Qatar 2022: The Backlash

Nicholas McGeehan
15 min readDec 16, 2022
Art by @appupen

On field drama nearly always trumps off-field controversy and so inevitably the media coverage of Qatar 2022 has shifted heavily towards the games themselves, but a debate has raged around the rights and wrongs of this World Cup, and up until very recently it has been heavily slanted towards the wrongs. This prompted a backlash. Qatar has allies in high places and a very well-financed public relations machine and in tandem these have driven a counter-debate in order to focus attention away from criticism of Qatar’s human rights record and onto the motivations of those criticising it. The media coverage is loaded with orientalist tropes, said the backlash, and the west is guilty of gross hypocrisy, it added, and whatabout Russia 2018 and whatabout the Iraq war and whatabout ad nauseum.

I’ve been working in some capacity on migrant workers’ rights in the Gulf for most of my adult life and much of that time has been spent trying to encourage meaningful scrutiny and criticism of the issue. To reach this break-through point and then to hear that the criticism of Qatar is rooted in racism has been quite an unsettling experience. (I can’t begin to imagine what the pushback on LGBT+ issues has been like for LGBT+ Qataris, fans, and journalists, but I assume it goes way beyond unsettling.) There have been a lot of hot-takes from people who know the issues, but don’t know the Gulf, and others from people who know the Gulf but don’t know the issues. And that’s before we even get to the bad-faith stuff. I only really know one of the issues, but that came out of a very formative time spent living in the region. So here follows a personal perspective on Qatar 2022 and the coverage and commentary around it.

Expats and Invisibility Cloaks

I arrived in Abu Dhabi in 2002 with a rough plan that I could make a living teaching English while I figured out what to do with my life. One of the first things that struck me was that there were two societies living side by side and yet entirely separate. There were the Haves, which included all the Emiratis and a cosmopolitan class of wealthy professional migrant workers and their families, many of them westerners. And there were the Have-Nots, a vast servant class of predominantly Indian and Pakistani migrant workers who worked everywhere and were “expected to be generally invisible”, in the words of the late Mike Davis. Invisibility was achieved by migrant workers’ physical segregation — wherever it was they lived, they didn’t live anywhere near me — and a deferential tone and posture in their engagements with people like me. The other thing that struck me was that this gulf in status didn’t seem to bother most of the “expats”, many of whom reveled in life near the top of the social pyramid.

In 2005 I took a job with one of Abu Dhabi’s state-owned energy companies, ADMA-OPCO, and went to work on Das Island, a tiny island 100 kilometers off the coast of Abu Dhabi and about the same distance east of Qatar. Described as “the engine of Abu Dhabi”, Das is the collection and processing point for pipelines from Abu Dhabi’s offshore oil fields and home to several thousand men, many of them low-income workers from south Asia. I had previously worked at onshore refineries in the west of Abu Dhabi towards the border with Saudi Arabia, but Das was where the awful reality of systematic racial discrimination was inescapable. There were three mess halls on Das, for example. One was for Emiratis and the professional well-paid migrant workers like me, another was for the administrative class, almost exclusively south Asian, and the third was reserved for the low-income workers. Like all the offices on Das, our office had a “tea boy” (this was the actual term that was used), a man from India whose name I can’t remember now but whose responsibilities went far beyond making us tea. He used to ask to be allowed out early for his lunch so that there would still be some meat on the bones of the food served in mess hall two. I never found out what the food was like in the third mess hall, but I saw their cramped, shared accommodation, hived off in a different part of the island from the Emirati and expat staff. And whereas we went on rotation every four or five weeks (with a return long-haul flight home), the workers had to stay on this Das for two years at a time, breathing in the carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide from the gas flaring pipelines that burned constantly. Das was a microcosm of everything that is wrong with the Gulf’s labour system crammed into less than two square miles.

It looked like apartheid and it felt like slavery, but hardly anyone blinked an eye, perhaps because the UAE was so “expert at catering to colonial nostalgia”. That’s Mike Davis again, writing in 2006 about Dubai. Davis saw that the system was propped up and perpetuated by gross racial injustice and that it was fueled by aggressive neoliberalism — “a society that might have been designed by the Economics Department of the University of Chicago.” Qatar is no different.

Much of the backlash to the criticism of Qatar has come in good-faith from Gulf nationals or former or current expats. The general tone is that these outsiders don’t understand the complexity of the country or the nuance of the issues they are writing about. There’s obviously some truth to that, but another truth is that when you look at something for a long time you stop seeing what’s remarkable or dreadful about it. Journalists writing about Qatar are seeing what the racist expats love about the Gulf, what the apathetic expats have never bothered to look at, and what the liberal expats have tied themselves up in knots about but have been able to rationalize.

Das Island

OK it’s bad but

I left Das on rotation in August 2006, and never went back, using the money I’d earned in the UAE to fund a career change. By 2013, I was working for Human Rights Watch having just completed a PhD titled “The marginalisation of slavery in international law”, and had traveled to Brussels where a colleague and I were meeting with a representative of an international trade union. Qatar’s successful bid for the 2022 World Cup, announced in December 2010, had thrust an issue that nobody knew or cared about back when I lived in Abu Dhabi into the international spotlight. Suddenly there were big organisations putting serious resources into it. I was eagerly anticipating the meeting because this particular organisation said they were interested in using the term slavery in their work on migrant workers abuses in Qatar. Like any PhD student given the slightest opportunity to talk about their thesis, I gave a long-winded, unnecessarily detailed, and heavily caveated explanation as to why, in my view, the law clearly supported this characterisation, and so it was a bit of a disappointment when they replied that that was all well and good but they were going to call it slavery because their comms team thought it would be more effective. And so they did, but without any of the suggested caveats, which are that you shouldn’t argue that all migrant workers are enslaved (obviously absurd) but rather that the Gulf’s labour and immigration system facilitate the enslavement of migrant workers (persuasive and backed up by human rights case law). There are very clear-cut cases of classic slavery too. To take just one example, in 2019 a BBC Arabic investigation identified what they rightly described as an “online slave market” in Kuwait, where employers were using online apps to sell migrant women.

Some of the worst commentary of recent weeks has been framed as “ok the migrant worker abuses are bad, but”. That framing doesn’t work. (Try actually substituting “slavery” or “apartheid” for “migrant worker abuses” and see if you can construct a defensible sentence.) Debates about western hypocrisy and orientalism are important and legitimate but they cannot be foregrounded or even put on the same level as abuses this serious. People should be angry about a football tournament that has pitched a million extra migrant workers into this system. As someone said on Twitter, there’s discrimination that kills and there’s discrimination that offends.

Who Said Orientalism?

It’s also worth taking a closer look at the origins and the validity of the arguments that have been used to push back against criticism. The most prominent of these, and the one that has been taken up and promoted by the Qatari state, is that the criticism is rooted in orientalism and racism. Orientalism was the term that the Palestinian-American academic Edward Said used to refer to the way that the west imagines Asia, and particularly the Middle East, as inferior, exotic and in need of rescuing. There have been instances of this in the coverage on Qatar. The New York Times journalist Vivian Nereim issued a call on Twitter for people to post links to examples of coverage or commentary that were “underpinned by orientalism/racism/Islamophobia.” Responses included a dreadfully racist cartoon in the French satirical magazine Le Canard Enchaîné, and an interview clip from right-wing UK shock jock Julia Hartley-Brewer, where she said Qatar’s culture was “an abomination”. Other examples included a photo caption in The Times that said “women in Qatar are unaccustomed to seeing women in western dress in their country.” In her subsequent article, Nereim complemented these examples with comments from people like the brilliant Emirati academic, Mira Al-Hussein, but it was hard to escape the feeling that the evidence for the orientalism charge was rather thin, particularly when set in the context of the avalanche of media coverage that accompanies a World Cup — the most watched, spoken about and written about event in the world. And Nereim’s article didn’t mention where the orientalism charge originated.

The theoretical foundations for the argument were first laid in a July 2022 article by professors Zahra Babar, an associate director at Georgetown Qatar, and Neha Vora, an anthropologist at Lafayette College in the United States. Babar and Vora argue in their article that “human rights discourses surrounding World Cup 2022 continue to paint a simplistic and incomplete picture of migrant labour in the Gulf, where racism and its correctives are defined through the white gaze, with undercurrents of Orientalism and Islamophobia.” It is a sincere and serious piece of work, but one that fails to produce much credible or compelling evidence to substantiate its central charge. It does not so much “build upon scholarship that critiques the civilisational and colonial tenor of human rights discourses”, as its authors write, as rest its conclusions on the largely evidence-free assumption that this charge must ipso facto be true of the coverage of Qatar. The only evidence of “undercurrents of orientalism” that the authors reference, albeit indirectly, appears to be an article of mine that The Guardian published on December 6, 2010, a few days after FIFA awarded Qatar the hosting rights for 2022. Subsequent articles from academics either based in Qatar or with close links to Georegtown’s Center for International and Regional Studies have repeated Babar and Vora’s orientalism charge, without providing any real evidence to support it. There are very interesting things to be said about orientalism and the Gulf, but there’s just no significant evidence to support the claim that the criticism of Qatar is rooted in prejudice. There has been some ignorance, there have been some offensive stereotypes, and there have been some few hateful comments from some hateful people, but it has not gone much further than that. If Edward Said were around today, I find it hard to imagine he’d be on the phone pitching Orientalism 2 to his publisher.

Of course that hasn’t stopped Qatar’s PR machine from churning out the orientalism/racism defence and luckily (or not) for them, they had a most willing patsy in FIFA President Gianni Infantino, who used his now notorious pre-tournament “today I feel gay” speech to round on the critics of Qatar 2022. Monica Marks wrote on twitter that the speech represented “a case study in how powerful leaders and corrupt entities can selectively appropriate left-leaning narratives (eg: anti-colonialism and anti-Orientalism) to deflect critique” noting that this appropriation “can so easily zombify would-be brilliant critics on the left, including academics and journalists, some of whom unwittingly enter into weird weddings with the abusive, corrupt and powerful in the Middle East and north Africa when those actors cry Orientalism.”

The boycott that wasn’t there

Another charge that has resonated with those who recoil from western criticism of an Arab state is that of hypocrisy. This is a very easy charge to throw at the west in its dealings with the Middle East, whose tyrants have long benefited from unyielding western support, and an endless supply of weaponry and surveillance equipment to keep any democratic sentiments from its people in check. And are western governments themselves not involved in appalling abuses against migrant workers and refugees in order to shore up xenophobic support for policies? Qatar didn’t want to build a wall, Qatar didn’t abandon migrants in the sea. Right?

This is where we need to take a step back and ask ourselves who exactly has been criticising Qatar and why. Or maybe let’s start with who has not been criticising Qatar and why not. Western governments don’t criticise Qatar because Qatar is extremely wealthy and has lots of natural gas. Western governments want western companies to sell Qatar fighter jets or surveillance technology, or to get their share of the billions in construction contracts on offer in the Gulf, or they need Qatari gas to keep the lights on. So whereas the British government boycotted Russia 2018 and numerous governments boycotted the Beijing winter Olympics over incredibly serious abuses, albeit ones that were not primarily about those sporting events, no governments have criticised let alone proposed a boycott of Qatar 2022, a tournament that directly contributed to very serious harms and a death toll that we will never know. The exception to the rule was German Interior Minister, Nancy Faeser, who said in an interview the month before the tournament began that “There are [human rights] criteria that must be adhered to and it would be better that tournaments are not awarded to such states.” Faeser subsequently attended the tournament in her official capacity. In fact the only serious efforts to prevent Qatar from hosting Qatar 2022 were coordinated by its two closest neighbours in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who went to extraordinary lengths to stop the tournament from taking place in Doha.

The people who have criticised Qatar have been, in the main, international NGOs and sportswriters. In the case of international NGOs (and remember there are no Qatari NGOs) they focus their resources on highly visible abuses that will attract media coverage, and where there are multiple actors on whom they can apply pressure. As the pre-eminent football historian David Goldblatt said of football “the game attracts, at its peak, audiences that dwarf other sports, shows and genres; and when it does so, it gathers eyes and minds in acts of collective imagining like no other spectacle on offer.” And a World Cup is the game at its peak. That is the reason why Qatar has become a lightning rod for NGO criticism of migrant worker issues in the Gulf, and not Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, where migrant worker abuses are just as serious and systematic. You can criticise NGO’s modus operandi, for sure, but that’s how they work in autocracies where local populations can’t criticise their government without serious reprisal. And they have been greatly aided in their cause by the appetite of sportswriters for stories that relate to FIFA. And this is what a lot of people seem to be missing about this story, particularly those who say that these writers don’t care about workers’ rights or LGBT+ people in the Gulf. Most of the people writing about Qatar are really writing about FIFA and football.

Qatar 2022 is the culmination of a twelve year cycle of righteous outrage that began when Sepp Blatter announced that Russia would host the 2018 World Cup and that Qatar would host 2022. The way these decisions were made very nearly sank the organisation. In May 2015, the US Department of Justice indicted nine FIFA officials and five corporate executives for racketeering conspiracy and corruption, under the infamous RICO act, which has largely been used by US lawmakers to fight the mafia. That case was only made possible by the tireless efforts of the late Andrew Jennings, a British journalist who wrote about FIFA corruption for decades, and arguably Jennings’s greatest contribution is to have inspired many others to take up this mantle. It is the job of sportswriters to scrutinize and hold accountable those who govern and profit from sport, and they have done a fine job. The provenance and the direction of the criticism make for a discomfiting optic — sports writing is still dominated by white men, many writing from countries with dark histories of colonialism and imperialism. But those who say there is a western media agenda against Qatar are missing a critical point. This is about FIFA, and right now the only thing stopping the world’s most popular sport from being completely taken over by authoritarians, thugs and criminals is a thin line of highly committed journalists whose work on Qatar has been, in general, a credit to their profession.

It’s capitalism

The final argument put forth is that Qatar is just one node in a system of globally racialised capitalism that implicates all of our governments and all of our businesses. Professors Babar and Vora, for example, are clear that responsibility must be shared around: “The extractive value of racial capitalism in Qatar and the Gulf states is enabled by a host of actors that include the sending state’s emigration regulations, training and recruitment centres in the sending states, manpower agencies and consultants in the host countries, the labour and immigration laws of the host states and — most importantly — the large transnational corporations (some of which are owned or partly owned by Gulf state interests) that employ migrant workers.” This is undeniably true, but Babar and Vora omit to mention that not all of these actors have the same levels of power or responsibility, while at the same time downplaying the central role of the Qatari state, not only in setting labour conditions but in ensuring fair transnational recruitment. “These companies have embedded practices of subcontracting, pressuring host states to deregulate, and shifting labour sourcing in order to maximise profits and limit responsibility for worker well-being”, they argue, concluding that “the Qatari state and Qatari citizens become the scapegoats”. This is where the analysis veers into very problematic territory. The Qatari state is not some delicate flower tossed helplessly to and fro on the rough seas of global capitalism. On the contrary, and like its neighbours in the region, it forms part of the hub of the most extremely racialised and zealous models of capitalism on the planet, a model specifically constructed to control and exploit a foreign workforce, and enable a vast transfer of wealth from some of the poorest people on earth to some of its wealthiest elites. The line between the Qatari state and the private sector is barely distinguishable, they are mutually dependent and mutually reinforcing. The Qatari state preys on the economic weakness of south Asia and east African states. It plunders their impoverished populations for cheap labour, leading poor and vulnerable people to sell their land to pay for their jobs. It wrings every drop of sweat out of their pores, and disposes of them when they’re done, and doesn’t even bother to investigate the deaths of those whose bodies can’t bear the heat and the overwork. The Qatari state is no scapegoat. Nor are any of the Gulf states, each of whom treats migrant workers in almost exactly the same way.

The people who financially benefit from this system include many of the journalists, academics, and think-tank analysts who have come out to bat for Qatar lately. The surplus value that is wrung out of low-paid migrant workers ultimately goes into the pockets of Qatari elites and wealthy expats. That doesn’t in and of itself negate the arguments that they have made, but it should at least give the more thoughtful and considered among them pause for thought especially since so many of their talking points have been taken up with gusto by the Qatari state and its PR machine. And it is important to distinguish good-faith actors making flawed or outright bad arguments, from bad-faith actors engaged in propaganda. For the avoidance of any doubt, I think that the overwhelming majority of Qatar’s defenders fall into the former category.

As for the bad-faith actors, the Gulf is a magnet for those who can rationalize the abandonment of principle in the highly remunerated service of power, and it’s not just spies, mercenaries and former generals who have been beating a path to the door of the Gulf’s monarchs. The recent arrest of European Parliament vice-president Eva Kaili, whom Belgian investigators suspect of taking bribes from Qatar, may come to serve as the most obvious criminal example of this, but corruption comes in various forms and guises.

It would be churlish not to recognise that there have been things to celebrate about this World Cup, most obviously the fact that it has provided a space and a very visible platform for solidarity with the Palestinian cause. But taken as a whole, the very tangible harms overshadow any causes for cheer, and there’s nothing at all to suggest that it can’t happen all over again. Qatar 2022 will soon be over, but Saudi Arabia has just been provided with the perfect blueprint for its 2030 tournament. It knows precisely the arguments it needs, who it needs to make them, and it has the wherewithal to get those arguments into your papers, podcasts and news-feeds.

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Nicholas McGeehan

Human rights researcher. Focus on Gulf, migrant workers' rights. Bit of football in there too.