On the Looming Games

Kian Moaledj, Contributing Writer

The World Cup begins this month in Qatar, and it will be the first time the event is hosted by an Arab and Muslim-majority country. With phase one of ticket sales surpassing 2018 figures by 385 percent, FIFA organizers want the 2022 games to be a “celebration of humanity” marking the end of the pandemic. I predict a lively campus as students screen matches in classrooms and dorms across Bates. Commons abuzz with talk of who will get eliminated, who will be crowned the winners.

Like everyone from Qatar, I have a flashbulb memory of the triumphant moment we won the bid for the tournament in 2010. I spent the next decade of my life anticipating the year the world would finally get to see the tiny country I called home. Now that time has come, and any sort of excitement I had has been replaced with foreboding. Former FIFA president Sepp Blatter, perhaps feeling guilty for his involvement in the bribery scandal that made possible Qatar’s hosting of the tournament, admitted recently that awarding the bid to Qatar had been a mistake. I happen to agree, not least because hundreds of billions of dollars were inadequate in preparing the country for the millions of fans that are set to arrive in the next few weeks. Having grown up in Doha, I believe I speak with some authority here when I predict that the World Cup will be nothing short of a complete shitshow.

Come Nov. 20, we will witness logistical failures of unprecedented proportions. Doha’s infrastructure will not be able to accommodate the masses of spectators traveling between stadiums. Protestors will engage in disruptive campaigns designed to bring attention to Qatar’s long list of human rights violations. Tension will erupt into chaos. Any conversation about the beauty of the games will be prefaced with denouncement of the repressive Qatari regime.

Western audiences will revel in their sense of moral righteousness . Commentators from afar will sensationalize Qatar as a bastion of backwardness and despotism. Islamophobic and Orientalist rhetoric will resurge, and no one will care to think twice before making essentialist, absolutist assertions about a country they barely know. The Arabs are not ready to host the games—they are stuck in a different age. They are incapable of understanding liberal values of democracy and tolerance. It is in their culture. We should have been the hosts, for we suffer from none of the prejudices nor the medieval mentalities that plague those parts of the world.

To anyone who may feel compelled to lecture Qatar on the ills of religious fundamentalism, I ask this: Have you been paying attention to what’s going on in this country? Are you aware that we have six unelected, life-appointed Justices who are on the precipice of recriminalizing homosexuality? From this position, shaming a nation that gained independence in 1971 to transform its social values overnight conveys a certain performative arrogance that is at best hypocritical and, at worst, deeply harmful. It is here that I would point to Dr. Nas Mohamed, a queer Qatari in exile whose perspective, along with my own, is one that can illuminate the injustices faced by LGBT persons in Qatar. Injustices that would never in a million years be faced by queer visitors from the U.S., Britain, Germany, Australia, the Netherlands, Canada and so on.

I do not mean to trivialize the misery brought on by this sporting event. Blue-collar migrant worker deaths overshadow most discussions about the World Cup, and rightfully so. Despite the enormous strides Qatar made in abolishing its Kafala system under pressure from human rights organizations, the nation’s labor practices still have the hallmarks of modern-day slavery. Qatari officials continue to reject initiatives that will compensate workers who died or were injured building the stadiums and requisite infrastructure for the games. Qatar is also suffering from the same problems faced by every country that hosts the World Cup. Unconscionable rent increases. Disruptions in schooling and transportation. Thousands of evictions

My privilege as an American shielded me from witnessing the worst parts of Qatar’s labor system, and I find it incumbent upon my peers from Doha to, at the very least, acknowledge the indefensible loss of life that made our upbringings possible.

Yet, I cannot help but be agitated when I hear presumptive remarks made about Qatar, my home of 16 years. Because, shockingly, there is nuance to the perspectives of Qatari nationals and residents towards formerly dismissed human rights issues. Preparing for the World Cup meant debating controversial social matters and having the necessary conversations that were unimaginable when I first moved to Qatar. Attitudes are changing. New generations of Qataris and migrants are bringing light to injustices, and I am optimistic for Qatar’s future. Qatar is slow to adjust, but it is headed in the right direction. Can we say the same about this country?

What is my point here? Am I asking that we keep politics out of sports? Of course not. My hope is simply that we remain cognizant of the labels and tropes we reproduce when making reductionist claims about others. A little bit of relativism would be great. Please, don’t take a half-time break as an opportunity to disparage a country and people you know next to nothing about. Let those who face exploitation and discrimination speak for themselves, and listen to their testimonies if you want to learn more. 

It is easy to get caught up in an echo chamber that renders Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup wholly negative, especially when we implicitly and explicitly frame ourselves as infallibly virtuous. For millions of fans, particularly those in West Asia and North Africa, hosting the event in a region under constant assault remains a source of immense pride. A vanity project the World Cup may be, positive representation still goes a long way. Whatever happens during the tournament, I urge watchers of the games to think consciously before making bold statements that paint Qatar, and Arabs generally, as a monolith. The Middle East can do without more of it.