Why I’m Not Expecting Amazing from Qatar

“Qatar to allow alcohol and Israel for 2022 FIFA World Cup bid,” read the November headline on Q8NRI.com, the self-proclaimed, “Ultimate Home for Non-Resident Indians in Kuwait.” Now that Qatar’s bid has been successful, great news for alcoholics and Israel. No such luck for gay people, whom Sepp Blatter warned, in response to a reporter’s question last week, “should refrain from any sexual activities” while in Qatar (jokingly, of course). Except it’s not really a joking matter.  Homosexuality is punishable in Qatar by five years in prison. And don’t think that only applies to Qatar’s 800,000-strong population. According to the UN Refugee Agency, “In 1996, the U.S. Department of State reported that an American citizen in Qatar was sentenced to six months imprisonment and 90 lashes for homosexual activity.”

After rambling for the next minute about the opening of the Middle East, which is “another culture because it is another religion” and affirming his belief that there “should not be any discrimination against any human beings,” Blatter then reassured homosexuals that if they “want to watch a match somewhere in Qatar in 2022, I’m sure they will be admitted to such matches.” Reassured now, gay fans?

In Blatter’s mind, he’s some sort of heroic liberal crusader, bringing western values and human rights to backward lands. Rumor is he has his eyes set on a Nobel Peace Prize. He reportedly claimed recently, “What can be wrong if we start football in regions where this sport demonstrates a potential which goes far beyond sport. It’s my philosophy to drive forward the expansion of football. The next regions we need to conquer would be China and India. Football has become a political matter. Heads of state court me.”

While I’m thrilled to know that Mr. Blatter’s ego is being sufficiently satisfied, FIFA’s choice of Qatar makes a mockery of its professed commitment to human rights. If I could borrow a few fun facts from Nate Silver’s blog at the Times, “[Qatar] ranks 121st out of 178 countries in the Press Freedom Index, and 144th out of 167 countries in the Democracy Index developed by The Economist magazine, which classifies it as an authoritarian regime….Protections for its substantial migrant worker population are limited, and it is one of 16 countries given the lowest ratings by the State Department for its propensity to engage in human trafficking.”

In fairness, some of the hysteria over Qatar might be somewhat overblown. I was pleasantly surprised, for example, to learn from the State Department that women make up 26 percent of the local national work force and appear to receive equal pay for equal work.  But try brushing aside this little factoid: “The legal system allows leniency for a man found guilty of committing a ‘crime of honor,’ or a violent assault against a woman for perceived immodesty or defiant behavior.”

As much as I love the idea of soccer serving as a vehicle for social change, a World Cup transforming the Middle East is about as plausible as another war doing the trick. I’m not going to insist that every Cup take place in a model democracy (which is why if I hold my nose tightly enough, I can just about deal with Russia hosting the 2018 tournament). It would be nice though if FIFA at least pretended to take its own anti-discrimination campaign seriously.

I predict that in 12 years’ time things will go just fine. The games will be played in lovely air-conditioned domes, western visitors will find the red carpet rolled out for their arrival and no one will be arrested for homosexual activities. The biggest crisis will be an epidemic of tourists collapsing from heat stroke (the average high in June is 106 degrees).

The slogan for the 2022 World Cup is “Expect Amazing.” But for those of us who thought (perhaps naively) that the World Cup represented something more than a get-rich-quick scheme for FIFA or a fix for Sepp Blatter’s addiction to the spotlight, the inevitable sight of FIFA officials and pundits marveling at Qatar’s futuristic stadiums and mind-boggling wealth (Qatar has the world’s second-highest GDP per capita) will feel anything but.

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