The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the largest inter-governmental organization in the world after the United Nations, describes itself as the “collective voice of the Muslim world.” With 57 member states on four continents, the OIC seeks to “safeguard and protect the interests of the Muslim world in the spirit of promoting international peace and harmony among various people of the world.” It’s a noble-sounding endeavor, tone-wise, and in line with the mission statements of almost every other notable inter-governmental organization designed, in theory, to foster global harmony, understanding, and puppy GIF feelings.
One of the many interests the OIC seeks to safeguard and protect is the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. In a statement released last week, the OIC referred to Qatar winning the right to host the preeminent global soccer tournament as an “achievement for the OIC member states.” Not an achievement for Qatar, notably, but for OIC member states. The statement reiterated the OIC’s unequivocal backing for Qatar, and further called on media institutions in OIC member states to back Qatar’s right to host the World Cup.
The OIC isn’t the only voice in the Arab world standing with Qatar. Earlier this week, the 22-member Arab League — an inter-governmental organization representing Arab nations in North Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia — voiced its full support for Qatar :
“The Arab League endorses the resolution issued by the Organization of Islamic Co-operation and the Gulf Co-operation Council condemning the hateful campaign that attempts to question Qatar’s right to host the 2022 World Cup.”
That the OIC and other prominent voices in the Arab world are heavily vested in standing up for Qatar’s right to host to the World Cup, in light of what they adjudge to be “hateful” campaigning, is hardly a surprise considering the public thrashing the Gulf nation has endured over the last four-and-a-half years. Accusations of everything from bribery to slavery, homophobia, and discrimination against women have lingered ever since Qatar shocked the world on Dec. 2, 2010, by winning the right to host the 2022 World Cup, over bids from from the United States, Australia, Japan, and South Korea.
The prevailing sentiment shared by much of the Western world can be summed up in two words: Qatar fucking cheated goddamit. OK, that’s four words. Sorry.
Somehow, whether a result of sliding envelopes stuffed with cash across tables or promising FIFA’s Executive Committee members soccer fields made out of diamonds, there was no way a desert nation with a negligible soccer history and an impressive rap sheet of labor violations secured the World Cup hosting rights fairly, according to the naysayers. Not a chance in hell. Thus, Qatar should be stripped of the World Cup. The people must have a revote.
But almost five years of appeals failed to yield any notable results.
And then, one day, everything changed.
May 27, 2015.
That was the day the U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ) and Swiss authorities came knocking, armed with arrest warrants and indictments for FIFA executives tied to alleged corruption, only two days before the FIFA Congress Boys Club for Men was slated to anoint FIFA “President for Life” Sepp Blatter to a fifth term. If things had looked bad for Qatar on May 26, they looked infinitely worse 24 hours later.
The voices campaigning against Qatar ratcheted up another octave.
Yet most of the voices clamoring for justice and heads on sticks were simply pointing fingers. Qatar and its enabler, FIFA, were the worst things the world had ever seen. There was little talk of complicity of other nations, or accountability beyond the Arab world, Africa, and Asia, despite the fact that an overwhelming number of those scooped up by authorities weren’t from those regions. But perhaps most importantly, there was hardly a whisper about the possible ramifications of stripping Qatar of a World Cup touted as an achievement for the Arab world. For many, it was just a foregone conclusion: Qatar had to go.
Few seemed to be focusing on a larger picture. Instead, they’re obsessed with drawing lines in the sand between “us” and “them.” And that’s a problem, because finger-pointing, can look an awful lot like bias, at best, and bigotry, at worst, even when making legitimate points. Which is why it makes sense that, in some people’s eyes, taking the World Cup from Qatar is isn’t just taking the World Cup from Qatar; it’s taking an achievement away from the Muslim world due to anti-Muslim or Arab bigotry.
Organizations like the OIC exist, in part, to challenge “the distorted image of Islam and Muslims.” The narrative it’s often confronting is one that resonates widely in the Arab world, especially post-9/11: The West, despite its platitudes, doesn’t respect us.
That’s the message the OIC and Arab League are advancing to counter those questioning the legitimacy of Qatar’s winning bid.
On its face, it’s a position that doesn’t make much sense in the context of a sporting conversation because it doesn’t really answer the sporting charge. Whether Qatar actually cheated and is egregiously violating human rights is a completely different inquiry than whether bias and/or Islamophobia are contributing factors to the push to see Qatar stripped of the World Cup. It’s a convoluted response, but it’s also brilliant. Qatar and its allies are making sure that this conversation isn’t about sport.
And they’re succeeding. Look around. Look at who’s mobilizing and lending voices to these World Cup debates: presidents and prime ministers, high-level government officials, federal prosecutors, Interpol, multinational corporations, international human rights organizations, and intergovernmental organizations.
The debate over the 2022 Qatar World Cup is no longer about sport; now, largely due to the effort of Qatar and its allies, it’s purely about geopolitics. A brief look at the cast of characters makes that crystal clear. So, if we can agree on what the debate is about (politics) instead of what some think it should be about (sport), it’s worth appraising Qatar 2022 through a geopolitical rather than sporting lens before assessing the most reasonable and fruitful reactions.
Michael Stephens, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and head of RUSI Qatar, told the AP that taking the World Cup from Qatar would cause a lot of resentment toward the West and “would be seen as an attack on the entire Gulf.”
“They all hate each other behind closed doors,” he said. “They squabble, they bitch, they fight. But if you come against one, you come against the collective.
“The relationship would be affected for the best part of a decade. It would take a lot of re-engagement to fix. It would be very, very damaging.”
But what’s too much damage? At what point, politically, is the cost of stripping Qatar of the World Cup too high?
It’s an uncomfortable question if you consider it a sporting question, because people in Qatar aren’t just being discriminated against, they are literally dying to put on a World Cup. But in political spheres, governments regularly overlook (or, either overtly or by omission) commit deplorable acts — acts much more depraved than those allegedly tied to Qatar — when they determine there’s a long-term greater good.
But is there a greater good that would justify ending calls to strip Qatar of hosting rights in the face of all its utter nonsense?
That depends on the end game, on why people want Qatar stripped of the tournament. Is it to get a revote? Is it to punish wrong-doers at all costs? Or is it to improve the working and living conditions of the masses of migrant workers the world has been so eager to save since Qatar landed the World Cup?
If it’s the latter, it’s worth remembering that Qatar’s infrastructure boom was already well underway by December 2010. Poorly treated migrant labor had already been a staple of Qatar’s construction scene for years. Yet virtually no one gave a damn about slave labor conditions until a few months after Blatter pulled “Qatar” out of an envelope on that stage in Zurich.
That envelope spawned a reported $140 billion in World Cup infrastructure projects, exacerbating Qatar’s pre-existing labor problem. But it also drew global attention to the plight of migrant workers in Qatar. Still, as I’ve mentioned before, that’s not a great reason to suggest that Qatar should keep on acting with impunity. No reasonable person, for instance, would have endorsed awarding the Olympics to apartheid South Africa to shine light on abuse and bring about change.
But the reality is, eyeballs are now on Qatar because Qatar already has the World Cup. Another reality is that, once the world’s eyes are on a nation, everyone forgets a few beats after the camera leaves. The world’s attention span is notoriously short. In such an ADD-riddled world, switching the 2022 World Cup to the United States or Australia could very reasonably result in the world ceasing to give shits about migrant labor conditions in the Gulf within a news cycle.
Remember the 2010 Haiti earthquake? The world cared for 10, maybe 15 minutes as the tragic scenes and stories unfolded on our TV screens and news feeds. And then, just like that, Haiti was gone, and it was Catfish re-runs again. Which explains how, for instance, the Red Cross could raise $488 million for Haiti and built only six permanent houses.
There’s little reason to think Qatar would be any different. There’s even less reason to believe that Qatar would subsequently abandon its dreams of building a shiny, new state-of-the-art country in record time absent the World Cup. So perhaps keeping the tournament in Qatar isn’t a wholly unreasonable thought, if it means people will still pay attention. In fact, since Qatar already has the 2022 World Cup, the next seven years may be the only window, in the foreseeable future, where the world will actually pay close attention to social and human rights issues in the Gulf region.
But this line of thought is only reasonable if your real gripe with Qatar is over labor and working conditions for migrant laborers. Or gender issues. Or LGBTQ issues. If you’re interested in the best possible outcome for these vulnerable communities, it’s worth at least exploring if stripping Qatar of the World Cup gets the best outcome.
Suppose, instead of looking at the 2022 World Cup as a sporting event, the West looked at it — like Qatar and the OIC do — as a political tool. Maybe, in the long run, FIFA’s reform process would run a bit more smoothly if the Arab world wasn’t further alienated, even if, in the short term, that unfortunately meant accepting some of the horrific evils that coincide with a reported $140 billion in World Cup infrastructure projects. Maybe using the 2022 World Cup as a carrot produces some goodwill that makes Qatar more amenable to improving labor and social issues on the ground over the next seven years.
Of course, there are plenty of drawbacks to this approach worth considering, too. For instance, it’s possible that Qatar is already too well positioned, politically and financially, to give a damn about the West’s political needs or humanitarian wants. It’s also possible that Qatar and the Arab world, along with much of Asia and Africa, already realize they don’t need the West in a democratic FIFA. In fact, Blatter has already outlined his plan to further empower Asia and Africa in a more democratic FIFA.
But it’s still worth exploring the best way to use the 2022 World Cup in a game of political chess, rather than reflexively beating the drum to strip it from Qatar. It just makes sense, unless the only reason people want to strip Qatar is to settle scores for short-term gain or refurbish egos broken after lost bids, after finally realizing what it might mean for power to shift from the global North and West to the global South and East.
But if that’s the case, perhaps the global game is screwed any way you look at it.