By Khaled Diab
Thursday 12 June 2014
Like many people of conscience around the world, I am alarmed that Qatar is set to host the 2022 World Cup.
Qatar’s successful bid to organise football’s greatest tournament has trained the international spotlight on the inhumane and dangerous treatment of South Asian migrant workers in the tiny emirate and the wider Gulf region.
Many Qataris and some other Arabs see hypocrisy in the controversy. “Over 20 countries have organised the tournament and they only make this fuss about Qatar,” one Twitter user complained.
Some went even further: “We have to stand assertively against this kind of racist behaviour,” said Kuwaiti politician Ahmad al-Fahad al-Ahmed al-Sabah, who is also the president of the Olympic Council of Asia.
Though I don’t think racism comes into it, at a certain level there do appear to be double standards. After all, there is a long history of the World Cup being abused as a political football by unscrupulous regimes: from fascist Italy in 1934 to junta-ruled Argentina in 1978. Inmates at the notorious Esma detention centre could hear the ecstatic crowds cheer Argentina to victory against the Netherlands in the final.
But it looks likely that allegations of bribery, which Qatar denies, rather than human rights abuses, may drive the final nail in the coffin of the Qatari tournament.
Both Qatar’s initial awarding of the 2022 World Cup and the possibility that it may lose it have stirred mixed emotions in the wider Arab world. It sparked enthusiasm in Qatar and some quarters that an Arab country had finally joined the major league of organising football.
“Congratulations to Qatar and to us for the football victory,” wrote Jihan al-Khazen in the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat back in 2010. “Winning the right to host the championship is an honour to all Arabs.”
Even if they were perplexed as to why minute Qatar with little footballing tradition to speak of had gained this “honour”, many Arabs echoed al-Khazen’s sentiments. For example, both Egyptian fans and the Egyptian Football Association sent Qatar congratulatory messages at the time.
However, the recent strain in Egyptian-Qatari relations over allegations that Qatar bankrolled and supported the despised Muslim Brotherhood have curbed the enthusiasm of some Egyptians.
This prompted Kamal Amer of pro-government Rose al-Youssef to urge his readers last year to overlook what he described as temporary differences and to focus on the “Arab, Middle Eastern and Islamic dream” of hosting the World Cup. He even suggested that Qatar could benefit from Egyptian expertise in the run-up to the event.
So far, the latest round of allegations has elicited little reaction in Egypt, which is preoccupied with meatier matters, such as the recent presidential elections and the anointing of its probable latest dictator, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. Nevertheless, the FIFA corruption allegations have received a civil handling. For example, the outspoken, pro-regime TV presenter Amr Adeeb, rather than gloat at Qatar’s predicament, focused on the ethics of the matter.
“It’s not a question of whether Qatar should host the World Cup, it’s a question of morality,” he said on his popular talk show Cairo Today. “We were happy that Qatar was the first Arab country that would embrace the World Cup,” Adeeb noted.
However, if Qatar gets the red card for the 2022 championship, which I think it should still stay in the region. The World Cup has left its traditional venues of Europe and Latin America, to visit Asia, the United States and Africa, so the Arab world should get a shot too.
Although I prefer the idea of a fixed venue classified as international territory, I believe holding the World Cup in the Middle East can be an opportunity to honour all those who sacrificed for the dream of the Arab Spring, provide relief to a troubled region and promote some inter-Arab co-operation amid the strained relations afflicting the region. This can be done through a joint Arab bid from several countries.
Given how it spearheaded the Arab revolutionary wave and has been a relative trailblazer in democratic reform, I would argue that the honour should go to Tunisia to be the actual host. Moreover, the Eagles of Carthage have significant footballing pedigree. Tunisia has qualified for four World Cups and was the first African side to win a match at the championship, back in 1978.
However, given the country’s modest means, a regional fund should be established, bankrolled by the rich Gulf states, including even Qatar, to finance preparations for the tournament. Other regional footballing heavyweights – like Egypt, Algeria and Morocco – can provide their technical expertise.
In addition, to avoid the waste associated with the tournament (which can only truly be curbed with a fixed venue), a blueprint should be drawn up that creates the maximum number of jobs ethically and every piece of infrastructure must be recyclable.
This would not only help to raise Tunisia’s prestige and stimulate investment in the country, creating much-needed jobs, it would also promote a deeper sense of shared identity across the region.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 5 June 2014.