As the clock ticks down for the FIFA World Cup in Qatar to kick off, a certain amount of abnormality remains tied to competition. The reasons are obvious and numerous and range from the unique schedule to the sly sports-washing strategies that have been used by the Qatari state.
There have been well-documented concerns and perceptions that are likely to influence the viewership of the tournament. These can end up determining whether the World Cup ends up being a massive success or a deplorable failure.
While there is no justification for Qatar having crossed multiple limits around corruption, human and LGBTQ+ rights, there are reasons for why they’ve taken these approaches, which go beyond mere sports-washing. It is much more than just about using football as a means to promote the nation, its identity and proving its own, credible footballing presence on a global level. Because of this, the Qatar World Cup can end up changing the way the game is viewed by the Western world.
As per the standard Britannica definition, Orientalism was a “Western scholarly discipline” that incorporated the study of the languages, literatures, religions, philosophies, histories, art and laws of Asian societies. In fact, the word “orient” itself comes from the Latin word “oriens” that means “east”.
The idea of Orientalism emerged in the 18th century when Asian societies and cultures became a matter of intrigue for the European powers. Colonialism was a key reason for this rise in interest. In fact, many Orientalists were part of colonial bureaucracy and hailed from the UK, France or Germany, as they desired to govern Asian societies using their local laws and practices instead of imposing foreign laws and regulations for the same. The intention behind the idea was intellectual, but it has changed over time, especially after the era of colonialism ended and Americanism came to the fore.
Post-colonial studies scholar Edward Said wrote in his book Orientalism that the concept was a purely colonial invention and a means through which the West demarcated itself away from the East. It was binary, and with the West historically having a more supreme control of narratives, it became easier for them to propagate representations of the East to the mainstream public. Over time, the West managed to attach stereotypes to the East, often portraying it rather unfairly in the process of dissemination.
Arabs, for example, have for long been portrayed as exotic and often backwards as opposed to the West. The Arab lands have been shown to be rather mysterious, inferior and despotic, with the West often appearing as the stark opposite. These perceptions have largely become mainstream even in other parts of Asia, leading to the creation of myths around the Arab lands such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar itself.
Football itself has often become a manifestation of Euro-centric biases, giving birth to terms such as “top five European leagues” and the representation of South American football as informal or loose. This is barely a surprise considering how football is often a representation of the world itself, and with narratives in football shaped by the Western media, the villainisation of Qatar is clear to see as well, with its underlying Orientalism roots, even if a lot of the accusations have justified claims.
A 1998 research paper by John Sugden and Alan Tomlinson titled Power and Resistance in the governance of football states that FIFA’s transnational identity can be used as a means for countries with a history of being colonised to bring about a new balance in the game. The fact that more BRICS nations have hosted FIFA World Cups is a genuine example of that. It can help in breaking down Old World boundaries that have existed for ages, thereby bringing down Orientalist stereotypes that exist in football and in the world in general.
Similarly, Qatar hosting the World Cup is linked to the country’s wish to break down stereotypes and bring about a new image for the country and the Arab lands themselves. Sports has been used as a strategy by Qatar to normalise its status in the global world, with tennis events, golf events and motorsport having become a mainstay in the Qatari calendar. It is an attempt to show the world that the Arab lands aren’t alien anymore, thereby washing over the representations that the West has built for them.
Qatar is trying to send out a message to those who witness the World Cup that its is not a society mired in primitivity but one that is thriving while being modern.
Even though the Western world’s villainisation of the ills done by Qatar during the lead-up to the World Cup is quite reasonable, the fact that other countries rarely faced backlash for hosting World Cups using shady ways is hypocritical. The incredibly low amount of awareness of the fact that the 2006 World Cup was essentially bought by Germany is shocking; Japan did the same for the 2002 World Cup. The game has, in fact, been writhing in corruption since the João Havelange presidency days, with attention for it only coming when the game’s golden goblet is being snatched away from the West.
This isn’t to defend the crimes against the migrant workers from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Nepal in Qatar that have either lost their lives or live in extremely poor living conditions. The repressive environment in the country against women and the LGBTQ+ community exists, and this isn’t a defence for that either. This is simply an encapsulation of how the world—the East and the West—is functioning. It works in rather subtle ways as a lot of things have been ingrained into our psyches due to dominant Western narratives.
Qatar has issues, massive ones, ahead of the World Cup. But hosting the football extravaganza in November will change footballing landscape and perceptions around the Eastern part of the globe in incredible ways. The process has been undergoing for a while now, as represented by Qatar Sports Investments’ takeover of Paris Saint-Germain in 2011, but that was only the tip of the iceberg. The game, after all, has never been further away from the West, which is now slowly losing its grip on this much-coveted asset.