Racism or Arab Bias? Western media’s heartburn over FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022

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  • Even as serious rights violations -- including corruption, human trafficking, racism and discrimination -- persist across Europe and US, Western world opts to focus on Qatar
  • European nations project themselves as guardians of humanity and take great pride in sermonizing to others but do not do much to fix flaws in their own backyards

New York, United States — “They complained of unpaid hours, working under tremendous pressure, with very little water or protection, some fainting and vomiting from the exhaustion. They showed us dire housing conditions and spoke of cases of verbal, physical, and even sexual abuse.”

Sounds like Qatar, right?

If you have been brought up on a steady dose of British or European media balderdash – or should we say baloney – the 2022 World Cup host would be your obvious choice. Or, perhaps, one of its “authoritarian”, “corrupt” and “inhumane” neighbors.

Apologies, however. It is not Qatar. Not an Arab or Middle East nation. Not even Asian.

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According to a Euronews investigation titled “Invisible Workers”, which featured in its “Unreported Europe” segment in July, this flagrant abuse of migrant workers is happening in Spain, in France, The Netherlands, Germany, and indeed across Europe, in nations that project themselves as guardians of humanity, and take great pride in sermonizing to us lesser people.

Unreported Europe indeed. How often do you hear such tales of exploitation, or violation of basic Human Rights, in Europe? Hardly.

According to Euronews, farmworkers in the southern Spanish province of Huelva are “living in ‘chabolas’ – shacks made up of discarded pallets, pieces of cardboard and plastic leftover from greenhouses. These have no access to electricity, sanitation or clean water.”

In France, workers from the Larrere Organic Farms sleep in bunk beds, and “no bedsheets or pillows were provided. There was no toilet paper in the restrooms”. The joke is, they are charged €200 a month rent for this princely accommodation.

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In the Netherlands, more than 50 migrant workers from Romania were found living in “appalling conditions”, with “no fire detectors or extinguishers, barricaded windows, and filthy kitchens”. Their foreman, according to NL Times, displayed “intimidating behavior” towards both the civil servants who came to check and the workers. Some of the workers indicated that they had been beaten.

The fate of migrant workers in Britain is no different. They are housed in squalid accommodations, and face frequent abuse and slavery threats. A study of migrant workers on fishing boats revealed 20-hour shifts and regular physical violence.

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Across the Atlantic, in Canada, a report released by the Migrant Rights Network and Food & Farmworkers Working Group in June, 2021, showed workers living in squalor and sleeping on bunk beds separated by curtains, dirty kitchens and toilets.

“We are living in conditions of modern-day slavery,” a migrant worker was quoted as saying in the report. “We have no indoor bathroom. We have to use a portable toilet outside or pee in a bottle.”

Imagine a migrant worker living in a chabolas, or in wretched conditions described above, in Qatar or the United Arab Emirates. The Guardian, The Sun, Daily Mail, The Independent and the rest would be flying out their crews in droves and squalling for weeks over the cruelty and abuse, and inhumanity of these sheikhdoms. Their pages have been filled with criticism of Qatar and neighboring countries for much lesser transgressions – some of them real, a few imagined, but mostly manufactured.

Better protection for animals

Summing up the sorry state of farmworkers in Europe, German Green MEP Daniel Freund, as quoted by Euronews, said: “At the moment we have this crazy situation where we actually have better protection for animals than for some of these workers on our farms.”

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And yet they have the audacity to complain about Qatar. People living in glass houses shouldn’t be throwing stones, right? But apparently, such wisdom does not apply to inebriated Orientalists, or frustrated neocolonialists, the kind that Edward Said talked about in Orientalism.

What is Orientalism? In the words of Said, it is “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient”. According to Australian writer and historian Keith Windschuttle, it is a “subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arab-Islamic peoples and their culture”.

If you needed a contemporary specimen of Orientalism, the hounding of Qatar by British and European media from 2010, when it won the right to host the first FIFA World Cup in an Arab and Muslim land, would be it.

The campaign against Qatar has been vicious and has left most neutrals wondering.

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“It often makes it impossible to make sense of what exactly Qatar is accused of and is supposed to work on,” Vani Saraswathi wrote in an article on the Migrant Rights website back in 2015. “Corruption of FIFA as a whole? Qatar’s role in FIFA’s corruption? The summer heat? Qatar’s foreign policy? Security in the region? Or its discriminatory immigration policies that marginalize migrant workers?”

We still do not have any answers to that question. But the campaign against Qatar continues unabated, and the goalpost keeps shifting.

No evidence of corruption

Let us start with corruption. An independent investigation (the Garcia Report of 2014) found no evidence of bribery by Qatar in its World Cup bid. Outside of these World Cup-related allegations, corruption has not been an issue associated with Qatar. The country was the 19th least corrupt country among 178 ranked nations on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2010, when it won the bid. That same year, Germany was No 15, Japan No 17 and the US No22.

What about Human Rights? Qatar might not be a beacon, but it is not a living hell either. According to the Fund For Peace’s Human Rights and Rule of Law Index for 2022, Qatar at No 88, is ranked better than countries like Hungary (No87), Indonesia (No 79), Malaysia (No 63), Pakistan (No 48), India (No 46), Thailand (No 38), Brazil (No 36), Vietnam (No 35), Philippines (No 34) and Turkey (No 28).

How about forced labour and slavery then? According to the International Labour Organization’s latest “Global Estimates of Modern Slavery”, released in September, there were 50 million people living in modern slavery 2021, and 27.6 million of these were forced laborers. Asia and the Pacific was host to more than half of the global total (15.1 million) of forced laborers, followed by Europe and Central Asia (4.1 million), Africa (3.8 million), the Americas (3.6 million), and – surprise – the Arab States (0.9 million).

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These stats certainly do not justify the stick being wielded against Qatar. If anything, the European media should be focusing inwards. Boycott Qatar? They should be boycotting Spain, the UK, Germany, France, the Netherlands or Hungary for the same reasons then.

‘Positive and useful’ criticism

Of course, nobody is suggesting Qatar is perfect, not even the Ruler of Qatar, Emir Sheikh Tamim Al-Thani. He accepts some of the criticism has been “positive and useful, helping us to develop aspects that need to be developed”.

But, sadly, it’s not just all honorable intentions at play, and Emir Sheikh Tamim Al-Thani is aware.

“Since we won the honor of hosting the World Cup, Qatar has been subjected to an unprecedented campaign that no host country has faced,” he said in a speech to Qatar’s legislative council last month.

The “ferocity” of the campaign, according to the Emir, has “made many wonder, unfortunately, about the real reasons and motives behind this campaign.”

Denmark and Hummel’s hypocrisy

So pray, what are the motives behind this unrelenting campaign? Orientalism and racism perhaps, as some commentators would suggest. Vainglory even. But in the case of Denmark, it’s the joys of indulging in pure, unadulterated hypocrisy. How else do you explain their moral high ground on Qatar when they had absolutely no concerns about playing in Russia four years ago?

Denmark’s concerns about human rights in Qatar also seem like a crude joke, coming on the heels of their shocking decision to send Syrian refugees back home.

Don’t laugh, but Denmark’s kit manufacturers Hummel have unveiled “toned down” kits for World Cup 2022 because Hummel does not “wish to be visible during a tournament that has cost thousands of people their lives”.

Don’t laugh, but these jerseys are selling for anything between $60 to $120 online, and there is no suggestion that the “exploited” migrant workers of Qatar will get any share from these sales. “Invisibility” seems like good business.

Again, don’t laugh, but 30.5% of Hummel’s products are manufactured in China, 21% in Pakistan, 16% in Bangladesh, and 12.5% in Turkey, all doyens in the sphere of human and worker rights. Hummel’s heart truly bleeds for the oppressed.

Mendacious media campaign

The British media, of course, feels as intensely about the 2022 World Cup being hosted by Qatar as Hummel and Denmark, and they have been writing about issues, real or imagined, since 2010.

According to Marc Owen Jones, Associate Professor of Middle East Studies at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, the UK newspapers – Daily Mail, The Guardian, The Times, Daily Express, The Sun, The Telegraph, and Metro UK – have named Qatar approximately 1,735 times in their headlines since it won the 2022 World Cup bid in 2010, and 40% (685) of those articles are about the World Cup.

Of these 685 World Cup-related articles, 66% (454) were critical, 29% (201) were neutral and about 5% (33) positive. More than a third (36%) of the negative articles were critical of human rights, while around 25% were about corruption and bribery, about 9% of the headlines were about stripping Qatar of the World Cup, and 4% were about LGBTQ+ rights.

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Many among these negative headlines were deliberately mischievous. Sample this: In February 2021, The Guardian ran a report under the headline, “Revealed: 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar as it gears up for World Cup”.

Sensationalist and misleading, the headline tried to imply that the deaths were connected to the World Cup, but they were not. “There have been 37 deaths among workers directly linked to the construction of World Cup stadiums, of which 34 are classified as “non-work related” by the event’s organizing committee,” the article said in the seventh paragraph.

Yet, virtually every Western media report about the Qatar World Cup parrots that “6,500 deaths” figure since. And they know that number is not connected to the World Cup, but is an aggregate of all deaths among Indian, Pakistani, Nepali, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan migrants in Qatar over a 10 years period, but still…

Sample two: In July this year, The Guardian (again!) published an article under the headline, “Outrage in Qatar overshooting of 29 dogs as it prepares for World Cup”. What was the connection between the shooting and the preparation for the World Cup? Only the genius who gave the headline would know.

“By way of comparison, in 2002, when the UK hosted the Commonwealth Games, it had just culled 6 million cattle due to foot and mouth disease. But of course, these two events never shared a headline,” Marc Owen Jones wrote in The New Arab.

The Guardian was at it again last month, running a story under the headline, “Qatar World Cup accused of imposing ‘chilling’ restrictions on media”.

And what are these “chilling restrictions”? Mainly that broadcasters must “respect the privacy of individuals” and not film them or their properties without their express prior approval. Of course, respecting the privacy of an individual is a totally alien and oppressive concept to the British media, and, understandably, gives them the shivers.

The “chilling restrictions” also urge broadcasters “not to capture film/photography at excluded locations”, and at “residential properties, private businesses and industrial zones” or government, educational, health and religious buildings.

For the 2026 FIFA World Cup in North America – happening across 16 cities in the United States, Canada and Mexico – the media will be given free access, we presume, to film at Guantanamo Bay, Area 51 and Fort Knox. And maybe the Coca-Cola Vault as well? And honorable journalists that write about Abu Gharib, Edward Snowden, and Julian Assange “as the US prepares for the 2026 World Cup” might even get special privileges.

Will they write about Assange? Of course not. Never. Because it is not about human rights and all that tarradiddle. The real issue here is Qatar’s audacity to dream, as Andy Spalding, professor at the University of Richmond School of Law and the Chair of the Olympics Compliance Task Force, points out.

“How could this tiny country, with a weak soccer (football) culture, little existing infrastructure, and a highly unconducive climate, win the rights to host the world’s biggest sporting event? Spalding wrote in an opinion piece titled “The Orientalist Criticisms of Qatar’s World Cup” on the Global Anticorruption Blog.

“The narrative surrounding the Qatar FIFA Men’s World Cup has devolved into a form of orientalism, or neocolonialism,” he added. “And the consequence of these prejudices, may be to drive megasports back to wealthy Western countries, to the exclusion of the global South and East.”

That really seems to be the plan. It happened earlier with the media campaign against South Africa, hosts of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. And now it is Qatar’s turn to face the vitriol.

Like South Africa, Qatar had the audacity to dream, and they brought the FIFA World Cup to the Arab world for the first time. The Orientalists, of course, are not pleased and Qatar is being punished for it.

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