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Qatar World Cup 2022: The beautiful game meets ugly western bigotry

Football belongs to everyone. Yet the West, which represents a fraction of the world's population, demands that only those who share its cultural values can be part of it
Saudi Arabia fans celebrate their team's victory during the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group C match between Argentina and Saudi Arabia at the Lusail Stadium, north of Doha, on 22 November 2022 (AFP)
Saudi Arabia fans celebrate their team's victory during the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group C match between Argentina and Saudi Arabia at the Lusail Stadium, north of Doha, on 22 November 2022 (AFP)

Old habits die hard, and so does old and renewed orientalism. The relentless campaign in the mainstream western media against Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup is a fresh reminder.

Qatar and other non-western countries in the region or the global south in general are reminded today that the West is the model, and the "rest" should follow suit - a blunt and vulgar arrogance that survived the age of classical orientalism.

There are many things about Qatar that deserve to be criticised and put under the spotlight. But there is a huge gulf between criticising a country for specific wrongdoings and using disparaging cultural statements and stereotypes that tap into embedded racism.

The western minority wants to impose what it sees as right on the entire world and its diverse peoples

When a French reporter in Doha was pressed by his anchor on live TV into what kind of problems he was seeing and could report on, the journalist had nothing to say other than Doha had many mosques.

Out of the many stunning images available of the state-of-the-art Al Bayt stadium, which on 20 November hosted the World Cup opening ceremony and the tournament's first game, a New York Times reporter chose to post a film of it taken from an awkward angle showing the 60,000-capacity stadium seemingly in the middle of nowhere. "12 years on, the World Cup opens here in a few hours. Remarkable to think it’s happening still," he tweeted. "Al Bayt World Cup stadium only building among miles of rubble and sand.”

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Much of the media reporting about Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup has created the perception of a savage country where people would be risking their lives if they dared to visit. One Twitter user wrote: “As a disabled female I would never risk going to Qatar. I have no rights in the country. How can I respect a country that doesn’t respect me?”

For those of us who have been working and living in the country for several years, this and many similar claims are simply jaw-dropping.

Smear campaign

Why would someone who had most probably never been to Qatar have the impression that that country didn't respect the disabled?

In fact, in this respect, things are quite the opposite, as Qatar and the rest of the wealthy Gulf states generally offer superb facilities for people with disabilities.

During the opening ceremony, Hollywood star Morgan Freeman was accompanied by a young inspirational Qatari, 20-year-old Ghanim al-Muftah, who was born with caudal regression syndrome, which impairs the development of the lower half of his body. 

It sent a wonderful message of support to people with disabilities everywhere and touched most who saw it. The power and global scale of western media multiplies the impact of stereotypes and reinforces them. But what portion of the world does this media represent?

US actor Morgan Freeman (L) and Qatari Ghanim al-Muftah speak during the opening ceremony of the Qatar 2022 World Cup at the Al-Bayt Stadium, north of Doha, 20 November 2022 (AFP)
US actor Morgan Freeman (L) and Qatari Ghanim al-Muftah speak during the opening ceremony of the Qatar 2022 World Cup at the Al-Bayt Stadium, north of Doha, 20 November 2022 (AFP)

The combined population of the western world, including Western Europe, the US, Canada and Australia, hardly reaches 600 million - less than 8 percent of the world's population.

Other demographic groups include more than 1.4 billion Chinese, around 1.4 billion Indians, and over 1.2 billion Africans. In terms of religious identification and next to the Christian West, the world has almost 2 billion Muslims and 1.2 billion Hindus.

Within such massive demographies, vast nations and big followings of religions, the western minority wants to impose what it sees as right on the entire world and its diverse population.

LGBTQ+ visitors

One of the top issues the western media attacked Qatar for was the restrictions placed by the state on LGBTQ+ visitors. Qatar stated that, while it welcomes all people regardless of their "orientation", it would not allow public displays of those orientations because they clash with the traditional and religious norms of Qatari society.

The western media responded furiously. 

The implicit western media message was this: we want to come to your country and do things in our own way against the will, rules, taste, tradition and religion of your society. You should accept this because this is an international event, not a local Qatari one.

"International" here indirectly reads "western" because, as someone who teaches media studies, I did not come across any similar campaigns in, say, Asian or African media.

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Of course, not all western media is driven by orientalist tropes and prejudice against the Other. But even fair and well-intentioned campaigns to support certain issues and groups could become counter-productive if their language and tone are overtly exaggerated.

The point here is not to approve or disapprove of Qatar’s position on homosexuality, but to see things from a broader perspective that accounts for the sensitivities of local cultures 

Non-western societies around the world have their own priorities and problems to grapple with. They also approach delicate cultural and societal issues in different ways and at varying speeds, trying to build the needed consensus. But we know too that homosexuality remained criminalised in some western countries until the 1990s (such as Germany in 1994 and Ireland in 1993).

Another western media frenzy arose over the banning of alcohol in stadiums and their vicinity. Again, no parallel anger was seen in the media of the "rest" of the world. Apart from the western media's craziness about alcohol, the "rest" of the world seemed not to care less.

The "tradition" of watching games fuelled by alcohol has been sacralised as an integral part of the football experience. Most societies around the world disparage scenes of half-naked drunkards reeling and screaming in the streets. Why would a conservative society accept these practices during the World Cup? Would people in India, for example, allow a group of foreigners to celebrate in the heart of Delhi by slaughtering cows?

The beautiful game is international indeed, but other practices are neither international nor an integral part of the experience. What is international is mutual respect for each other’s norms and cultures.

Migrant workers

The other big issue used to attack Qatar and its hosting of the World Cup has been over the bad conditions migrant workers have been facing. Part of this criticism is fair and has been very much needed, and here the media has played a constructive role.

This criticism has compelled the state to listen and improve the conditions of these workers dramatically. There has been a huge difference in working conditions between 2010, when Qatar won the bid to host the World Cup, and now.

Another claim often seen in western media is that Qatar has allegedly spent $220bn on preparations for the World Cup. Any Google search using this figure brings up many western media stories repeating this colossal figure in a language filled with degradation, bigotry and embedded racism.

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The official Qatari figure that the direct cost was around $8bn was hardly ever used in stories. But even if we go wild and accept the $220bn figure, spent between 2010 and 2022, this money was used - as could be clearly seen by those who live in Qatar - to build huge new infrastructure projects, small cities, highways, bridges, parks, ports and many other things.

Over 12 years, this means around $18bn each year on average, which would be within the expected budget for a small wealthy country. 

As a final note, if we compare major European cities such as London, Paris, Amsterdam and  Madrid and others compared to Asian cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Doha, Delhi, Riyadh and Dubai, we should remember that these European cities were built on the plundered wealth of other nations in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

The cities of the second group were built by the wealth of those nations, not wealth stolen from colonised countries.

Rooted deeply in the western psyche is a sense of entitlement to global wealth. This means wealth should be in the hands of the civilised – that is the West, and that only the civilised are perfectly capable of organising mega global events efficiently.

A small country having both - big wealth and the ability to organise an event as massive as the World Cup - goes against the "nature of things" as perceived by 19th-century classical orientalism that still predominates in today’s western media.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Khaled al -Hroub is professor of Middle Eastern Studies, Northwestern University in Qatar and author of two books on Hamas
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