The rise of Qatarphobia

I’m fed up with the reaction to Fifa’s decision to award the 2022 World Cup to the tiny Gulf emirate

I was reviewing the paper's on Stephen Nolan's BBC Radio 5 Live show last night, and I was astounded at the number of callers and texters who were outraged over the decision by Fifa to award the 2022 World Cup to the emirate of Qatar. Even liberal bloggers on Twitter joined in on Thursday, after the announcement was made.

Can we all calm down, please? Yes, Qatar will be boiling hot in the summer of 2022 and, no, it doesn't have a big footballing pedigree. But, I would argue, both points also apply to the United States and yet I don't remember there being a big hoo-ha over the Yanks hosting the World Cup in 1994. (Remember the then Irish coach, Jack Charlton, losing it over the heat and lack of water bottles?)

In fact, as CNN has reported, Qatar plans to use state-of-the-art technology, involving solar thermal collectors and photovoltaic panels, to keep pitch temperatures below 27°C. And, as for "pedigree", Qatar is undoubtedly a footballing minnow, but it has won the Gulf Cup twice, in 1992 and 2004, both times as host, and will be hosting the Asian Cup next year. Young Qataris are as passionate about the global game as their neighbours.

The Guardian's in-house Middle East expert Brian Whitaker has an excellent piece on Comment Is Free debunking some of the other myths about Qatar and the World Cup. He makes four key points:

  1. "Qatar is ludicrously wealthy . . . Since money is no problem, one thing we can be reasonably sure of is that when 2022 arrives, Qatar's World Cup infrastructure will meet the highest standards and there won't be a last-minute cliffhanger over facilities as happened with the Commonwealth Games in India."
  2. "Alcohol is not actually illegal in Qatar, though it's an offence to drink or be drunk in public. The bigger hotels sell alcohol and foreigners living in Qatar can buy it under a permit system. I'm baffled as to why some people think this should disqualify Qatar from hosting the World Cup. Considering the problems that can arise with drunken fans, Qatar's restrictions don't seem unreasonable."
  3. "Gay sex is illegal in Qatar, though the authorities don't normally go out of their way to track gay people down . . . very few gay-related cases have been reported in Qatar."
  4. "Compared with some parts of the Middle East, the country has had very little trouble with jihadist militants."

He's right on all four points. I've been to Qatar, and Saudi Arabia it ain't. Don't get me wrong: like every other Gulf nation, Qatar has an autocratic and reactionary regime and is far from liberal or democratic. But let's not pretend the objections to the emirate hosting the 2022 World Cup revolve around human rights. I mean, China – China! – just hosted the Olympics. And Russia was awarded the 2018 World Cup on the same day as Qatar got 2022's. Russia, described in the leaked US diplomatic cables as a "virtual mafia state", has been involved in wars with its neighbours (Georgia) and with its own people (Chechnya) and has a much worse human-rights record than Qatar. For example, I can't remember the last time Qatar launched a bombing raid on a crowded city centre.

So, can we please just lose the Qatarphobia and get a grip?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.