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What Qatar’s World Cup Tells Us About the World in 2022

The soccer tournament offered signs that billions of people no longer think the United States and its entourage run the world.

Tony Karon and Daniel Levy

December 21, 2022

Argentina wins the 2022 FIFA World Cup.(David Ramos / FIFA via Getty Images)

Imagine that the BBC chose to ignore the opening ceremony of the 2026 World Cup hosted by Canada, Mexico, and the United States, and to instead devote an hour of programming to the moral—and physical—hazards of staging a part of that tournament in the US.

How safe can visiting fans really feel, the presenter might ask, in a country where the authorities are unable or unwilling to prevent them from being shot dead on any day of the week in a mall, in a gay nightclub, in a church, synagogue, mosque, or anywhere else? And how safe are visiting Black fans (those lucky enough to get visas) in a country with shocking levels of racist police violence.

How could visitors really feel comfortable enjoying a sports festival in a country where, on any given day, there 2 million people are behind bars, more than half a million are homeless, and 41 million face hunger—in the world’s richest country, which spends more on arming its military than the next nine countries combined (and which has shown an unfortunate willingness to unleash that military abroad to disastrous effect and with scant regard for international law)? A country where one in six women has been raped or sexually assaulted, but where legal protection of women’s bodily autonomy is being systematically eroded.

And what of the climate crisis, when hundreds of thousands of fans fly in from every corner of the globe, and then fly thousands more miles between games in different cities?

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There’s more than enough for an hour of gripping television there, but it’s a hypothetical, of course. We all know the BBC would never question the bona fides of any Western country as a World Cup host. Nor is the BBC alone: The Western mainstream media has a habitual inability to step outside of the self-serving narratives spun by its own rulers.

So it’s shouldn’t be hard to understand the outrage in the Arab region at the BBC’s—and much of the Western media’s—framing of that region’s first World Cup by standards of scrutiny and in a tone of disgust that they’d never apply to their own countries’ human rights records and hadn’t applied even to Russia’s World Cup or China’s Olympics.

Noting what he called the “barrage of negative and quite frankly racist commentary” about Qatar in the months preceding the World Cup, NBC’s Egyptian American host Ayman Moyheldin said it had revealed “the depths of Western prejudice, performative moral outrage, and, perhaps most significantly, gross double standards.” Nor should it come as any surprise that the moralizing of the Western media and political class over the Qatar World Cup failed to resonate in the Global South.

In fact, the absence of any significant buy-in from the Global South to the Western media narrative around the World Cup—Covid-embattled China’s major concern was managing the spectacle of so many maskless fans cheering in stadiums—reveals profound and consequential truths about the state of world affairs in 2022. Specifically, it highlighted the delusions of hegemony under which politicians and media bosses in Washington, London, and other Western capitals continue to labor.

“Biden scrambles to keep African nations in anti-Russia coalition,” The Washington Post declared last week, stretching beyond credulity the utility of the verb keep. (Only about half of African countries voted to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and most of those who did vote to condemn the invasion nonetheless declined to support the Western coalition’s sanctions on Russia—which impose a cost-of-living burden on the poor of the Global South.)

When the US president tells his media corps that a Zoom convocation of allies represents a coalition of the willing dedicated to “global democratic renewal” (and therefore, implicitly, to challenging the likes of Russia and China), they dutifully reiterate the claim.

But the United States is not taken particularly seriously even as a standard-bearer of democracy given the glaring democracy-deficit in its own system, much less its habit of coddling tyrants whenever selfish US interests require it. Of course, governments from Africa and elsewhere in the Global South attend Biden’s summits. But they do the same with Xi Jinping, leader of a country with whom most are doing more business. Hawkish think tanks in Washington warn, “The US is losing the developing world to China,” while their realist counterparts counsel that US conceptions of a 21st-century world divided into great power blocs would end in tears.

“You run [this town] because people think you do,” a character in the Coen brothers’ mobster flick Miller’s Crossing tells his boss. “They stop thinking it, you stop running it.”

The Qatar World Cup offered signs that billions of people no longer think the United States and its entourage run the world—and that the West is no longer able to dictate terms in the way it has done since the colonial era. Those who fret about the fraying of the “liberal world order” may want to acquaint themselves with the reasons why such fraying may not trouble the Global South: Despite the many advances it has enabled, that “liberal world order” also codified the system of property relations created by centuries of colonial and neocolonial plunder, which continues to enrich wealthy elites at the expense of the rest. Western powers in 2022 prioritized their geopolitical contest with Russia over tackling the escalating polycrisis—an increasingly apocalyptic combination of morbid symptoms in everything from public health to finance, inequality and hunger, war and environmental catastrophe. Ukraine is what matters most, they insist. But the Global South has different priorities—and sees the Ukraine war as a catastrophe that Western powers and their Russian counterparts could have prevented but failed to do so, a debacle for which nobody should reasonably expect the Global South to pay a price. Except that is precisely what has happened in energy and food security, via an inflationary cycle, which has made debt servicing an even heavier burden on the public purse, and also as a result of the reallocation of international assistance.

A similar disconnect was on display over the Qatar World Cup: Western governments are comfortable talking about the need to uphold values and international legal principle when those are being violated by Russia in Ukraine, but they refuse to act on or even acknowledge the longer-standing systemic human rights abuses to which they are accomplices in Israel’s occupation, now designated as an apartheid reality by Palestinian, Israeli, and global human rights watchdogs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The fans (and many players) in Qatar had a different priority, making the Palestinian flag the ubiquitous symbol of the tournament in a conscious rebuke to Western powers’ indifference to the rights of the Palestinians and the “normalization” of Arab autocrats’ ties with Israel. The “Abraham Accords” initiative spearheaded by the United Arab Emirates had signaled Arab humiliation in the eyes of much of the region’s civil society; embracing the Palestinian flag at the World Cup became a symbol of pride, dignity, and defiance among fans and players from across the region.

Some of the critical framing of the tournament conveyed a—perhaps unconscious—revulsion at the mirror image it showed of a Western-led global order. Take the contention that Qatar had bribed football officials to win World Cup hosting rights. Football historian David Goldblatt suggested that, were this to be the case, it would simply have been par for the course: “It is inconceivable, given what we know about the way FIFA was run in the first decade of the 21st century, that anyone could have won the bid without recourse to questionable, not to say illegal, means. We know that since at least France 1998, bribes, presents, and favors have been handed out by every successful World Cup host.”

The point, artfully avoided in Western media coverage, is that Qatar did not invent the rules of the game for acquiring World Cup hosting rights.

The human rights issues Western media focused on were the grim fate of hundreds of migrant workers who died building infrastructure in Qatar and the fact that local law bans same-sex relationships. Both are important conversations for all who care about justice, dignity, and equality. And yet, many in the region who have long been engaged on those issues did not welcome the manner in which they were framed by Western stakeholders.

“The lack of credibility on the part of many of the people making these sorts of demonstrations tends to mean there’s very little of moving the needle on the actual issues that need attention, whether we’re talking about the labor questions or broader human rights concerns,” explained Palestinian American historian Abdullah Al-Arian.

The families of migrants who died or were incapacitated certainly deserve compensation. And hopefully by its highlighting the issue, one legacy of the World Cup will be to maintain, enhance, and extend to enforceable and enforced protections for this vulnerable class of noncitizen workers on which Gulf economies continue to rely.

Still, what’s notable in the media coverage of the issue is the absence of any contextual sense of the economic realities that drive hundreds of thousands of impoverished men from Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, and Sri Lanka to seek low-wage work thousands of miles away from their homes and families. That would require a conversation not only of the history of colonial powers establishing indentured labor systems, but also of the contemporary regimes of debt and austerity imposed on their home countries by Western-led global financial institutions for the benefit of their own banks rather than the working people of the target countries.

Migrant labor is a product of a grotesquely unequal global economic system of which Western powers are the architects and primary beneficiaries. If the desperate poverty resulting from their country’s place in the neoliberal world financial order has for decades made migrant labor in Gulf countries in sometimes brutal conditions an economic lifeline for hundreds of thousands of households in Bangladesh, it’s worth noting also that the local cost-of-living impact of the West’s sanctions on Russia have dramatically increased the economic deprivation that drives the breadwinners of those same households to migrate for manual work. It’s not hard to see why more than 600,000 migrant workers from Bangladesh continue to work in the Gulf, despite the conditions and dangers.

It’s also not hard to see why so many in the Global South saw a bitter irony in the concern for migrants being expressed by Western powers who routinely abuse asylum seekers, whether in the form of Britain “warehousing” them and flying them off to Rwanda, Denmark literally robbing them of any personal possessions of value, or Italy moving to prevent those at risk of drowning from landing on its shores or being rescued by its nationals.

Our conversations with some longtime advocates for LGBTQ rights in the Arab world revealed concerns over how the issue was championed by Western media and soccer organizations in ways that showed little evidence of engagement with the needs and perspectives of the gay communities of the Arab region. Those communities face a harsh struggle for the most basic recognition and rights—as their peers in Western societies did, until recently. But many activists see that struggle as inseparable from a wider, indigenous liberation project, rather than framing it in the selective discourse of Western powers whose involvement in the region has been responsible for so much damage. LGBTQ activists in the region remember that that calamitous US-led military interventions in the Muslim world have been packaged in imperial “savior” narratives of protecting Muslim women. And they also note how Israel has brandished its LGBTQ rights status as a propaganda distraction from its settler-colonial violence against Palestinians.

While the issues are complex and perspectives are diverse, many balk at their cause being selectively embraced, separated from its local context and any wider liberation project, being brandished by the Western powers responsible for so much Arab suffering over decades, to once again prescribe to the region. One example: British LGBTQ campaigner Peter Tatchell was sharply criticized by gay Qataris for his made-for-media protest action in Doha after they had urged him to refrain from his action.

“The main problem here is the prevalence of the white savior complex, and how these western LGBTQ+ activists have no self-awareness whatsoever—especially when it comes to knowing when they should stay in their lane,” the Palestinian Australian journalist Elias Jahshan, editor of the anthology This Arab Is Queer, told an interviewer. “Too often we see western activists inserting themselves in other people’s struggles or liberation movements for their own personal clout. And we still see western LGBTQ+ activists so blinded by their western exceptionalism that they fail to see that imposing their activism methods on other cultures—without any regard for the local sensitivities and nuances—is just another form of imperialism.”

Warning of the potential local backlash generated by the momentary media spotlight, Jahshan added, “Western LGBTQ+ activists going to countries in the Global South to pull a protest stunt without the backing of the local community always risks doing more harm than good.”

The absence of beer in the stadiums? A case, perhaps, of a country that could afford to pay the cost of overruling FIFA’s sponsorship deals in order to protect its norms, despite the grumbling in Western media about the upending of their own cultural expectations. The result: Even Western media reported that the absence of alcohol made women fans feel safer at the games and made for a more inclusive atmosphere—in contrast to the perilous atmosphere that prevailed during England’s hosting of the European football championships 18 months ago.

Football never tracks neatly with state systems or even nation-states themselves—the World Cup reflects much of the complexity of identities and affinities in our globalized world. It was easy to project decolonization symbols onto France vs. Morocco, but the match itself was played by two teams composed mostly of the sons of African and Arab migrants in Europe’s cities, in a contest that reflected as much fraternity as rivalry. As Morocco’s captain Ashraf Hakimi pointed out following his team’s defeat of Spain, that was the country were his mother had cleaned houses and his father had been a street vendor—a biography with which most of the Moroccan and French players could identify. This was a World Cup where not only the formerly colonized nation states demanded respect and dignity, but also the marginalized migrant underclass of the European countries themselves.

The lessons here should be obvious: Western powers may imagine it’s up to them to set the terms on which the polycrises of our era will be tackled, but the climate crisis conversation at COP27 ought to have made clear that the Global South sees a need to hold those Western powers accountable for the mess they’ve made and to forge a path on more equitable terms.

During the 1990s time-out from “history” declared by Francis Fukuyama, the idea of nonalignment may have seemed a charming relic. But the narratives around Qatar’s World Cup outside of the US reminded us that it’s very much back in vogue: The tournament marked the closing of a year in which the disconnect between the West and the rest in perceptions of the world we live in, and of who and what counts, became hard to ignore.

Evading the realities of nonalignment, multipolarity, and interdependence, the US and its entourage appears to be convinced that it can reassert the primacy it established at the end of World War II. That delusion is viewed by much of the Global South as indicating the absence of self-awareness of its declining hegemony (i.e., the ability to convince others that Western interests are their own interests) combined with its massive military and financial power threatens a turbulent decade ahead.

For all the complexities, contradictions, and possibilities, Qatar 2022 showed us we live in an era in which Western powers are no longer able to dictate terms to the rest of the world as easily as they’ve done since colonial times.

The World Cup always provides a tantalizing vision, a snapshot of a global community, bound by a shared humanity and an optimistic sense of common destiny across all divides. More than anything else, it was Morocco’s improbable journey to the semifinals in Qatar that invited us to believe that a different world is possible. That world will not be dictated and shaped by American exceptionalism and Western hegemony. The world made by the United States and its allies after 1945 has passed. While we will all be better off for that, those of us living in the West would do well to recognize these lessons of 2022.

Tony KaronTwitterTony Karon is the editorial lead of Al Jazeera’s AJ+ and a former senior editor at Time magazine, and was an activist in the anti-apartheid liberation movement in his native South Africa.

Daniel LevyDaniel Levy is the president of the US/Middle East Project and a former Israeli negotiator with the Palestinians at Taba under prime minister Ehud Barak and at Oslo B under prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

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