Skip to main content Skip to footer
FIFA’s Desert Gamble

FIFA’s Desert Gamble

Controversy surrounds all major sporting events, but the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is one of the most intensely debated. How are Qatar and FIFA reacting to this?

What makes this World Cup different is the manner of its selection some twelve years before it was due to host and beating off such powerhouses as the US. But also, the penetrative media scrutiny of its Human Rights abuses, including the treatment of migrant workers who built the seven new football stadiums. And finally, the geo-political region in which the event is taking place and the “clash of civilisations” between the “Western” world and the first Arab and Muslim nation to host the FIFA World Cup.

In general, the trajectory of sports mega-events is fairly predictable: the new host is announced, there follows heated debate in the Western media which comes to a head just prior to the opening ceremony. Once the gun is fired, flag is raised or whistle blown, the sport takes centre stage and citizens’ and the media’s focus is on the sport. After the event a few questions are asked about so-called “legacies” and then the whole media and sporting caravan moves on to the next mega-event.

Qatar, however, is palpably different. We have had twelve years of media scrutiny which, after a long lull, reached fever-pitch a few months prior to kick-off. Once the football started in Qatar, so too did the acts of political activism, which is a marked change from before. What is also different is the reaction of the international sports governing body, FIFA, which has, through its actions and its president, launched a robust defence of the host and its cultural practices (discussed below). The cost of the event is different too – the Qataris have spent over $200 billion, more than the last 21 versions of the event put together by some estimates.

Once the football started in Qatar, so too did the acts of political activism, which is a marked change from before.

Finally, the context in which this event takes place in 2022 is different to what went before. There is an on-going war in Ukraine instigated by the authoritarian Russian president Putin, the global political culture has been unrecognizably altered due to the rise of the political Right, including Trumpism, which has impacted not only autocratic regimes but also stable democracies.

 

Beyond Realpolitik

Western leaders often espouse the ideals of „democracy“, „freedom“, „fairness“, and „equality“, stating just how important pursuit of these goals is, both domestically and internationally. In cases such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, these leaders are able to support their platitudes with material efforts as well – but all too often, states’ actions do not align with their words. It is not a new phenomenon that Western states have supported authoritarian regimes whilst simultaneously declaring support for democracy, and the Middle East is potentially the best illustration of the balancing act between ideals and reality that the West finds itself attempting.

Black and white photo of two hands shaking.
It is not a new phenomenon that Western states have supported authoritarian regimes whilst simultaneously declaring support for democracy, photo: Savvas Stavrinos via pexels

Straddling key waterways – the Suez Canal and the Straits of Hormuz, and sitting on vast deposits of energy resources – the strategic importance of the Middle East is readily apparent. It is this importance that has led Western states to consistently engage and support select partners in the region – a region which is arguably the least democratic on the planet.

 

Selling Weapons

Billions of dollars’ worth of advanced Western weaponry and military equipment have been sold to various non-democratic regimes in the region, and Western states have courted investment from the cash-rich energy exporting states – with examples including investments in elite sport, from football clubs to golf tournaments, or in real estate, art, tech companies, and other, more traditional avenues.

Western states have courted investment from the cash-rich energy exporting states – with examples including investments in elite sport, from football clubs to golf tournaments, or in real estate, art, tech companies, and other, more traditional avenues.

Since Qatar was announced as the host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, there has been widespread criticism and condemnation in Western countries, from both the public at large and political figures. Defenders of Qatar have been quick to point out the hypocrisy – Germany’s ambassador to Qatar criticised the country’s human rights record, questioning whether they should be allowed to host the tournament, whilst her government signed several billion Euro energy deals with the Gulf state.

Similar patterns can be seen with other Western states as well, where the government in question is happy to carry-out significant arms deals, but then will also state that Qatar is too repressive or regressive a state to be trusted with a sports tournament – and the dissonance can be jarring.

Of course, this is just another example of the Realpolitik balancing act: weapons sales provide Western states with large cash windfalls and sustain domestic military production industries, while energy deals help keep Europe powered and warm when Russia turns off the gas – but the World Cup being awarded to Qatar doesn’t bring tangible benefits to Western states, hence the criticisms.

 

The Devil We Know

It must, however, be noted that these criticisms come from media figures and individual politicians – official government condemnations have been few and far between, and no major footballing nation has boycotted the tournament.

 

Photo of a person taking a close up photo with a camera.
It must, however, be noted that these criticisms come from media figures and individual politicians – no major footballing nation has boycotted the tournament, photo: Terje Sollie via pexels

This is an indication of another aspect of the West’s Realpolitik in the Middle East: “better the devil we know”. As an example, Saudi Arabia has long had a system of government and social hierarchy that is almost entirely at odds with that of Western countries, but it has also long been supported and supplied by a large number of Western states.

Despite abhorrent policies by Western standards, the Saudi royal family are seen as “moderates” in a region rife with extremism – and thus enjoy the support of much of the West. This is also the case with the Gulf states, like Qatar, where the repressive nature of their domestic politics is tolerated – though often criticised – as the cost for keeping the region stable.

Moral Relativism

The flipside to the Realpolitik balancing act is moral relativism and this takes place in a space made possible by two complex processes at work that add to the uniqueness of this World Cup. Both of these processes are not directly attributable to sport.

First, there has been a major shift in the global political culture and the manner in which it is debated; second, the dominant nature of global capitalism means that a wide variety of ideologically opposed regimes are ever more dependent reserves upon each other (for example, the West’s dependence on Middle-Eastern gas and oil).

A political culture consists of widely held beliefs and attitudes of what makes up, gives order to and underpins our understanding of political institutions and systems. This also encompasses the behaviour of politicians and what they say and do. We propose that the fracturing of our political culture – through half-truths, deceit, duplicity and lies (for example, Donald Trump’s “stolen” election claim) – has prized open a space for moral relativism that makes rational debate much more difficult.

It also exacerbates a “them” and “us” mentality leading to black and white depictions of others’ culture.

The fracturing of our political culture has prized open a space for moral relativism that makes rational debate much more difficult.

Thus, FIFA is vehemently defending Qatar as host against a barrage of critical press. This manifested itself in two clear ways: first, FIFA made an 11th hour U-turn and disallowed team captains from wearing a rainbow armband while playing (a symbol of solidarity with the LGBT+ community, as homosexuality is illegal in Qatar).

This was understood as a clear sign that FIFA is supporting Qatar; second, a bizarre hour-long, soliloquy in a press conference by FIFA president Gianni Infantino, which, in a nutshell accused Europe and the “West” of hypocrisy and gross double standards, given that they themselves have also been responsible for Human Rights abuses in the past.

The notion of “double standards” by Qatar’s critics is at the nub of where global capitalism and a fractured political culture meet, as those highlighting the hypocrisy point to the West’s reliance upon and import of energy (thereby enriching Qatar further). This valid point is then taken further – as in Infantino’s diatribe – to argue that previous Human Rights abuses render current criticism hollow and appear as virtue-signalling by the West.

 

Techniques of “Whataboutism”

At this stage we move beyond argument and towards a moral relativism that effectively closes down rational debate which would allow for a discussion of different cultural norms. Such techniques of “whataboutism” have now seeped into our political culture and through to the heart of democratic states. This allows commentators to lament the existence of ‘sportswashing’ – effectively attempting to sanitise malign practice and spruce up poor national images via massive investment in sports teams, sponsorship etc. – while happily allowing Qatar’s Investment Authority (QIA), their sovereign wealth fund, to buy up prime property portfolios. In the UK alone this is rumoured to be around £40 billion (UK Government, 2022).

Despite being the focus of the majority of the discourse surrounding Qatar’s World Cup bid – especially the criticisms – moral and humanitarian concerns are not the only things which make Qatar’s hosting of the tournament unique, and perhaps questionable. Qatar is the smallest state to ever host a World Cup, the only modern host to have never qualified for a previous World Cup, and also the lowest ranked team (since FIFA began its world ranking system) to be awarded hosting rights.

 

Sporting Objections

The Qatar World Cup will also be the first held in winter, due to Qatar’s climate making summer games unsafe for players – despite the initial bid confirming that it would be held in June and July as usual. Further questions have been raised about the suitability of Qatar in a sporting sense, with a lot of discussion around Qatar’s lack of suitable footballing infrastructure and grassroots culture.

For critics, a perfect illustration is Qatar’s domestic professional football league. At the time of the successful World Cup bid, it had only been established for two years, frequently struggled to draw spectators and had no stadia suitable for hosting a World Cup, requiring the bid to outline the construction of seven new stadia.

When Russia hosted the tournament in 2018 it had a long list of human rights issues, as well as a clear involvement in the war in Ukraine and yet came in for noticeably less criticism than Qatar is receiving.

What these logistical and sporting concerns highlight, is just how controversial a choice of host Qatar is and was. This seems a vacuous point to raise, given the non-stop criticism of Qatar as a host, but it does still bear repeating given that many of the points raised by defenders of Qatar – such as Gianni Infantino – gloss over how uniquely problematic Qatar’s position as host is.

 

Take, for example, potential hosts Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who are likely to bid for the 2030 World Cup. Both states will receive similar media scrutiny to Qatar over their human rights records and repressive political systems – but they will not receive the same level of criticism in sporting or logistical terms. Both are large countries, with populations several times that of Qatar – with a strong pre-existing footballing culture, including well-supported domestic leagues, established international teams, and pre-existing sporting infrastructure in place.

Photo of a flying airplane of Qatar Airline.
Qatar is not suitable for hosting the World Cup, both from a sporting and logistical point of view, photo: Shaifuzzaman Ayon via pexels

There is no doubt that they would both receive significant negative attention for the aforementioned political and moral concerns, but that criticism would come without the accompanying issues about practical suitability as a host nation as well. With FIFA still struggling to salvage a reputation dogged by well-publicized corruption scandals, the award of the World Cup to a nation uniquely ill-suited to hosting it makes the event easier to criticise.

When Russia hosted the tournament in 2018 it had a long list of human rights issues, as well as a clear involvement in the war in Ukraine – including the murder of almost 250 Western citizens in the shootdown of flight MH17 – and yet came in for noticeably less criticism than Qatar is receiving.

Maybe that is partly because of some latent anti-Arab sentiment, such as that which Infantino alluded to, but it is undeniable that Qatar’s complete lack of sporting or logistical suitability for the World Cup plays an integral part in the level of criticism it is receiving.

 

Showcasing Aim

The complexity of this event is apparent when we consider what Qatar wanted to achieve by hosting? By now everybody knows where this tiny Gulf state is (it is about the size of Yorkshire in England), so if ‘showcasing’ was an aim, that has been achieved.

The reverse of this is that Qatar’s antiquated Kafala system – labelled “modern-day slavery” by Amnesty International – is also very well known (reform of this system has taken place to some extent), along with its stance on the LGBT+ community and women’s rights. A geo-political explanation for hosting is plausible, given the regional rivalries with much larger and powerful neighbours such as Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.

The standard economic argument does not seem to hold, given Qatar’s immense wealth beneath their feet, although this can – along with the massive investments in property and sport globally – be understood as part of a post-oil strategy to prepare the Gulf state for the future and signal to the outside world that the Qataris are ready for business.

There is no doubt that the Qatar 2022 World Cup is unique and complex. As far back as 2010 Sepp Blatter spoke wistfully of the ‘new lands’ that the championship would conquer. As a business model this makes sense and FIFA is no different in seeking out new markets for its product (FIFA is set to earn an additional £1 billion from the event, bringing the expected profits up to £7.5 billion or 8.7 billion Euros). Whether FIFA itself as an international sports governing body will benefit from this controversial World Cup is another matter entirely.

About the Authors
Jonathan Grix
Jonathan Grix
Editor-in-Chief

Jonathan Grix is the Editor-in-Chief of the leading International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics and External Examiner for Sport Politics at Loughborough University, United Kingdom.

Louis Grix
Louis Grix
Scholar

Louis Grix is an international relations scholar who is interested in international security and the geopolitical role of sports. He has published peer-reviewed articles on global sports governance and the utilization of Sports Mega Events (SMEs) as tools for unconventional diplomacy.

Culture Report Progress Europe

Culture has a strategic role to play in the process of European unification. What about cultural relations within Europe? How can cultural policy contribute to a European identity? In the Culture Report Progress Europe, international authors seek answers to these questions. Since 2021, the Culture Report is published exclusively online.