I am going to speak of two scenes, one in Sharm El-Sheikh, the other in Doha. At first glance, they seem to have nothing in common. The first concerns climate change and how the fate of the planet hinges on keeping its average temperature no greater than 1.5 degrees Celsius than it was before the first industrial revolution. The other is a rite that takes place every four years: the World Cup. It was not as dramatic, but spectators around the world were still on the edge of their seats, waiting to see who would be proclaimed winner in that test of skill and stamina that grows harder at each stage. Those who reach the finals after the exhausting qualifiers have every right to feel proud, but ironically every defeat after that seems like the end of the world.
Both venues were as packed as Babel, where every language on earth was spoken at once. But one occasioned a fraught attempt to foster an agreement between the great powers responsible for damaging the climate, most notably the US and China, and the developing countries that are most vulnerable to rampant forest fires, drought, floods, and other consequences of climate change, especially the small island nations that are at risk of submersion in the rising seas and oceans. An entirely different mood prevailed at the other venue. This was captured in the opening ceremony which was both joyous and inspirational. Qatar excelled here, delivering a message on behalf of itself and all Arabs that was addressed to the human community at large. All the world’s different cultures found a place to express themselves there, in their dress, the mascots they brought or the chants they used to root for their team as they pressed their hand to their heart and prayed for its success.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres moved easily from Sharm El-Sheikh to Doha, as did the heads of state charged with the responsibility to overcome differences in order to rise to the challenges of climate change, and who looked forward to the competition that brought the whole world together. This was not the only common denominator between the manifestations of globalisation. Both riveted international media attention which tended to stray to unrelated topics. While Sharm El-Sheikh was concerned with climate change and what to do about it, and while Doha spent a decade building in order to make this World Cup better than all its predecessors, some media turned their spotlight to a single issue: human rights.
Venting its spiteful, overly full “liberal” spleen, The Washington Post asked whether it was a mistake to let Egypt host COP27 and Doha host the World Cup. It gave no thought to how Egypt had managed to weather successive waves of terrorism, anarchy, Covid-19 and other crises as it instituted sweeping reforms and made great strides forward, or to how expertly, efficiently and diplomatically it organised a major gathering for all members of the UN.
Instead, it donned the narrowest of narrow blinkers and homed in on the story of Alaa Abdel-Fattah, as woven out of quantities of falsehoods and half-truths, discarding facts, judicial processes and family visits. Nor was the newspaper interested in the excellent organisation, facilities, and activities provided by the small, elegant, hospitable Qatari state. Of sole concern was Doha’s decision to ban beer, which is banned in all World Cup stadiums, and to ban LBGT propaganda, even as gay people are shot in Colorado. In short, there was no small degree of fault-finding and resentment because two of the most important international events were held in Arab countries which were able to display to the world some of the finest aspects of Arab culture and civilisation.
The events in Sharm El-Sheikh and Doha were linked by factors that contrasted sharply with the criticism they received from some venomous quarters in the West. Both demonstrated that the “Neo-Arabism” or “New Regionalism” has begun to yield fruits. COP27 sparked a collective Arab drive to play a major part in the efforts to bring the planet back from the brink. Although the Arab region, which has long been central to the global energy market, has been blamed for perpetuating dependence on fossil fuels, it was the Arab participants in Sharm El-Sheikh who were consistently the most outspoken advocates for the importance of the transition to green and renewable energy.
Although Russia and the US are leaders in the production and consumption of this type of energy, they have always been hesitant to move in that direction. The US, in particular, still has a very vocal camp of climate change deniers who, moreover, see the campaign to fight it as a kind of hoax or conspiracy. By contrast, Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s launch of the Middle East Green Initiative affirmed a forward-looking vision which holds that the time has come for this region to catch the train of the fourth industrial-technological revolution after having missed the first, second, and third ones.
Meanwhile, despite the fact that the general rule is to keep politics out of the World Cup finals, it was no small feat for Doha to have arranged the “handshake” between Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This development built on the progress that has been made since the AlUla Declaration adopted in the Gulf Cooperation Council’s summit on 4 January 2021, launching the reconciliation between Qatar and Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain. Soon afterwards, relations revived between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and Ankara. With Egypt, the problem was more complicated. Although there have been renewed high level diplomatic communications between Cairo and Ankara, geopolitical differences between the two countries have impeded a restoration of relations until this point. So, as simple as that handshake may appear, we must appreciate the enormous diplomatic efforts it takes to pave the way to steps of this sort.
In both Sharm El-Sheikh and Doha, it was a source of joy and pride for everyone in the Arab region to see how the Arab countries stood together in the face of criticism as they displayed Arab capacities. Also encouraging were the amazing energies of a new generation of Arab youth and their talents for organisation, leadership, innovation, and communication with each other and with the rest of the world. Certainly, the people who came to Sharm El-Sheikh in pursuit of the welfare of humankind felt that the Cradle of Civilisation was well suited to the challenges of the most pressing global issues, including the appeal to halt the war that has caused suffering around the world.
As for the excellent work Qatar has done for the World Cup, from the opening ceremonies to the support it gave all Arab teams, that was a heartwarming sight of the sort we have not seen for a long time.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.