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.

Show Hide image

The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue