James M. Dorsey

Walking the ‘Qatar Tightrope’: A Delicate Task

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Image by Omar Chatriwala

A multi-domed, sand-coloured, architectural marvel, Doha’s newest and biggest mosque, symbolizes both Qatar’s bold storm into the 21st century and the pitfalls that that march entails. It’s not the mosque itself that raises eyebrows but its naming after an 18th century warrior priest, Sheikh Mohammed Abdul Wahhab, the founder of Islam’s most puritan sect

Ironically, the mosque owes its naming to the debate Qatar’s winning of the right to host the 2022 World Cup has sparked. It is a debate that goes to the heart of the energy-rich Gulf state’s identity and the place its ruler, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, wants to carve out for his tiny city-state.

The World Cup constitutes a centrepiece of a strategy that seeks to reshape the identity of the world’s only state outside of Saudi Arabia that adheres to Wahhabism, one of Islam’s most austere and restrictive interpretations of Islam; position Qatar as a global player capable of punching above its weight; create opportunities to leverage its enormous wealth in a bid to reduce its reliance on the export of one commodity; and enhance its security by establishing mutually beneficial relations with friend and foe and ensuring that it is at the cutting edge of history.

The sports leg of Qatar’s broader, high-risk geo-political, economic and media strategy – involving the creation of a world class airline, Qatar Airways; Al Jazeera as a cutting edge global broadcaster; a far more liberal interpretation of Wahhabism than that of Saudi Arabia and support for many of the popular uprisings sweeping the Middle East and North Africa – is emerging as a driver of imminent restructuring of the region’s soccer landscape as well as of social change.

To achieve his goal, Emir Hamad has embarked on a buying spree of European soccer assets such as Paris Saint Germain and top league European broadcast rights as well as big ticket sponsorship agreements with the likes of FC Barcelona and the Tour de France, multiple bids for the hosting of international sports tournaments and the construction of world class infrastructure at a cost of tens of billions of dollar.

The strategy, which has exposed Qatar to an unprecedented degree of international scrutiny, has already succeeded in putting Qatar with a population of some 1.7 million of which some two thirds are expatriates on the global map. Doha’s massive international airport is even before its completion an international hub connecting the world’s seven continents. Al Jazeera competes with the BBC as the world’s foremost global broadcaster while Qatari businessmen are beginning to reap benefits in terms of business opportunities from their country’s investment in sports. Doha is a sought after venue for disputing parties such as the United States and the Taliban, bitterly divided Palestinian factions and warring parties in Sudan, to find a way to bridge their differences.

It is a strategy that envisions cost outstripping material benefit for years to come with some individual components producing tangible results quicker than others. In many ways however, the intangibles – regional and political change, global positioning and the benefits of being on the right side of history – are as if not more important than a bookkeeper’s calculation of outlays and revenues.

Sparking opposition in the emir’s backyard

Yet, it is those intangibles that are sparking opposition in Emir Hamad’s own backyard to the social and economic changes necessary to transform Qatar into a global sports hub and the political and diplomatic path on which the Gulf state has embarked that is likely to produce a region very different from the one conservative Wahhabis envision. These intangibles challenge a religious and cultural environment that discourages women’s involvement in sports, often sees Western-style entertainment and fun as irreligious, opposes the kind of political change sweeping the Middle East and North Africa and favours government and society’s uncompromising adherence to Islamic law.

In the latest spat, conservative Qataris, including members of the royal family, quietly backed by Saudi Arabia have challenged the emir’s authority to allow the sale of alcohol and pork to non-Muslims. The conservative opposition has already prompted the ban of alcohol on a man-made island largely frequented by expatriates, a decision to make Arabic rather than English the language of instruction in education and a boycott of Qatar Airways. So far both sides have scored points. Sports has been exempted from the imposition of Arabic as the language of  instruction while the naming of the mosque after Sheikh Mohammed throws a bone to the conservatives albeit one that is unlikely to satisfy them.

Beyond forging a national identity, sports serves also as an effort to pre-empt the kind of youth-led rebellion that has been rocking much of the region for the past 16 months. “Our goal is to create a dialogue that resonates with and talks to the youth. This is an opportunity to inspire and engage young people…. Sports are at the heart of Qatar’s development… Sports like education and arts are part of our national identity,” Noora Al Mannai, CEO of Qatar’s bid to win the right to host the 2020 Olympic Games, told a recent brainstorm in Qatar designed to define the role of government, NGOs and business in sports. She described “empowering young people” as one reason for the bid alongside Qatar’s efforts to mediate conflicts and reduce regional obesity and diabetes levels.

Sport as a trigger for social change

Nonetheless, sports are likely to spark a social revolution of sorts as long as the emir is able to keep the conservatives in check. For one, it is forcing Qatar to become the first wealthy Gulf state dependent on expatriate labour to significantly improve working conditions and the legal environment of expatriate workers in line with international standards. It is however not clear yet whether that will also mean legalizing the existence of trade unions.

With international trade unions threatening a global campaign under the slogan ‘No World Cup in Qatar without labour rights,’ Qatar has further vowed to ensure that contractors involved in preparations for the 2022 World Cup will adhere to international labour laws.

Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee Secretary General Hassan Al Thawadi conceded early this year that “major sporting events shed a spotlight on conditions in countries. There are labour issues here in the country, but Qatar is committed to reform. We will require that contractors impose a clause to ensure that international labour standards are met. Sport and football in particular, is a very powerful force. Certainly we can use it for the benefit of the region.”

Qatar and other oil-rich Gulf states have long been targeted by labour organizations for their treatment of particularly unskilled and low-skilled workers. Qatar like the UAE and others in the Gulf operates a sponsorship program under which all foreign workers have to have a local sponsor who can make seeking alternative employment or another sponsor difficult and who often retains the worker’s passport on employment. Trade unionists argue that the lack of a minimum wage further enhances exploitation of labour.

The issue of workers’ rights touches a raw nerve in countries like Qatar and the UAE where the local population constitutes a minority. Gulf states are concerned that improving labour conditions would not only have economic consequences but also give foreigners a greater stake in a society which ensures they are forced to leave the country once their contract has ended.

Qatar’s employment of sports to project itself internationally coupled with pressure from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has also prompted Qatar to field women’s athletes for the first time in its history at this year’s London Olympics. Qatar alongside Saudi Arabia, which is still struggling with how to respond to the IOC, and Brunei, is the only country never to have been represented by women at an international tournament. To be fair, women in Qatar, in contrast to their sisters in Saudi Arabia, are by and large subject to far less restrictions.

Increasing professionalization and commercialization in the region

Finally, in a part of the world where sports and particularly soccer are often a battlefield for political, ethnic, religious and gender rights, Qatar’s successful bid for the 2022 World Cup has sparked a growing push towards professionalization, commercialization and the creation of a proper football industry as a key to unlocking economic opportunity.

For many in the region, last year’s Asia Cup final in Doha, in which half of the competing teams hailed from the Middle East with not one reaching the semi-finals, constituted a wake-up call. It is an experience, Middle Eastern leaders and soccer officials do not want repeated at the Qatar World Cup.

“Something is moving,” says Santino Saguto, an Italian soccer management consultant based in Dubai. “Qatar 2022 has prompted the region to discuss ways to create value. The leagues, the football associations and the media are starting to buy into the concept. That’s how it started in Europe.”

The UAE took a first step a few years ago when for the first time it marketed the rights to broadcast its league matches – a key step in generating revenue and creating value.

The UAE example is reportedly being discussed by Saudi Arabia, the region’s most important league beyond Egypt. That is not to say that the UAE’s blazing of the trail is not without its birth pangs. Commercial broadcasters charge that state-owned networks distort competition by paying exorbitant amounts for the exclusive right to broadcast major football events.

They point to Al Jazeera’s clinching of the right to broadcast the 2018 and 2022 Fifa World Cups for an undisclosed amount believed to be in excess of US$3 billion. Abu Dhabi Media Company, owned by the royal family, was moreover awarded the exclusive rights to air the English Premier League in the UAE.

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