wider diplomatic role for the beautiful game makes the whole enterprise sound nobler than the annual feuds about sponsorship and marketing.

On balance, FIFA has used its standard arbitrary selection procedures to support the Qatari bid. To move from here to singling out Qatar for criticism seems perverse. Add this to acting as if failure is inevitable (and welcome), and you get a poisonous self-fulfilling prophecy.

A third complaint is that Qatar is too hot: 50 degrees Celsius in summer seems to be the figure that unites the doom-mongers. Yet the elite and the tourists have a way to cope with this already – it’s called air conditioning. No doubt resources will be thrown at the problem of how to extend this outdoors (creating a dramatic counterpoint to the uneven application of under-soil heating throughout European football).

Ironically, as the technical problems of reducing the temperature look closer to being ameliorated, expect a growing chorus of voices criticising this as unsustainable, given the power and water such an engineering adventure could use. The regime is facing a Catch 2022 situation: whatever it does to make football matches feasible by reducing warmth, it will get accused of causing global warming. This won’t please the Doha authorities, since their own official policy documents – such as the Qatar National Vision 2030 – reveal a monomania for sustainability. As those getting hot and bothered about heat cool off, expect plenty of hot air over the ecological impact of this tournament.

The final common criticism of Qatari success concerns the regime itself. Much of my time spent working in the Gulf involved privately seething at the socio-economic and legal arrangements there; at the very least one hopes that modernising influences start to shake off the dead hand of tradition. From way outside the former Trucial State, it seems that some online football fans have just stumbled across the issue of gay rights within its artificial borders. Other fans fear for their right to get drunk in public. No doubt as the group stages get closer, there will be others who are shocked by the plight of the indentured labourers from the Indian subcontinent now building the stadiums and hotels.

Yet this reeks of selectiveness. Many routine FIFA activities take place in member states that have terrible records on homosexual equality, public-order authoritarianism and labour rights; indeed, one such country will be hosting World Cup 2018. If you need a successful World Cup bid to alert you to the injustices in a society, it indicts your own lukewarm interest in justice; had the United States won, presumably Sharia law under the al-Thani dynasty could have passed without comment.

Not long ago Dubai caught flak for being the ‘West on steroids’; now it is Qatar’s turn. Leaving aside the thorny issue of Fifa’s voting behaviour, one thing is clear: successful bids by England and the USA would have spared us from all the moaning now clogging up the comment pages.

Graham Barnfield’s chapter on Arabian Gulf Sporting Megaprojects will appear next year in Jill Savery and Keith Gilbert (eds.), Sustainability and Sport, Common Ground Publishing.

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Topics Politics


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