This is week two of the FIFA World Cup and politics, not just football, is taking centre stage.
In Doha, Qatar, where one of the Cup’s most controversial rounds has been taking place since 20 November, a world news bulletin continues to unfold.
The event has inspired discussions of the West’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, US military bases in the Gulf, shootings in American schools, racism, the human rights record of some participating countries and US support for the anti-government protests in Iran, and they have involved a demand made by Tehran to expel America from the tournament.
In an event that should be bringing peoples and cultures together — and perhaps providing a break from politics — this tournament seems to be reviving unlikely east-west tensions rooted in colonial times.
In response to a wave of negative British reactions and coverage of the event (the BBC boycotted the opening ceremony), Qatar is reconsidering its investments in the British capital.
According to the Financial Times (FT), Qatar has launched a review of its investments in London after the city’s transport authority banned Doha’s advertisements on the UK capital’s buses, taxi and underground train system. The move by Transport for London (TfL) was prompted by concerns about Qatar’s stance on LGBT+ rights and its perceived inhumane treatment of migrant workers which the British media has focused on for months in the run up to the event.
The British daily spoke to a source involved in the Qatari review of London investments who said that Qataris are “reviewing their current and future investments” in London and were “considering investment opportunities in other UK cities and home nations” in response to the ban. Doha, said the source, has interpreted this measure as a “message from the mayor’s office that Qatari business is not welcome in London”.
Qatar’s decision to reconsider its investments in London may have tangible repercussions on the British capital’s economy, especially after Brexit. In the construction and real estate sector alone, Qatar plays a prominent role in London through its $450 billion (£390 billion) sovereign wealth fund.
Qatar is the 10th largest landowner in Britain. Over the past two decades, the Gulf emirate has reinforced its economic and political influence through major commercial and military deals. In the last decade, Britain has granted it billions of pounds of weapons sales licences, including advanced surveillance equipment.
According to the FT, the Qatar Investment Authority owns Harrods, the famous department store, and the iconic Shard building, and is a co-owner of Canary Wharf, London’s financial centre. The Gulf state also owns Chelsea Barracks, the Savoy and Grosvenor House hotels, and the Shell Centre redevelopment on London’s South Bank, a prestigious cultural and artistic centre. Qatar also has significant shareholdings in some of the UK’s biggest brands such as Barclays Bank, Sainsbury’s supermarket chain, and a 20 per cent stake in Heathrow Airport.
In sum, the Qatari state has invested about £40 billion in the UK economy in recent years. It was set to invest up to £10 billion over the next five years in several essential sectors including healthcare and cyber security.
Britain also relies on Qatari gas, which the government needs to ensure the security of supply as North Sea reserves dwindle due to the Russian war on Ukraine.
Taking into account that senior Qatari officials have enjoyed strong relations with British politicians and even with King Charles III, whose charities received millions of dollars in donations from Doha, the current harsh criticism against Qatar has been both surprising and disappointing to many British Arabs.
The British mainstream media has reported repeatedly that 6,500 Asian workers died in Qatar in connection to the construction of massive stadiums and infrastructure. Qatari responses and the organising committee of the World Cup maintain that the figure which made headlines does not reflect the real number of fatalities related to the tournament, which is 37.
“There is no doubt that the death of any of the foreign workers during the construction of stadiums in Qatar is a very sad matter, and there is not enough material compensation for the affected families,” said Samia Al-Atrash, a British of Iraqi descent and a member of the Conservative Party in the UK. “However, there are serious questions about the reported number of 6,500 foreign workers dying due to heat, fatigue and diseases. These numbers are not agreed upon,” Al-Atrash told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“Ignoring any positive aspects of the World Cup and the Qatari organisation, and focusing only on mistakes and shortcomings, is an issue that is not devoid of politicisation. I have lived here for many decades, and I have never seen such negative coverage as the British media coverage of the World Cup in Qatar,” she said.
Al-Atrash was dismayed by the fact that the BBC chose not to broadcast the opening ceremony, focusing instead “on all that was wrong” with Qatar in 2022.The Iraqi-British politician called out “Western cultural arrogance” in the coverage of this tournament.
The negative media has poisoned perceptions of Qatar to the extent that many British football aficionados decided to boycott watching the World Cup matches, under the belief that that the tournament “was built on the blood of foreign workers”.
“As an Arab woman from Iraq, I find this argument particularly painful,” said Al-Atrash. “A large part of the wealth of Europe and America was taken from the colonies whose resources they exploited when those colonies were part of their empire, and there is the slave trade that lasted for centuries and claimed tens of millions of lives. Thus, I am not in the mood to hear moral lessons about the gains made on the blood of others.”
The political controversy in the World Cup has gone beyond Qatar to Iran, which has been witnessing popular demonstrations since last September after the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian-Kurdish woman in a police station after she was arrested on charges of improperly wearing her headscarf.
Protests in Iran since Amini’s death have seen at least 450 people killed, and more than 18,000 arrested, according to human rights activists in Iran.
Since then, the coach of the Iranian national team, Carlos Queiroz, has proven that he is a football coach and a political commentator as well, if necessary.
In press conferences, Queiroz, a well-known Portuguese coach who previously worked as an assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson during his time with Manchester United, and also coached the Egyptian national team, responded to a BBC reporter when asked about the demonstrations in Iran, saying,“Do you journalists question the manager of the England national team about the chaotic way in which Britain withdrew from Afghanistan?”
In the press conference that preceded the crucial match between Iran and America, which would determine who would reach the quarter finals, Queiroz cited racism in America, highlighting school shootings in the US, and US military bases in the Gulf after a row over a tweet by the US Soccer Federation which appeared to have deliberately doctored the Iranian flag to remove the symbol of the Islamic Republic.
On the website of the US Soccer Federation featuring the group B match schedule, the old Iranian flag before the 1979 revolution was placed instead of the current official flag, which includes a stylised Arabic inscription of the words Allāhu Akbar (God is great), repeated 22 times in honour of the fact that the revolution had taken place on 22 Bahrām in the Iranian calendar.
In the American modification, the Allāhu Akbar inscription has been removed. A US Soccer Federation official said the move was in support of women’s rights in Iran. However, the coach of the US national team said that he and his players had no knowledge of the matter.
“I’m not well versed in international politics. I’m a football coach,” said Gregg Berhalter. “I can only reiterate that the players and staff knew nothing about what was being posted. Sometimes things are out of our control. We’re not focused on those outside things; all we can do is apologise on the part of the players and the staff.”
The US move to alter the Iranian flag sparked criticism and the American US Soccer Federation removed the distorted Iranian flag and apologised. In his press conference before the US-Iran game, Queiroz took quiet aim at social problems in the US.
“We have said many times that we have the solidarity of all humanitarian causes,” Queiroz said. “But we have solidarity with causes all over the world wherever they are. If you talk about human rights, racism, and kids dying at schools from shooting, we have solidarity with all. But we bring a smile for 90 minutes, that is our mission.”
The American Iranian exchange took place some 24 hours after Queiroz called for the former German international player Jürgen Klinsmann to resign from a FIFA committee over remarks about the “culture” of Iran’s team after the former German player claimed that the “culture” of the Iranian team was to pressure the referee into calling fouls, a claim fiercely rejected by Iran.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.