Qatar Takes Center Stage with World Cup
The soccer World Cup, the largest sporting event on the planet, will start on Sunday, November 20, in Qatar. The participants and the public at large face a dilemma. By enabling the success of the event, are they condoning human rights abuses and the absence of basic freedoms? Or are they doing just the opposite by bringing attention to those very issues with their participation and forcing the host country to give the people a taste of freedom for the duration of the tournament and a chance to engage in a frank discussion with the outside world?
Qatar is a capitalist country (although state capitalism is a major part of the mix). Margaret Thatcher used to say that by opening the economy and connecting themselves to the world, autocratic regimes unleashed forces, particularly an emerging middle class, that sooner or later would lead to democratic reform. But the process is not straightforward, and there are enough examples to justify different views. A few dictatorships practicing capitalism have evolved into democracies, such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Chile. In contrast, China, Vietnam, and Russia have not.
In some ways, the discussion regarding Qatar and the World Cup is academic. There are mighty economic and geopolitical factors at play, and no amount of NGO activism or media questioning will prevent the event from going ahead.
Qatar has the second-largest natural gas reserves in the world and is already the world’s largest exporter of liquified natural gas. Soon, Qatar will also be the largest producer, thanks to the North Field expansion project. The country will be putting out between 6 and 7 million barrels of oil equivalent per day by 2027.
Given that Europe is desperate to permanently replace Russia with another provider of hydrocarbons, this country of 3 million people (only ten percent are Qataris, and the rest are expatriates) is playing and will continue to play a key role in meeting the developed world’s demand for energy. Not to mention the more than US$400 billion Doha has invested in various industries in some forty countries (they even own the London Stock Exchange).
Qatar hosts the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East. Given its connections with Hamas, the Taliban, and Iran, the small kingdom is considered by Washington to be a power broker in the region. Its ability to make itself valuable to Europeans and Asians during the blockade to which it was subjected by Saudi Arabia and Bahrein in recent years, combined with the help it lent to the U.S. when it pulled out of Afghanistan, has made it strategically important to the very liberal democracies whose media, NGOs and politicians criticize it.
France is one of the countries where the campaign to boycott the World Cup has been particularly loud—and yet TotalEnergies, the French oil giant, has substantially expanded its presence in the kingdom. The Qataris also own major assets in France, including the leading soccer team.
It is unrealistic to think that Qatar can become a pariah. Still, there are enough moral reasons to justify participation in the world cup. The World Cup can shame the authorities into action on some issues. In anticipation of the international attention the tournament will bring, there have already been some changes in the labor legislation, especially concerning the “kafala” system that gave abusive power to employers over immigrant workers.
As is well known, there is systemic discrimination against gays and lesbians. Women are very far from enjoying individual freedom and equality before the law. Still, the authorities will not be able to prevent the thousands of international visitors from speaking out. International pressure has already forced the ruling Al Thani family to guarantee that there will be no restrictions on free expression and that women and sexual minorities will not suffer discrimination.
Will things return to normal after December 18, when the World Cup finishes? Most likely. But in the absence of the World Cup, Qataris and Qatari residents would not have been better off. The country’s authoritarian system and obscurantist laws wouldn’t have come under such worldwide scrutiny, nor would the authorities themselves have been subjected to a level of criticism to which they are so unaccustomed. Moreover, the population would not have had the chance to expand its exchanges with the outside world, and Qatar’s neighbors would not have been put under the spotlight in the way in which they also have, if for the fact that they share a peninsula with the small kingdom.