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Is Criticism of Qatar's World Cup Rooted in Racism?

After 64 matches, 172 goals and one of the best finals in history, the 2022 World Cup is over. Qatar hosted one of the most extravagant and well-executed World Cups in the history of FIFA, with its grand opening ceremony and tremendously constructed infrastructure. It was the first global sporting event to be held in the Middle East, bringing many opportunities for workers, tourists and Muslims across the world as they could showcase the peaceful and hospitable culture of Islam. Despite this, Qatar faced huge backlash and reprimand from western media and news outlets. 


What Are Critics Saying?

FIFA represented the event as one that would allow for  “building new bridges of understanding”, however, a look at popular western media outlets will demonstrate that this was not the case. Qatar received huge criticism for its violation of human rights against migrant workers and the LGBTQ+ community, as well as the effects of the extensive cost and the consequences on the climate. Though, many Muslim and Arab observers feel that this criticism is not rooted in genuine concern, but rather racism due to the hypocritical nature of these claims, combined with the incessant racism of the West against the Arab peninsula. 


One of the central concerns in regards to Qatar's hosting of the World Cup was the treatment of the migrant workers that were brought in to build the required infrastructure as many reports expose how poor conditions have led to deaths and injuries. The official count among workers on World Cup sites is 37 non-work related deaths and only three from work-related accidents but many believe that is a vast undercount.

Another concern is the lack of LGBTQ+ rights in Qatar, which abides by Sharia Law, where homosexuality is forbidden, and potentially punishable by death, though this has never been the case. Qatar's Minister of State for Energy Affairs, Saad Sherida Al-Kaabi told German newspaper Bild  "if they want to visit Qatar, we have no problem with it”, in regards to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. 

The Hypocrisy of the West

Many Middle Eastern and Globally Southern media outlets have picked up on the hypocrisy of this criticism. A significant point of contention was the lack of criticism for Russia when they hosted the World Cup in 2018. A report by the Building and Wood Workers’ International union group found that 21 construction workers died building stadiums in Russia, mostly as a result of falls from heights or being struck by falling equipment. 


Yet, Russia faced very little backlash and controversy despite its maltreatment of migrant workers and its extensive history of racism. The use of “sportwashing”, the practice of corporations and governments using sports as a means to launder their reputation or hide previous wrongdoings, was very prominent in Russia’s World Cup as presenters failed to report on Russia’s record outside of football.


Piers Morgan stated that “Qatar is not without fault”, but that many of these criticisms apply to the majority of western countries “who have hosted major sporting events without any of the furor that has kicked off about Qatar”. Morgan went on to explain how England seems to have forgotten its own homophobic past, with gay marriage only having been legalised in 2013.  


He also boldly reprimanded the West for being in no position to lecture the Middle East about values and morality, given the way they illegally invaded Iraq 20 years ago, sparking two decades of terror and war. At the crux of Morgan's argument, is the sheer hypocrisy of western media outlets, leaving us with the fact that behind many of these criticisms is not genuine concern, but rather racism, and an attempt to tear down the Middle East and Muslim countries. 


“There are many things about Qatar that deserve to be criticised and put under the spotlight,” Khaled al-Hroub, a professor in Qatar, wrote on the UK-based website, Middle East Eye. “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.”


Patterns of Racism and Islamophobia Throughout the World Cup

It would be foolhardy to dismiss this criticism as being rooted in racism given the extent of which Qatar was discriminated against throughout the duration of the World Cup. From the very beginning of the sporting event, the BBC showed their intolerance for the Arab world as they refused to air the opening ceremony. Gary Lineker launched the event with a three minute monologue focusing on Qatar’s human rights record and thus missed the broadcasting of the opening ceremony.


 Hassan al-Thawadi, a Qatari World Cup chief condemned the BBC for its “very racist” coverage. He commented on the matter: “The reality is, a lot of the coverage, the way the BBC covered the opening ceremony, the way Gary Lineker took three minutes [criticising Qatar], they never bothered to do that with any other tournament.”


Further to this, David Walsh, the chief sports writer at The Sunday Times explained how a fellow journalist couldn't write about the positives of the World Cup in Qatar and that “good” stories weren’t wanted by the media company that he worked for. The fact that this clear and abhorrent discrimination has gone uncondemned in the West is a show of how deep-rooted racism and intolerance is even in today’s culture of “wokeness” and supposed “toleration”. 


The racism of the West was further exposed when Lionel Messi, the Argentine captain, was draped in the ‘bisht’ (a traditional Arab robe) as a sign of respect for his World Cup win by the emir of Qatar. Reactions from European journalists and news outlets reflected the racism and Islamophobia that was present throughout the World Cup and highlighted the lack of diversity and understanding in western newsrooms, leading to a limited ability to comprehend the world beyond their racist stereotypes. 


“The bizarre act that ruined the greatest moment in World Cup history”, read one headline from British newspaper The Telegraph (which has now been removed). Fox News declared that the act of gifting the robe was “absolutely grim”, and The Mirror enforced racist stereotypes by claiming that Messi was “forced” into wearing the bisht.


A bisht, also known as an aba or abaya in other Arab countries, is a garment symbolic of prestige, honour and stature. It is worn on special occasions and only by senior religious figures, political or tribal leaders, representing immense success. Let’s not forget that the simple “cloak” is itself worth thousands of pounds as it is lined in gold and is hand made. The act of draping Messi in the bisht was intended to signify the Arab culture of giving, but has been drained of its cultural importance by the ignorance and lack of diversity in western newsrooms. 


A Unifying Experience

Overall, Qatar’s World Cup has been a magnificent success for the Arab Peninsula and the Muslim community.  The event saw a wholesome coming-together of many Muslim cultures, with the roaring support for Morocco and the visible displays of solidarity with Palestine as a constant feature throughout the tournament. For many Muslims, it was moving to see the recitation of the Quran as 20-year-old Ghanim Al Muftah, Quran reciter and FIFA World Cup ambassador, recited the verses from the Holy Quran. He read, “Oh mankind, indeed we have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.” 


Despite much of the criticism of the west, Qatar was the first country in the Middle East to allow workers to change employers. They have also set a minimum wage, revolutionary in the region. “Qatar’s new labour reforms are some of the most significant to date and could, if carried out effectively, considerably improve migrant workers’ living and work conditions,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.


Football fans who stayed in Qatar throughout the duration of the tournament participated in learning about the Qatari culture and showed appreciation for the traditions and religions. On the ground, there has been a heartening level of cultural exchange, and a spirit of cosmopolitanism which is much needed in an increasingly divided world. In the words of Piers Morgan, the Middle East has “long deserved its own World Cup”.


The BBC, and in particular Lineker, the notoriously bigoted French media, and much of the British press owe a giant apology to Qatar. It’s time they acknowledged they got it wrong and that Qatar has played host to one of the most magnificent and peaceful football World Cups in history.

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