Qatar Calling Critics Racists Opens A Debate That Might Be Worth Having | World Cup 2022
Jhe movie Triangle of Sadness, released last month, features an “extreme vomiting” scene that has viewers divided. The film’s setup—people with no money on a yacht—is intended as a satire of the super-rich and those who pander to them. The large decor of food poisoning is used to express disgust at the sentimentality of these hyper-spoiled lives.
Some left in shock. Others have objected that vomiting conveys revulsion and nothing else, that billionaires are people too; that dehumanizing these people in return is an ignoble response. The overclass also has feelings. This should be our starting point.
This is at least a nuanced view. And in that spirit of less not more bile, it is fair to treat with all due sensitivity a recurring line that has emerged recently from the discourse around the Qatar World Cup and the ownership of European football clubs. Surveillance of human rights and financial transactions is increasingly described by Gulf state leaders and their spokespersons as a form of racism.
Just last week, the Qatari foreign ministry summoned the German ambassador to explain comments made by Interior Minister Nancy Faeser criticizing Qatar’s human rights record. A memo from the Qatari government suggested that Germany actually applies a racist trope, that Qatar’s ruling family “has suffered from an unfair stereotype for decades”.
This is not the first time this point has been raised. Already in 2015, an editorial in the Al-Raya newspaper, a pro-government filter, raged against the “racist campaign” aimed at undermining the Qatar World Cup, in this case the findings of corruption around the bidding process for FIFA. World Cup chief executive Nasser Al Khater also refused to rule out the idea in a recent interview with Sky Sports, noting when asked that the criticism was “perhaps” motivated by the breed.
Qatar is not alone in taking this view. Two weeks ago, an anonymous Manchester City-linked briefing suggested Jürgen Klopp’s comments about City’s financial power were seen as bordering on xenophobia.
On the one hand, this could be considered intelligent communication. Qatar in particular is a serial employer of the kind of Western PR ships that will see a checkmate move here. Throw some mud, blur the edges, throw your own online army a bone. Get out of this one, post-colonial virtue signallers. And don’t mention arms sales, historic slavery, or the Gulf War.
On the other hand, it’s also a perfectly legitimate question if those involved believe it to be true, and one that should be handled with sensitivity. Football’s billionaire superclass, like the inhabitants of this vomit-strewn yacht, are people too.
This is also an interesting point in other respects. For starters, it invites careful scrutiny of those who do. Moreover, there is the obvious answer that to suggest that concerns about corruption, intolerance and worker deaths are motivated by racism is to devalue and disrespect the racism that less empowered people regularly suffer from. And that doing it for political gain is straight out of the Trump script, Putin’s playbook, the billionaire’s Hissy Fit playbook.
So what’s the stuff here? It’s hard to see any real evidence of xenophobia in Klopp’s words. Klopp said ‘no one can compete with City’ on financial matters. Klopp said: “No matter what it costs, do it.” Klopp said: “There are three clubs in world football who can do whatever they want financially. It’s legal and all, fine, but they can do whatever they want.
There is nothing here that is not a fair comment. It is true that there are three nation-state clubs in the top European tiers, and all three share a coastline. Perhaps Klopp could have offered some balance by mentioning the extravagant credit lines extended to some ‘cartel’ members or the absurdity of Chelsea’s rolling oligarch debt. But these clubs can still go bankrupt. Whether it’s a Gulf state or the Danish government buying up your local rivals, it’s a legitimate topic.
It has been impossible to dig deeper into why City believe it was borderline xenophobic given the club’s refusal to give further details or properly register such a serious accusation. City declined to answer questions on the matter this week.
So it’s just left hanging, fed into the opinion matrix. And unsurprisingly, the other place this idea has taken root is on social media, which is buzzing with voices responding with laudable patriotism to the unsympathetic news from Qatar.
Some of that could be induced. This week it emerged in the Netherlands that Qatar is paying at least 50 Dutch supporters to travel to the World Cup next month in return for signing a document pledging to make ‘a positive contribution’ . This ambassador role involves liking certain posts online and, more intriguingly, taking action against “offensive comments” from third parties.
And there’s no doubt that it’s all part of the game now, a complement to more formalized types of reputation management. Fifa has in the past employed American firm Weber Shandwick, among many others, to handle its World Cup public relations. Qatar is advised by global giant Teneo. It is legitimate, in this business, to manage the story as your client intends.
But two things should be noted along the way. First, the company you keep. Vladimir Putin, for example, who described Russia’s ban on sports competition as an act of racism. Or Sheikh Ahmad of Kuwait, former president of the Olympic Council of Asia, who accused Qatar’s critics of “racist actions” in 2014 and was found guilty last year of fraud. Or Sepp Blatter, who told delegates at the 2015 African Congress that the World Cup bombings in Qatar were “racist”, a reaction to revelations that would end in various criminal convictions.
Let’s hope that this kind of comment at least opens the debate. No doubt Abu Dhabi workers will welcome City owners’ concerns about racial profiling. Last year, Amnesty International revealed that police in the United Arab Emirates arrested 375 African migrant workers in the middle of the night and deported them without trial.
“Authorities brutalized hundreds of individuals because of their skin color, mistreating them in detention, depriving them of their personal property and their dignity,” Amnesty’s report concludes. Which definitely looks like borderline xenophobia.
Qatar has also arguably done itself a favor by shining the spotlight on these issues. A recent report by the UN’s special envoy against racism expressed “serious concerns about structural racial discrimination” in Qatari society and a “de facto caste system based on national origin”. These issues are now likely to be high on the agenda.
None of this means that Qatar is necessarily wrong. There may well be a racist campaign to portray his working conditions or the criminalization of homosexuality as bad things. Manchester City owners can be victims of real prejudice regardless of the problems at the Emirates.
There is also a legitimate point that other nations are guilty of the same faults. The United States hosted the World Cup while deploying troops to nearly every continent. Britain recently hosted both the Windrush scandal and the European Championship final.
But it is also a matter of degree. Critics of Qatar have come from human rights bodies, trade unions and left-wing voices. Is Amnesty racist? Is Antonio Rüdiger racist? Is Unison racist? Are there only non-racists Adidas, McDonald’s, Budweiser, Coca-Cola and Visa who have wisely kept their advice on the World Cup in Qatar?
It’s a line that will be explored more often as the noise around Qatar 2022 reaches its peak; and a problem to be treated as more than just a feast of shared bile. But provided that such statements begin to sound cheap or vexatious without proper substance; and that there is a danger that cries of discrimination from the powerful hyper-rich football brokers will ring a little hollow for the less privileged, or sound like undeserved vilification.
These are just a few of the contortions to unravel before moving on to the basic activity of playing and watching football. Who knows, maybe beyond the conversation, the endless vomit of bluff and counter-accusation, there might even be a shadow of progress to be made.