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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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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