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Qatar’s Delicate Balancing Act: The FIFA World Cup and International Pressure

Football commentators all over the world described the FIFA World Cup final between Argentina and France as one of the greatest final matches—if not the greatest—in the history of the competition. FIFA boss Gianni Infantino was even more generous, describing the 2022 tournament as “the best World Cup ever.”

Like every World Cup, the 2022 tournament did not disappoint when it came to the thrill, excitement, and a global dose of adrenaline it provided. More than 1.5 billion viewers watched the final game alone, which speaks to the sport’s entrenched and growing global popularity. As in every previous tournament, this year’s World Cup also brought its share of joy and heartbreak. Controversy took place off the field, as well; debates touched on the political implications of the first World Cup hosted by an Arab country, to the use of technology in football to the impartiality—or lack thereof—of the referees.

This year’s tournament was particularly contentious. Rows over labor protections, the last-minute ban on alcohol, and Qatar’s dubious commitment to freedom of speech erupted long before the opening game’s kickoff and persisted throughout. As the host nation, Qatar bore the brunt of the criticism. Its response deserves to be chronicled and analyzed.

A World Cup Riven

Although Qatar initially denied that any migrant workers had died building the World Cup stadiums, Doha subsequently changed its tack as international scrutiny became more intense in the years leading up to the 2022 tournament. While Qatari officials have rejected The Guardian’s 2021 claim that over 6,500 migrant workers died in preparation for the games, Qatar has made a clear commitment to reforming labor laws and holding private companies accountable for the abuses enabled by the kafala sponsorship system, which abetted the abuse of expatriate laborers. Though much remains to be done to ensure that expatriate workers receive fair treatment, Doha’s 2020 abandonment of the kafala system proved an important first step.

As unreasonable as many claimed the ban on alcohol was, it did contribute to one of the safest World Cup tournaments in history. Women and children were able to enjoy public spaces late at night without fear, and scenes of disorderly, belligerent drunk spectators were completely absent for the first time in the history of the World Cup.

Qatar exercised pragmatic restrictions on the freedom of political speech at World Cup matches. On the one hand, flags in support of protests against the Iranian regime were not allowed in the stadiums, but Qatari officials also respected the right of Iranian fans to make chants in support of the Iranian protestors. Similarly, although Israeli reporters were shunned by thousands of fans and Arab visitors in a country where over 80% of people oppose normalization with Israel, not a single Israeli reporter was harassed or harmed. In fact, Arab and non-Arab fans alike saw this tournament as an opportunity to remind the world of Shireen Abu Akleh, the Al Jazeera reporter killed by Israeli security forces in May. Meanwhile, members of “Qatar Youth Against Normalization” (QAYON) saw the heavy media presence during the tournament as a platform to affirm the Palestinian cause before and after every match.

Duplicitous, or Diligent?

As tempting as it may be to accuse Qatar of a two-faced approach to managing the tournament and the political controversies that surrounded it, the fact is that most nations and societies must grapple with their own contradictions, especially when under the international spotlight. This equally applies to Qatar, which is bound by deeply rooted religious and cultural values, but is also keen to address the concerns and demands of partners, adversaries, and other stakeholders without conflict.

Critics deliberately ignored Qatar’s attempt and strategic approach to seeking harmony between the global game and its national values. Instead, they waged an unwavering prejudiced campaign to depict the tournament and Qatar’s efforts to organize a peaceful tournament as a crackdown on freedoms and human rights. None of these efforts paid off, however, as Qatar successfully delivered what is now seen as one of the most successful FIFA World Cup tournaments despite the repeated prejudiced claims that a Middle-Eastern Arab nation lacks the culture, organizational capacity, and skill to organize such an event. In the aftermath of the 2022 World Cup, the world will be left with lasting memories of a tournament that was—in more ways than one—unlike any other.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Dr. Maryam Al-Kuwari is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at International Affairs Department, Qatar University. She holds a PhD degree in Philosophy in Arabic and Islamic Studies at University of Exeter. Dr. Al-Kuwari holds Masters degree in Middle East Politics from SOAS, University of London. Since graduation, she has been working as department coordinator, where she had been leading facilitating, planning and decision making for the department. In addition to working as coordinator, Maryam has been teaching courses (Gulf Studies, Culture & Politics and Special Topics) and assisting faculty in researches about the Gulf region. Her interests in research are political sociology, state building and non-state actors in MENA and Gulf region.

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