The World Cup, the Middle East and Orientalism

Posted: September 27, 2013 in Sport

Edward Said was right. In the Western world, we have this highly distorted view of other cultures and civilisations. The fact that it is distorted is an inherently political and ideological issue.

The basic idea behind Said’s work, in particular his ground-breaking 1978 study Orientalism, is that the Western world portrayed and still portrays what was commonly referred to as “the Orient” (particularly focusing on the Middle East) as “Other” and inferior or even backward. The Middle East in the popular imagination in the West is an inaccurate caricature that is used to justify negative prejudicial attitudes towards it. In the book, Said had mostly written about Orientalism in the 19th century, but his ideas have become increasingly relevant since the book was written, in an age where the threat of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism has been used to stoke up fear of Middle Eastern culture as a whole.

With that in mind, it is interesting to look at the media coverage of Qatar’s plans to host the 2022 World Cup. Ever since the decision was made, there has been a stream of criticism of it and Qatar from the Western (particularly the English) media, based around the ideas that:

– “FIFA is corrupt and Qatar must have won the bidding process as a result of bribery”

– “Qatar has no footballing history”

– “Qatar can’t handle a tournament of that size because of the infrastructure etc”

– “It’s too hot in summer and a winter World Cup is impractical”

– “Qatar has laws which ban homosexuality”

– “Qatar uses slave labour to construct its stadiums and infrastructure”

To begin with, it’s worth saying that all of this criticism is completely irrelevant and futile, because FIFA has made its decision and is unlikely to back down. If anything, more criticism is likely to make Sepp Blatter more stubborn, as he and the organisation he heads seem intent on keeping the tournaments in Russia and Qatar. Any media or political complaints about Qatar thus can be dismissed as point-scoring – they are essentially meaningless and will not change the outcome.

The corruption of FIFA is a favourite of the English media, especially in light of the failure of the English 2018 World Cup bid. For some reason, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the bidding process, the English media seemed unwilling to accept that the bid the FA had put together might actually have been poor. “Why should the home of football be overlooked?” There’s an inherent belief that England deserve a World Cup. This is essentially baseless – no one deserves to host a World Cup based on the reputation of the sport in that country. It’s about whoever puts the best bid together. The English bid was marred by internal political disputes and the usual English arrogance and complacency, just as it had been when they bid for the 2006 World Cup.

Needless to say, it’s fair to assume that there was a degree of corruption involved, particularly as far as Qatar is concerned. Though the bribery allegations have never been fully proven, even beyond that Qatar has built up a degree of political goodwill within FIFA over the years with large donations and the like. Qatar also spent vast sums on its bid, employing Zinedine Zidane as an ambassador – what are his connections with Qatar exactly? But in any case, there’s nothing that we or the English media can do about that, and it doesn’t mean a Qatar World Cup cannot succeed. The corruption is FIFA’s problem, not Qatar’s – they just took advantage of it.

The Western media were happy to brand South Africa’s World Cup as Africa’s World Cup – a World Cup hosted by South Africa on behalf of the whole continent. And yet I see no attempt by the Western media to try and brand a Qatar World Cup as a tournament hosted on behalf of the whole of the Middle East. The Middle East has plenty of football history – Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and the UAE have all qualified for World Cups, and from a system that doesn’t guarantee Middle Eastern participation in the same way the African system guarantees African representation.

This just seems like snobbery and bitterness. As I’ve already stated, the great footballing nations of the world do not have a monopoly on these tournaments, which is absolutely correct. There was similar snobbery towards the USA when they hosted in 1994, and while there are elements of this now (hi, USA Soccer Guy), it has faded somewhat with soccer establishing itself as a growing sport in the US. There was a two-way benefit – we got to see the USA were serious about soccer, and they got to see how good it can be (apart from the final). Who’s to say the Middle Eastern World Cup won’t wake Westerners and other Middle Easterners up to Middle Eastern football?

Similarly, South Africa did not have much of a footballing history, but the Western media were cool with it because “it’s great for South Africa, and it’s great for Africa as a whole”. Why can’t the 2022 World Cup be “great for Qatar”? The only conclusion that you can draw is that it’s because it’s Qatar – South Africa is a Western state, Qatar is an Arab state. The Arabs can’t be seen to be having anything nice, can they?

This argument was based around the idea that a country as small as Qatar could not possibly host a major tournament. Here is the first element of Orientalism creeping in. I’m no expert on the infrastructure of Qatar, but I’d suggest that there’s no reason why such a wealthy state could not manage this. Yes, usually World Cups take place in large countries with stadia spread out over vast distances. But often this can be a major headache, as we saw in 2002 in Japan and South Korea, and we probably will see in Brazil in 2014 and Russia in 2018. Keeping all the stadia close together might not be such a bad idea. If the volume of people is a problem, they have plenty of time and resources to find a solution. Meanwhile, the idea of deconstructing many of the stadia after the tournament and rebuilding them elsewhere is potentially a great move if it’s instigated after 2022.

Are we possibly suggesting here that maybe the Middle East isn’t capable of hosting a major tournament because, I don’t know, they aren’t as clever as the West? Because while the West could come up with ways of organising a tournament in a small area, those silly Arabs will struggle? Is that what is at the heart of the discourse? I’ll leave you to decide…but the answer’s yes.

At first glance, this argument seems rational, but if you start to unpick it, it falls apart. Even if the tournament was kept in the summer, there would undoubtedly be solutions. I think the problem people have with this is the dishonesty – the bid was predicated on the idea that the stadia could be air-conditioned, which supposedly isn’t guaranteed to work.

Either way, a winter World Cup isn’t a bad idea. The only argument against it seems to be this suggestion that it would be terrible to reorganise the main European league seasons around a winter tournament. But this inherently overlooks the fact that not every league season runs from August to May. Some countries choose to run their seasons within the calendar year – this is tradition in South America, Far East Asia, the USA, Scandinavia and even Ireland. Granted, the majority of countries run a late summer-late spring league, but it’s worth bearing in mind that these countries don’t always have to rearrange their leagues around a June/July World Cup where the other countries often do, and it just so happens that the ones that don’t have to rearrange are the “important” leagues, where all the money is.

The whole argument is basically “why should we rearrange our leagues for them? Why can’t they rearrange their tournaments for us?” Considering by 2022 the World Cup will have been around nearly a century, why doesn’t the West take the hit for once? Why is it such an ordeal for those European leagues when they completely overlook the fact that “less important leagues” have to rearrange every time? That’s ultimately what it comes down to – the big leagues think everyone else should work around them. Once again, it’s the West acting like spoilt children when being handed something that isn’t convenient to them, and completely lacking self-awareness in the process – you would think that it’s summer in June-August everywhere instead of in just half the world. There’s no reason why a winter World Cup is impractical.

The issue of the anti-homosexuality laws is dangerous territory. It’s dangerous because it’s a moral issue and we’re talking about a football tournament here. It’s also a religious issue and ultimately this is subjective – unless you’re grand wizard of orientalists Richard Dawkins, no one is going to say “hey religious people, you are wrong”. You can’t – there’s no basis for it. Qatar is a Muslim country and that’s not going to change any time soon. It’s my personal opinion that homosexuality is perfectly acceptable but evidently in Qatar that’s not shared by those running the country, and that is fundamentally based on religious doctrine.

This is again an area where Orientalism appears. For a start, it would be an incredibly dense generalisation to assume that all Qatari residents are homophobic just because homosexuality is illegal there. The problem is the idea of anti-homosexuality laws in the Middle East starts to evoke the popular images associated with Sharia law – people’s hands being cut off for stealing and the like. It suggests barbarism, intolerance and backwardness, in contrast to the liberal and tolerant West. It’s an inherently negative image. It is portraying the Middle East as Other and inferior.

It would also be short-sighted to suggest it would definitely be rigorously enforced during the World Cup – for one, they have already made concessions about the sale of alcohol. If Westerners were arrested under this law during the World Cup, don’t you think they would kick up a hell of a fuss? The ruling families of Middle Eastern countries like Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE are astute in public relations – that’s why their countries have been liberalized in recent years. They don’t want to piss the West off. They want tourists going there. They want people to go there for the World Cup. Why would they jeopardise that? It’s not logical. To suggest otherwise would infer that they are crazy and irrational – which is, you know, suggesting they are Other and inferior…

Should a World Cup be held in a country with homophobic laws? In an ideal world, no. But we in the West are not the moral arbiters of the world, particularly when it comes to sport. Plus I’m sure there are plenty of homophobes living in the West who would support exactly the same laws from Qatar coming into force again here. We still have plenty of football fans who shout homophobic abuse at players from the terraces. I don’t think it is justifiable to say that the World Cup shouldn’t be held in Qatar, or indeed Russia, because of anti-homosexuality laws while our own house is not order – it’s wrong to assume that all Westerners think homosexuality is acceptable and it’s wrong to assume that all Arabs think it’s unacceptable.

Beyond that, there is further hypocrisy. The country that finished second in the bidding process to Qatar was the USA. 13 US states still have anti-sodomy laws – they may have been ruled unconstitutional but they were not officially repealed. If the USA had won the right to the 2022 World Cup (and bearing in mind that it has also hosted a World Cup and two Olympic Games (including one in a state with an anti-homosexuality law) within the last 20 years), would people be talking about their states’ inherent homophobia? Would the English media be saying how terrible it was that the World Cup Final was being held in Texas, a state with an anti-homosexuality law? No, of course not, because the USA isn’t a Middle Eastern state run by a authoritarian monarchy with elements of Sharia law. We know America and we’re not encouraged to be afraid of Americans.

It just proves that, for the most part, this isn’t about homosexuality at all – it’s just another opportunity to show how “backward” the Middle East is, another example of how the Orientalist discourse is alive and well.

Slave labour
This is the latest bandwagon. The English media seems to have suddenly realised that Qatar is using slave labour to build its stadiums. Never mind the fact that we’ve known for years that other Middle Eastern cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi were built on this. This should not be news. Obviously it’s terrible but, for the most part, all those tourists who have headed out to this “new” Middle East don’t seem to have been bothered by the fact that the shops and resorts they have been using were built by slaves – only now has the moral outrage emerged on a wider scale when faced with the possibility of having to go to the Middle East for that great Western pursuit of football, instead of going to a country that speaks English. Funny, that…

Once again, though, the West hasn’t got its own house in order before making criticisms. We all know about Adidas and Nike’s sweatshops in Asia, yet I don’t see anyone having a problem with them supplying kits and balls to the World Cup. Why are we not boycotting all World Cups? Oh wait, they are German and American. They are Western. That’s not so bad. But when the Arabs do it, that’s awful…That’s essentially the logic of the criticism.

I know plenty of critical material has been written on this but there’s still an enormous lack of self-awareness here. You cannot write opinion articles saying how terrible it is that slave labour is being used to build the stadia in Qatar while not also criticising those other Western companies connected to the World Cup for doing pretty much the same thing. I mean, this has been covered by The Guardian, the left-leaning liberal newsppaper that is supposed to be all sweetness and light and yet happily uses unpaid internships so that they don’t have to pay actual journalists – and isn’t not paying someone for doing work not far off the definition of, um, slave labour? If that’s not hypocrisy, then I don’t know what is.

What this all comes down to…
…is essentially that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. We in the West have no right to meaningfully criticise the Middle East for issues that are also prevalent in the West and are being overlooked – by all means criticise but do so only after accepting that the West has those same issues as well. Privilege-checking on a national scale is needed, otherwise it is just punching down.

It should also be stressed that while the issues are morally abhorrent, morality is inherently a subjective thing. The Bible says slavery is A-OK and that homosexuality is wrong – does this mean the World Cup shouldn’t be held in any Christian country? How far do you want to take it? You could find moral reasons to not give any country a World Cup. What about banning countries from taking part? Are we going to stop all those other countries which have anti-homosexuality laws from taking part for not conforming to the Western cultural hegemony?

No, this whole issue has nothing to do with the individual issues at hand – it’s about the wider issue of a World Cup taking place in Qatar and in the Middle East as a whole. Middle Eastern culture is still a mystery to many in the West, and has been portrayed through the use of caricatures over many decades. Since the Enlightenment, the racist idea that white Westerners are superior to the backward Arabs has been in circulation – “those Arabs must be less intelligent because they are not as wealthy as us white people, they are irrational and they don’t know as much as us.” Said took the idea of “knowledge is power” from Foucault and Orientalism is based around this.

When a culture is a mystery, it is very easy to provoke a fear of it. People are inherently uncomfortable with the idea of a World Cup in the Middle East, and that is understandable. The problem is this is being exploited by the media for political point-scoring and stoking up more uncomfortable feelings about the Arab World.

And within this, there’s an added element of bitterness and jealousy as a result of the failed English bid and the perception that Qatar “bought” the World Cup, which fits within a wider discourse about increasing Middle Eastern hosting of Western sporting events instead of Western countries “because they spend the most money” – note all the complaints down the years (including from a younger version of myself) about the decreasing number of European F1 Grands Prix in contrast to the increasing number being held in the Middle and Far East, which isn’t considered “traditional” motorsport territory. Perhaps this is also part of something bigger – a fear that there might be other regions in the world that might end up wealthier and more powerful than the West. How dare Qatar be more powerful than England – how dare a little island nation be wealthy…oh wait.

As far as I’m concerned, the Middle East is just making up for lost time. If the World Cup is to be something that should be spread around the world, the Middle East deserves its turn. It’s not as if it’s Antarctica – there is a footballing culture there and who are we to deny them the opportunity to host the biggest world football event? Or are we going to cite some moral issue which conveniently stops most Middle Eastern and African countries hosting? “Yeah, we want a global game, but not in this region or that region…yeah, basically our conception of a global game is Western Europe, the USA and the former British and Spanish Empires.”

Ultimately, what is the World Cup? It’s a football tournament, representing a sport played in every country around the world, with countries representing each part of the world. If it’s a world sport, you have to include the whole world, warts and all. You’re in dangerous territory if you start using it to dictate what should be the correct moral values for human beings, because once you start, it’s a slippery slope. If FIFA deemed Qatar a suitable host and we don’t agree that they are, then we shouldn’t be targeting Qatar – we should be targeting FIFA.

  1. Kieran says:

    There are some good points here. Certainly, a lot of the original hostility towards Qatar comes from a deep-seated Western arrogance, and I agree that any excuse that can be found to rail against it will be used, and forcefully so. I think that’s particularly true with regards to the Summer/Winter debacle, and I agree totally with what you say about the prospect of a Winter World Cup. Ditto football culture/history in the Middle East. (And I love the description of Dawkins as ‘the Grand Wizard of Orientalists.’)

    Having said that, I find the way you talk about homophobia and slavery problematic. Just because some will jump on the bandwagon here does not mean that these aren’t real issues to be tackled, even if we allow for (possibly wilful) ignorance. It’s possible to condemn both Qatar *and* the West. What you say in the slavery paragraph–that ‘This should not be news’ because it has been going on (and in the open) for a long time–seemed particularly strange: slavery should *always* be news, whether it’s in the Middle East or anywhere else.

    Of course, Orientalism is at work here, and, of course, the West is guilty of some abhorrent shit of its own, but we can still challenge Qatar without the need for a high horse, as it were. All it requires is consistency of criticism. Admittedly that’s unlikely to come from the Guardian, the BBC, or wherever else, but it doesn’t make their criticism ‘wrong’ in itself (hypocritical, yes), or mean that we should let Qatar off the hook.

    • James says:

      On homophobia: yes, I’m not saying it isn’t a problem. The problem is it’s inherently a religious issue – I don’t see how you can separate the two, and as a result, the outcome is always going to be problematic. Ultimately, if you want total tolerance, that has to include tolerance of other people’s religious beliefs as well. But on the one hand you’re essentially “apologising” for homophobia, and on the other you’re in line with Dawkins in the anti-religion discourse.

      And for all our intellectual idealism about homosexuality being perfectly normal, a lot of people even here in Britain still either aren’t comfortable with it or are opposed to it altogether, mainly on religious grounds, and I think it’s heading into really murky waters if you say “I don’t think they should be allowed to host a World Cup/Olympic Games/major event because of their anti-homosexuality laws”. We’re only 10 years removed from our current prime minister voting against the repeal of Section 28. If FIFA said they weren’t giving a World Cup to a country with anti-homosexuality laws, I dread to think would the public reaction would be.

      On slavery: I meant this in the sense that it should not be some kind of sensationalist story that a Middle Eastern country is using slave labour to build a big project. Or rather, it should have been a long time ago. The media chose to overlook it. The point is they’re only making a big deal about it when it suits them (because of what is essentially an anti-Qatar World Cup agenda), which is hypocritical.

      This was the basic point of the article – not that homophobia and slave labour are acceptable (they aren’t), but that the media discourse is hypocritical and sets a dangerous precedent.

  2. forzaminardi says:

    Very interesting and thought-provoking post.

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