Qatar brought the curtain down on the World Cup on Sunday: Morocco emerged as the biggest surprise of the tournament, while Argentina won an epic final against France. It might be the right time to remind that eighteen out of twenty-two editions of the World Cup were hosted either in European or American countries. There are two billion Muslims: not one single World Cup was ever hosted by a Muslim-majority country until Qatar 2022.
The exceptions registered in these last few years (Russia 2018; South Africa 2010) attest that something is possibly changing. Yet, Russia is (among much else) “the largest and most populous country in Europe.” As for the only exception in Africa: South Africa (whose name refers to a simple geographical direction: the British colony in the extreme south of Africa) has a very peculiar history rooted in Apartheid and racial-based discriminations which are still having a practical impact.
If world cups will continue to be organized almost always in European or American countries (the next one will take place in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, while a European country is expected to host the one in 2030), no doubt that virtually all semi-finals and finals will be played, as in the previous editions, by “Western” teams.
African and Arab fans, for instance, rarely get visas to travel to Western countries and support their squads, while Western passport holders can go practically wherever they want: teams have tendentially much higher chances to go forward if they play in a friendly environment.
Notwithstanding several limits and cases of corruption, Qatar 2022 has indeed contributed to pave the way for a more inclusive and fair approach, which a future world cup jointly organized by Morocco and Spain, or by Italy and Tunisia, or by Italy-Tunisia-Algeria-Morocco-Spain, would further strengthen.
So why is this World Cup attracting such harsh criticisms from some Western countries? Let’s first point out that the kafala sponsorship system—which enables the exploitation of migrant workers in Qatar and other countries in the “Arab world”—was originally introduced to the Persian Gulf during the British colonial era to police labor migration in the pearl and oil industries.
Very few among those who have shown a sudden concern regarding human rights in Qatar—which hosts the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East—seem interested in putting the same energy in denouncing the huge amounts of weapons that the “defense” industries of European countries export every year to Qatar and other local regimes. It is largely thanks to those weapons that these regimes manage to stifle any form of internal dissent regarding political, societal, and gender-related issues.
The United Kingdom, which has licensed more than £3.4 billion worth of killer weapons and military to Qatar in the last twelve years, boasts, in this regard, a particularly strong relationship with Doha. Several EU countries, which seriously violate the human rights of refugees and migrants, show similar patterns. Italy, the fourth-largest arms exporter to the European Union, is among them.
As for Germany—which has recently resumed a massive export of weapons which are used in Yemen (where a child dies every 10 minutes)—it is enough to recall the Mesut Özil affair: when the latter complained in a Tweet (December 2019) about the persecution suffered by Muslim Uyghurs in China, several of his national teammates spoke out against him, while Arsenal, his team at the time, released the following statement: “As a football club Arsenal has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics.”
It would also be important to inquire about the reason why human rights violations committed for decades in Russia (World Cup 2018) and other hosting countries of previous editions, have hardly attracted criticism and “gestures” comparable to the ones witnessed in these last few weeks.
To provide an example among many others: the BBC refused to air the inaugural ceremony in Qatar, while the one in Russia in 2018, as also happened on the occasion of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, was regularly broadcasted. Instead of airing the inaugural ceremony that took place at the Al-Bayt stadium, the BBC preferred to transmit a pre-recorded documentary that shed light on migrants’ conditions in Qatar. On the other hand, no documentary has been produced on other issues, starting with England’s £115 Qatar World Cup shirts “made by Thai factory workers paid just £1 an hour.”
This is not a way of negating the problem. Indeed, anyone (both inside and outside of Qatar) condoning the exploitation of forced labor in Qatar either get some advantages from it, or know that the country’s inadequate changes regarding this present-day slavery system (kafala) continue to leave workers at the mercy of exploitative bosses. But, again, those who prefer to focus just on the regime (and others in the region), while neglecting the whole background, are choosing the easy target and embracing a form of hypocrisy.
All this reminds us that Qataris—including disenfranchised migrants—have the full right to fight abuses. “Our” countries, on the other hand, have the full duty to avoid preaching moral lessons. They should focus more on the structural conditions which have led both to the rising of those same regimes and the current “poisonous grip” which the latter have on millions of people in the region. Addressing the weight of history—starting with the present and very recent past—might be the best antidote for that.
Lorenzo Kamel is a Professor of Global History at the University of Turin, and the Director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali’s Research Studies. He authored nine books, including Imperial Perceptions of Palestine: British Influence and Power in Late Ottoman Times (2015) and The Middle East from Empire to Sealed Identities (2019).