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9 November 2022

In Qatar’s paranoid parallel universe, the World Cup is just a prop in a theatre of war

This is not just “sportswashing”: it’s very real power play.

By Jonathan Liew

In December 2018, the BBC sent its sports news correspondent Richard Conway to Qatar to investigate the country’s preparations for the next World Cup, four years out. And yet, given the many moral and logistical qualms already hanging over the tournament, the package that emerged seemed incurious. Concerns over labour rights were briefly mentioned, but no human rights groups were interviewed, and instead a member of the Qatari organising committee was given ample time to argue that the country was reforming.

Other potential objections were swatted away. “It’s like a very nice British summer’s day,” Conway said, thermometer in hand, rebutting any qualms over the climate. Three local interviewees testified to Qataris’ love of football. Conway himself whooped and squealed as he rode a camel and raced a buggy over the desert sand dunes. “The hosts,” Conway concluded, “have a self-belief that football can deliver a brighter future for all.”

Five months after this package was aired, it was announced that Conway would be leaving the BBC. Shortly afterwards, he began working as a consultant for Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy. Part of his job was to pinpoint journalists responsible for producing critical coverage of Qatar’s staging of the World Cup, and quietly persuade them of the wrongness of their arguments.

Conway’s appointment was a reminder of a principle that has guided much of Qatar’s strategy since long before it was awarded the biggest prize in football: if you have a message to send, it is worth having the right messenger.

You may have read recently that the Qatari government has been paying for hundreds of fans, including some from England and Wales, to travel to the World Cup in return for acting as brand ambassadors for the tournament. The fans have been provided with free tickets, travel and accommodation on the condition that they participate in official events, promote their experience on social media, and like and share posts related to the tournament.

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[See also: Iran’s act of defiance puts England to shame]

However, it has also been reported that members of the so-called Fan Leader Network will be expected to vet and report critical content posted by fellow fans. “You agree to report any offensive, degrading or abusive comments to the Supreme Committee,” the code of conduct stipulates, according to a copy seen by the New York Times. This is in effect a paid online army, wearing traditional fan colours and funded by the Qatari regime. And if it feels like the sort of publicity campaign that belongs more in the theatre of war than in the world of sport, then surprise: in Qatar’s paranoid parallel universe, these are in fact one and the same.

From its earliest days, Qatar has essentially been on a war footing. The fragile British protectorate that emerged in 1916 was flimsy: reliant on the Crown for security; and under constant threat from its near neighbours. As oil wealth flooded into the region in the 1950s and 1960s the country’s search for enemies turned brutally inwards, towards dissidents, reformers and ordinary workers seeking a greater share of the proceeds. The formation of the United Arab Emirates in 1971 and the growth of Saudi Arabia left Qatar isolated and anxious, forcing it into a close military alliance with the United States.

The history of Qatar tells us two things. First, that in the Qatari world-view visibility, wealth and security are not indivisible but part of the same basic survival impulse. Football is money is power is war. Second, that as a nation surrounded by natural predators it has developed a reliance on external actors to articulate Qatari priorities in a Western voice, and seeks wherever possible to sow division among its enemies.

We saw this around the time of the bid, when footballing luminaries like Alex Ferguson, Pep Guardiola and Zinedine Zidane backed a Qatar World Cup. The signing of David Beckham as a brand merchant, or hiring BBC correspondents and influential fan leaders, has had the same effect. The temptation is to see all this as a form of “sportswashing”: a highly polished PR job giving a dictatorship a positive makeover. In reality, sport is being used as a form of warfare in its own right: not soft power but the hard stuff, the real thing. It was recently reported that hundreds of Qatari civilians have been recalled to the country for conscription during the World Cup, a sign of how the logistical and military elements of this tournament have folded into each other.

All of which poses a single question. Are we still allowed to enjoy this thing? Perhaps to a point. This may well be the bitterest of ironies: that however imperfect and illusory, the World Cup has been a source of communion and shared happiness for so many people over the years. It is this resource that Qatar is mining for its own benefit: the joy of football, bought and subverted and sold back to us. Feel free to be entertained. But feel free, too, to withhold your patronage until something better comes along.

[See also: The Qatar World Cup is immoral and weird. How did we allow this to happen?]

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This article appears in the 09 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, On the brink