Eight DE&I Things Happening in Qatar You Didn’t See While Watching Dazzling Football
CHICAGO – From a fútbol perspective, the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup was an end-to-end success. Record number of upsets, goals, and spectators. From a massive crowds logistics benchmark, everything played out smoothly and safely. And to boot, the Messi storybook ending played out as most people in the world had wished it.
But a World Cup is not just about sport, it’s also about national and global politics tied to the host country. It also becomes a cultural trends marker in our rapidly changing world.
While Messi, Mbappé, Modric, and Neymar were being wizards in Doha’s soccer temples, what were the non-fútbol storylines? Now that I’m back from Qatar and the games are over, I have eight to share.
The Global South is rising. As tiny as Qatar is (3 million people), the World Cup has put it on people’s mental maps. People didn’t even know how to pronounce it and now everyone knows of Qatar. Gulf state countries are a lot more powerful than most people outside the region imagine. Without justifying their means, from a sheer influential wealth power perspective, they not only beat out Global North countries to host the tournament, they also beat out neighboring Saudi Arabia (with its 34 million population). This is a very rich country. Qatar’s reputation as a global modern city was cemented in this past month with a state-of-the-art Metro system, impressive skyscrapers that did not even exist five years ago, air conditioned stadiums, and with their national airline, Qatar Airways, deemed the best airline in the world. This is as a sophisticated, powerful modern City as you can imagine. It’s quite a juxtaposition to the US’ aging and rusty infrastructure everywhere. While gleaming infrastructure spoke to a rising power, so did performance on the pitch. Several of the African countries made a strong showing and as Morocco vanquished Global North soccer superpowers like Belgium, Spain, and Portugal, it became the first Muslim and African country to make it to the World Cup semifinals.
2. The Muslim world is already having a lot more influence on the West than most realize. Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar, owns the number one French soccer team PSG where both Messi and Mbappé play. Other Middle Eastern billionaires own several European football clubs.
The influence is also happening through fashion, ideas, and relationships. In the picture to the right, a Western woman with torn jeans is wrapped expertly in a hajib and her male friend was also set up with a keffiyeh, the headdress for men. At the Souq Waqif, the traditional market in Doha, keffiyehs in the flag colors of the competing nations were a hot fan item to purchase. This appropriation, while resisted at first by the Qataris as potentially being disrespectful, ended up being fully embraced by them as they publicly commented on the power of them having influenced Westerners to choose to don Arabic headdresses.
3. The West continues to have a lot more influence on the Middle East than most realize. After multiple days of chicken shawarma, lentil soup, and lamb kabob, my Uber driver needed to get me from one stadium to another with time ticking down for the start of the second game. I was starving. “No problem,” he said, “we can stop by the KFC drivethru.” The multimillion dollar malls which is where Qataris live during the day to escape the heat are like hanging out at Rodeo Drive, the Magnificent Mile, and Fifth Avenue. For all the pride in Arabic culture, imitation is done without selfconsciousness such as creating a multiblock replica of Venice (pictured above) as a daytime and nightlife hang out. Walk the Corniche bayside promenade or hang out with all the wealthy Qataris and Westerners at the Pearl, an artificial island north of downtown with chic boutiques and rows of restaurants, and have your ears blasted by high-decibel EDM pulsating from an array of mega speakers.
4. There is going to be much more increased Western and Muslim interactions. While European and American presence was down compared to other World Cups with what we can statistically attribute to unconscious bias and documented discomfort with Muslim culture by significant percentage of Westerners, for the many who still made it, there was a matter-of-factness to the interactions. Despite that the US has been involved in the past 30 years in three wars there (Gulf War I and II and Afghanistan) and the long history of European imperialism in the region, as well as the complexities of the Israeli/Palestinian politics, while I personally did not witness a lot of mixed groups, there was a frictionless co-existence as people cheered, shopped, and dined in the same places. The globalization of a Gulf State through this universal World Cup experience will go a long way in further normalizing Arabic culture, relationships, and vacation destinations with people in the Global North.
5. The younger generation of women want the patriarchy to go away — but challenging it will take a generation or more. During my time in Doha I had the opportunity over a long lunch to talk with two Muslim immigrant women in mid-level corporate jobs where they felt they would never be able to move beyond the roles they were currently in. While, at first glance, in their hijabs and abayas they looked like they held more traditional views, they were far from that. One was a single mother who had divorced her husband in her home country and had come to Qatar for a better economic life. Both women wanted to know why my wife Lori had not come with me. When I explained that each year we take a joint vacation and then one where I go alone or with friends and, when I do that, the vacation she looks forward to is to have the house all to herself for a week, they were fascinated that we could be married for 39 years and still do things separately. “For us, we belong to the man and we don’t feel we can have a separate life of our own.” There was pain and frustration in their voices as they tried imagine what it would be like for them to pursue their wishes both in their work as well as in their personal lives.
6. It is truly not safe to be openly LGBTQ+ or to be an ally. Many World Cup players were ready to show solidarity with those in the LGBTQ+ community with the One Love armband over the sleeves of their uniforms. But the government said no and FIFA relented. To enforce it with the players, anyone wearing it would be granted a yellow card thereby using a soccer rule to enforce social exclusion. And the threat of a fine or even imprisonment for anyone expressing public support was chilling enough. This, in fact, prompted LGBT living in Qatar to be wary and even opposed to anyone attempting a public protest. This was a major moral dilemma for me about whether to go or not. In the end, clearly I did and I never shook the deep uneasiness.
7. Immigrant issues are universal, problematic, and devastating. In addition to the moral dilemma of participating in person or through TV with a World Cup that banned support of those what are LGBTQ+, we must bear witness to the conditions thousands of immigrants suffered and died in the $200 billion buildup from scratch of Qatar to stage the World Cup. The story in Qatar exemplifies the plight of immigrants worldwide: very low cost labor from people fleeing desperate economic, climate, and political conditions willing to make the sacrifice for a better life. While they do earn more as immigrants in a place like Qatar and are therefore able to send money back to their families in ways they could not provide for them back home, their fragile condition still leaves them vulnerable to exploitation with very little pay relative to the nation’s wealth and exposed to unsafe conditions.
For all their sacrifice in service of their host countries, immigrants are often stateless since around the world in most countries it’s very difficult for them to get on a path to citizenship. While the Qatar story is a harsh human rights indictment, the story of immigrant laborers in one degree of another is the same everywhere including in the Global North. Though conditions arguably are not as dangerous today as they were for the immigrants building up the Qatar World Cup, the industrialized nations many of us live in were, at their genesis, built by slave and indentured labor as well — making us all complicit in the buildup of the nations we live in.
We must demand a more humane way to develop societies and nations.
8. When North America hosts the World Cup in 2026(with 80% of the games to be played in the US and the rest in Canada and Mexico), there will be the same amount of scrutiny and questioning of national politics and culture norms that have been made of Qatar. Qataris have complained of a double standard that they had been scrutinized unlike other hosts on issues as how they really got the go-ahead to have the World Cup, the banning of LGBTQ+ support, and the treatment of migrant workers. This next time, however, given the rise of the Global South, expect a defiance against the double standard. The US is going to get questioned on mass shootings, racism, treatment of immigrants, women’s rights, antivax stands, and, yes, anti-LGBTQ+ policies in various states.
It’s been a month of glorious fun and games that gave us a way to joyfully disconnect from all the pain and ugliness we face in our world today, The unity of competition with a clear set rules and supporting technology allowed us to focus on the beauty and art of fútbol. It was competition at its best where it brings out the best performance in all without people tearing each other down.
But this month-long ceasefire in the battle against injustice is over. There is much work that remains unfinished in the realm of diversity, inclusion, equity, and justice. There are also new realities to adjust to that challenge our current best practices and which demand the next practices.
Manos a la obra. We all have work we must continue to do.