On the circus – David Goldblatt in LRB:
“Visitors to the Qatar World Cup, stuck for something to do between games, should consider a visit to the museum of slavery at Bin Jelmood House in Doha, where they will see a large aerial photograph of the capital taken in the late 1940s. Were it not for the crescent-shaped shoreline, the city would be unrecognisable. Then it was a run-down port of around fifteen thousand people, home to fishing and herding tribes that had lived on the Qatar peninsula for at least three centuries. The tallest building was a two-storey fort constructed by the Ottomans in the 19th century. Although ruled, as now, by the al-Thani dynasty, it was a British imperial protectorate. Its only significant source of wealth had been the pearl fishing industry, but that was destroyed by the Second World War and the invention of artificial pearls. Hunger and malnutrition were widespread.
Today more than 2.3 million people live in Doha, while Qatar as a whole has a population of 2.9 million, just 300,000 of whom are Qatari citizens. The rest are migrant workers, only a small proportion of whom – Arabic Levantine and Indian families that arrived a generation or two back – have residence rights. Everyone else is there on a temporary work visa: professionals from the Global North; Filipinos, who make up a large proportion of Qatar’s domestic workers and cleaners; Africans, many of whom work as taxi drivers or security guards; and almost a million men from South Asia, Nepal and Bhutan who have toiled to build the new city. This racialised hierarchy, as John McManus argues in his anthropological account of Qatar, is a modern version of the British Empire’s ethnic division of labour.”
“The Qatar World Cup has its own claims on history. It will be the first sporting mega-event staged in an Arabic-speaking, Muslim-majority nation. This is a good thing. More people will watch this World Cup than any other, probably more people than have watched anything, ever. In part, this is a function of technology, but it also reflects the growing audience for football in the world’s three most populous countries, China, India and the United States (where the game has long had only a marginal presence), as well as among women, who made up 40 per cent of the audience for the last World Cup, held in Russia in 2018. This will also be the first World Cup to take place during the northern hemisphere winter. The prospect of playing and watching games in the searing heat of a Gulf summer, where temperatures regularly touch 45°C, was too much even for Fifa, and the global football calendar was duly rearranged to accommodate the change.”
“Far more expensive have been the complete remodelling of downtown Doha; the building of nearly a hundred new hotels, a massively expanded port and a pharaonic international airport; the complete rebuilding of the country’s road system; and the installation, from scratch, of three metro lines in Doha. The final will be played in the Lusail Iconic stadium, a huge 80,000-seat structure, around which Qatar has built an entirely new satellite city, at an estimated cost of $50 billion, which will house more than a quarter of a million people.
The World Cup has always been a tool for political messaging. After Uruguay’s celebration of its nascent social democracy in 1930, Mussolini used the competition in Italy in 1934 to show off fascism to the world. Italy’s victory in the tournament seemed to lend credence to the country’s newly concocted spirit of martial masculinity. Argentina’s home win in the 1978 World Cup was a blessed distraction, at home and abroad, from the military junta’s punitive rule and economic incompetence. But no state, until now, has placed sport in general, and the World Cup in particular, at the heart of its foreign policy and economic development.”
“In the mid-1990s, Qatar launched Al Jazeera, which has since become a major global media network. Its Arabic language services broadcast news and opinions that would be censored in most Middle Eastern states – though criticism of the Qatari state, indeed critical coverage of any kind, is conspicuous by its absence.
Important though Al Jazeera is, Qatar’s biggest soft power success has been Al Jazeera’s subsidiary, beIN Sports – now the biggest sports broadcaster in the Middle East and North Africa. While Dubai has specialised in loose banking laws and gated tourism, Qatar has settled on sport as the most effective way of drawing attention and visitors. Since the turn of the century, Doha has been a regular stop on the global tennis and cycling circuits, and has hosted dozens of world championships, from gymnastics to handball to wrestling, as well as the Asian Games and the Asian football championships. The government has spent freely in its attempt to create a domestic football league: every Qatari boy with a hint of athletic ability has been screened and tested. African and Asian hopefuls are sifted with the aim of bringing the best of them to Doha, and eventually into the Qatari national team.”
“But football has also brought an unprecedented amount of scrutiny, and Qatar 2022 offers plenty to scrutinise. This was also true of Russia in 2018: North Korean slave labour at the stadiums and widespread corruption in their construction; virulent anti-LGBT+ legislation; a violent, ultra-nationalist and racist football subculture; the occupation of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Earlier this year, the Beijing Winter Olympics played out alongside accusations of genocide in Xinjiang and environmental destruction in the mountains. Moscow and Beijing are almost entirely indifferent to outsiders’ opinions. Qatar, by contrast, is a relatively open society for foreign journalists to work in, and Qataris do care what the rest of the world thinks – that was, after all, the point of the project in the first place.
Qatar’s critics have focused on five issues: the original bid to host the World Cup; the availability of alcohol; the question of human rights, especially women’s and LGBT+ rights; the treatment of migrant workers; and the environmental implications of the tournament. The first two can be quickly dealt with. It is inconceivable, given what we know about the way Fifa was run in the first decade of the 21st century, that anyone could have won the bid without recourse to questionable, not to say illegal, means. We know that since at least France 1998, bribes, presents and favours have been handed out by every successful World Cup host. The Sunday Times investigation into the bid concluded that Qatar is no different. As for alcohol, weak beer from one of Fifa’s sponsors will be available around the stadiums and in nearby ‘fan zones’. In hotel bars, the full range of alcohol will be on sale as usual. But public drinking and drunkenness are unlikely to be tolerated (how they will be policed is another matter). Beer may be the drug of choice at men’s football matches in Europe and Latin America, but having experienced the collective euphoria of watching England’s women winning the European Championships at Wembley this summer without encountering a single drunk or coked-up maniac, I wonder whether a model of reduced alcohol consumption might end up being Qatar’s most significant contribution to world football.”
“(World Cup broadcasters will be prohibited from filming at ‘accommodation sites’ – such as, most obviously, migrant worker camps – as well as industrial, religious and public buildings.) Qatari women constitute a majority of university students, and occupy a number of powerful political and cultural offices, but the law (and common practice) concerning guardianship, travel and marriage is much the same as in Saudi Arabia. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, and though the organisers of the World Cup have insisted that everyone is welcome, it remains to be seen how public demonstrations of same-sex affection will be handled; earlier this year, one of the men in charge of security at the tournament, Major General Abdulaziz Abdullah al-Ansari, warned that rainbow flags may be taken from fans for their own protection.
But it is the treatment of Qatar’s migrant workforce that has drawn the most attention. Investigations by the International Trade Union Confederation, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Guardian have found that most workers are recruited by unscrupulous agents, who saddle them with large debts in exchange for getting them to Qatar. Once there, they are subject to the kafala system, a Gulf-wide model for controlling migrant labourers, inherited from the British. Under this system, all workers must have a sponsor, who is responsible for their conduct and who has the power to decide whether they can take another job and whether they can stay in the country at all. Many migrants are forced to cede their passports and other documents to their sponsors. They often get paid much less than they have been led to believe and are housed in dismal conditions. They have no legal redress and trade unions are banned. Domestic workers have been treated just as badly, at times kept in conditions close to imprisonment.”
“So, since 2017, in collaboration with the UN’s International Labour Organisation, Qatar has been dismantling kafala and, in 2020, replaced it with a state-run system. Amnesty International has continued to call for Qatar and Fifa to allocate $440 million between them – less than 0.5 per cent of the total cost of the tournament, and less than 10 per cent of Fifa’s cut – to compensate workers and their families for deaths and injuries sustained over the last decade. Both parties have declined to do so.
The case for allowing closed authoritarian societies to host international sporting competitions is that it forces them to engage with international norms in the full glare of the global media, which helps nudge them towards a democratic future. This was the argument made about South Korea by Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, when Seoul hosted the Summer Olympics in 1988. The South Korean junta did institute democratic reforms in response to mass protests in 1987, but in retrospect the Olympics seem just one factor in this, and not the decisive one. It’s hard to think of another competition that has produced a change equal to Qatar’s recent labour reforms. But the reforms have only shifted the dial a little and some worry that even this won’t last: many businesses grew wealthy under the kafalasystem and politicians are still trying to dilute the reforms.”
‘So, since 2017, in collaboration with the UN’s International Labour Organisation, Qatar has been dismantling kafala and, in 2020, replaced it with a state-run system. Amnesty International has continued to call for Qatar and Fifa to allocate $440 million between them – less than 0.5 per cent of the total cost of the tournament, and less than 10 per cent of Fifa’s cut – to compensate workers and their families for deaths and injuries sustained over the last decade. Both parties have declined to do so.
The case for allowing closed authoritarian societies to host international sporting competitions is that it forces them to engage with international norms in the full glare of the global media, which helps nudge them towards a democratic future. This was the argument made about South Korea by Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, when Seoul hosted the Summer Olympics in 1988. The South Korean junta did institute democratic reforms in response to mass protests in 1987, but in retrospect the Olympics seem just one factor in this, and not the decisive one. It’s hard to think of another competition that has produced a change equal to Qatar’s recent labour reforms. But the reforms have only shifted the dial a little and some worry that even this won’t last: many businesses grew wealthy under the kafalasystem and politicians are still trying to dilute the reforms.’
‘Few people in the Global North want to consider their own complicity in the systemic inequalities of capitalism and the horrors of climate change, especially while they’re watching the football. So far, professional football and its fans have been happy to benefit from the hydrocarbon wealth of authoritarian societies – Gazprom sponsored the Champions League until the invasion of Ukraine; in 2008, the UAE’s royal family bought Manchester City, the most prominent of its global network of clubs; last year, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund paid £300 million for Newcastle United – and have shown little concern for the provenance of things like shirts and balls, often made in factories that use child labour.
While some aspects of Qatari society may be better understood by the end of the World Cup, almost nothing about the lives of Qataris will have been revealed. What has it been like to live through the transformation of a country from premodern penury to postmodern opulence? McManus offers some insights. Qatari citizens pay no tax. Healthcare and education are free. State employment is guaranteed to all of those who wish it. But political power is held by a narrow stratum of aristocrats around the royal house. Unconventional behaviour, let alone criticism of the status quo, is risky. Civil society – from political pressure groups to independent artistic production – is almost non-existent.’ (…)
‘There is the option to leave, of course, but few Qataris take it. McManus meets a young man called Khalid who, unusually, spends much of his time motorbiking around Europe; his peers consider him odd, if not deviant. McManus asks him how he would compare his life in Qatar with his experiences elsewhere. ‘I have met lots of people happier than us in Qatar,’ he replies.’
Read the article here.
So, Russia in 2018 was at least as bad (‘North Korean slave labour at the stadiums and widespread corruption in their construction; virulent anti-LGBT+ legislation; a violent, ultra-nationalist and racist football subculture’) as Qatar now. The World Championship had some positieve side effects on the culture of labor and culture in general in Qatar. Whether this will last remains to be seen.
Soccer (the top) is infiltrated with money from companies and billionaires who don’t live up to the standards of the average citizen in London, New York or Berlin, to name just a few cities. And by no means I want to discriminate against people living in the countryside.
Qatar is very much like UEA (Dubai) where I spent some time for my novel The Man without Illness. There they told me, “we have four different classes here. The original citizens, camels, foreign workers from Europe and the US, foreign workers from India and Nepal.” As to soccer, bread and circuses keep us going. Now and then. We could of course also say, cake and circuses.