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Orientalism Lives: The Assault on the State of Qatar

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December 18 marked the end of the 2022 World Cup. The date, which coincided with Qatar’s national holiday was fitting to celebrate an event seen as the pinnacle of Qatar’s impressive economic development and growth strategy. Much of this economic development is credited to the visionary leadership of two men: current emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and his father and predecessor, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. By having the end of the World Cup fall on the country’s National Day, Qatar intended to showcase the Al Thani family’s accomplishments on the global stage.

This is the first time the world’s most popular sporting event took place in the Middle East — a truly historical moment and an opportunity to end stereotypes about an important and strategic region of the world. Now that the dust is settling on an exceptional FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and that the lights have moved elsewhere, including Doha preparing to host the next Asian Cup 2024 and the 2030 Asian Games — the largest continental multi-sport tournament, and, after the Summer Olympics, the second-largest multi-sport championships in the world — the scathing international criticism, primarily in the Western media, surrounding Qatar’s ability and worthiness to host the 2022 World Cup, has revealed the sheer hypocrisy and double standards that is exposed when the West decide to unilaterally award itself the moral high ground with an arrogance that serves to reproduce neocolonial patterns of privilege, superiority, and domination, and reinforces negative stereotypes about the Arab Muslim world.

A desert peninsula sitting on 11,000 square kilometers across the Persian Gulf, present-day Qatar consisted of a few small fishing and pearling villages and a population of Bedouin nomads until the early twentieth-century’s oil exploration activities. In 1971, after gaining independence from the British and discovering that it sat on one of the world’s largest offshore natural gas fields, Qatar began its transformation. Over the next few decades, Qatar embarked on a grand nation-building project to modernize the country at a swift pace, ultimately becoming one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Its remarkable economic growth and the development of its built environment propelled the Gulf nation to the forefront of international globalization.

Turning its whopping revenues from oil and gas into diplomatic muscle, Doha devoted decades to accruing and deploying new forms of soft power and assumed a role as an important and strategic regional player with international reach. With a population of three million of whom fewer than 400,000 are Qatari nationals — 90% of its population are foreign nationals — Qatar is home to a major international airline; the Al Udeid Air Base, the largest United States military base in the Middle East and headquarters of United States Central Command and United State Air Force Central Command; and the Al-Jazeera news network, the Arab world’s most recognized satellite news channel. All this projects Qatar’s influence around the world.

Then, in 2010, came the award to host the World Cup, the ultimate soft power achievement for Qatar — an opportunity for Qatar to announce itself, to put on a show, to stage its vision, to show its economic strength, to tell its story, and all on a truly global stage.

Since being awarded the privilege of hosting, Qatar undertook all the preparations needed to host such a global mega-event — similar to previous hosts. It invested hundreds of billions of dollars in new stadiums, new highways, new airport and ports, a public transportation system, hotels, museums, parks, shopping centers, event venues, and a diversified energy grid incorporating solar power into the country. Although much of the infrastructure spending was already part of Qatar’s 2030 development plan, this spending was fast tracked for the World Cup.

Qatar’s preparations for the 2022 World Cup will position the country in good organizational and infrastructural stead to host the Asian Cup 2024 and the 2030 Asian Games. In 2020, the general assembly of the Olympic Council of Asia (OAC) selected Qatar to host the Asian Games in 2030. Having previously hosted the successful 2006 Asian Games, Doha will reuse much of the infrastructure that was built for the 2006 event and for the 2022 FIFA World Cup to deliver a true and lasting sports legacy.

But from the moment, in 2010, that the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) — the world’s governing body for soccer — awarded Qatar hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup, the country has been besieged by a squall of criticism: over suspicions of the alleged tainted bidding process and corrupted vote[1] that delivered the award, over its treatment of migrant workers, over its use of sport as a tool of soft power, over its lack of a meaningful sporting tradition and little soccer culture, over the ability of the tiny country to host over a million visitors, over its lack of environmental concerns, and more. The grievances against Qatar were endless. And as the tournament neared, and the passions of soccer fandom sparked flames at the start of the marquee event, the disparagement of the host nation grew to levels that no previous host country has ever faced. For example, in 2018, during the last World Cup, host nation Russia had seized and annexed Crimea from Ukraine, was actively arming the Assad regime as Syria entered a full-scale civil war and was implicated in the downing of a passenger airline. More recently, China hosted the 2022 Winter Olympics while carrying forward a genocide against the Uyghur Muslim population[2] in the disputed northwestern region of Xinjiang. Yet, neither country faced nearly the vitriol to which Qatar has been subjected for hosting the tournament.

Some of the concerns raised around the World Cup are justified. And none is more legitimate than the issue of human rights. A significant amount of scrutiny related to Qatar’s alleged mistreatment and abuse of foreign workers who built the infrastructure that made the World Cup possible. One of the reasons for the exploitation of migrant workers lies in the kafala, a sponsorship system that restrict laborers’ freedoms and immigration status. Historically, workers have had to acquire an exit permit from the kafeel (sponsor) to leave the country and a non-objection certificate (NOC) to switch jobs.

Attention to workers’ rights has helped instigate positive change in Qatar. In the years leading up to the tournament, Qatar engaged with its critics, acknowledged the issues, and took steps to address them through a flurry of legal reforms. Prevalent in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and neighboring Lebanon, the kafala policy was officially abolished in Qatar in August 2020. Over the past two years, Qatar overhauled its labor law system: It lifted some restrictions to make it easier for some migrant workers to exit the country without their employer’s permission; put in place a more reasonable minimum wage; enhanced wage protection; and worked with FIFA to improve working and living conditions for laborers constructing World Cup facilities. In addition, Qatar improved its relationship with relevant international bodies, including the International Labor Organization (ILO). 

Qatar acknowledged that challenges remain and committed to continuing to implement more changes to its workforce management practices. However, Western critics did not appear to acknowledge progress on this front. Instead, a series of other incidents in the prelude to the tournament revealed the depth of Western prejudice in the questioning of cultural norms and the constructions of otherness. And perhaps most significantly, this Western criticism has highlighted reprehensible double standards as a dominant, ever-present feature of the West’s harmful depictions of the Arab Muslim world.

Relentless pre-tournament negative headlines served only to overshadow some of the credible and relevant concerns around the World Cup. A last-minute ban on alcohol in and around stadiums and on clothing bearing anti-discrimination rainbow-patterned articles at the games, fueled ferocious negative media coverage. But isn’t it completely fair that an Arab, predominantly Muslim, and socially conservative nation prohibits alcohol in potentially unruly stadiums and public displays of affection due to religious norms and local traditions while welcoming fans from different backgrounds and all walks of life? Related to alcohol consumption, a similar ban is imposed in stadiums in France, Spain, Portugal, and Scotland. And, in the name of secularism and other policies, France has banned from public schools all clothing that indicates a student’s religious affiliation. Free speech is not a free pass,[3] and freedom of expression must not undermine interfaith harmony[4] and the courtesy expected of visitors to foreign lands.

The World Cup was not Qatar’s first test. Not long before the tournament, the country faced a far more rigorous test. Its independent and innovative policy outlook in resolving regional crises in Yemen, Lebanon, Darfur, Palestine, and Afghanistan have garnered unparalleled attention and generated controversy, as has Qatar’s active foreign policy of embracing change in the Middle East and North Africa by supporting transitioning states during the Arab Spring uprisings.[5] As close as the Gulf nations are, their relationships are infinitely intricate. In 2017, disagreements over Qatar’s approach and policy motivations over the Arab Spring uprisings prompted its neighbors, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to impose a partial economic embargo and a full political boycott against it. But Qatar is no stranger in overcoming major challenges. During their three-and-a-half-year isolation, Qataris grew relentlessly self-sufficient. The nation’s strong economy enabled it to overcome the challenges of the reckless and ill-considered blockade, which was lifted in 2021.

More recently, new opportunities for US and European cooperation with Qatar pushed the small nation even further into the limelight.  A key regional diplomatic player, Qatar became a trusted interlocutor for the West — even with the Taliban. In 2021, it used its soft power in providing logistical, political, and financial support to the United States in its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. It emerged as an occasional mediator between the United States and Iran in an effort to restore the 2015 nuclear accord. And Qatar engaged in negotiations with several European countries  especially Germany[6]and Italy[7] — facing an energy supply crunch in light of Russia’s weaponization of energy resources, particularly gas, amid the war in Ukraine. In September 2022, The European Union opened an office in Qatar in a sign of the Gulf state’s growing influence in solving the international energy crisis. And in February 2022, acknowledging Qatar’s critical diplomatic and security role on the regional and international stage, President Biden designated Qatar a “major non-NATO ally” — the only country in the Middle East and North Africa region to receive such a status.

The point in calling out Western sustained critical scrutiny surrounding the 2022 World Cup is to highlight deep-seated prejudices and reprehensible double standards. The West has a responsibility to speak hard truths to Middle Eastern nations, but must do so with deeper engagement and constructive, tangible, and well-grounded criticism based on factual truths to provoke meaningful discussions and trigger substantive change. But despite the stereotypical imagery, this World Cup will likely leave a positive and lasting legacy. The prestige event has crowned Qatar’s economic and social accomplishments and burnished its diplomatic credentials as an internationally recognized player. More significantly, reforms instituted by Qatar in the years leading up to the tournament, if sustained, will have the potential of being rivaled by other countries in the region. And, as three Asian teams — Japan, South Korea, and Australia — made it to the round of 16 for the first time ever, and Morocco, the first Arab and African nation to advance to the tournament’s semifinals after defeating European powerhouse, Portugal, this Arab World Cup highlighted the power of mega sporting events as truly transformational platforms with the potential to push forward with positive change in Qatar and the wider Middle East, from Casablanca to Muscat.


The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.

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