November 30, 2022 2:51 pm
Since its foundation in 1971, the small emirate of Qatar has aimed to “be present on the map”, to make itself known and recognized in order to protect itself from its powerful neighbors and enemies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
With the television station Al Jazeera, launched in 1996, Doha proposed itself as an alternative to Western narration, creating an “Arab CNN”, particularly followed on a global level during the US invasion first of Iraq and then of Afghanistan.
For the democratic Arab world, Qatari TV was crucial in reporting on the Arab Spring of 2011, having been the only independent Arab broadcaster to broadcast what was happening in the squares of the region, among demonstrators demanding freedom, bread and dignity. Al Jazeera has always been progressive when it comes to dealing with events beyond its borders. She also sided with the region’s Muslim Brotherhood against UAE- and Saudi Arabian-sponsored forces. Furthermore, with the English version of Al Jazeera launched in 2006, Qatar set out to conquer Western public opinion. The World Cup in Doha in 2022 is the apogee of this strategy. To exist, but above all to change the global outlook not only on its 400,000 inhabitants, but on all the peoples of the region.
White supremacy and orientalism
Today the Qatari media empire has about ten mastheads including televisions, newspapers and social networks, and during the World Cup in Doha, the newspapers partially sponsored by the emirate rain down accusations against Europe guilty of orientalism and a “moral superiority complex”. . According to Feras Abu Helal, editor-in-chief of the Arabi21 newspaper, “the criticisms of the World Cup in Qatar present a mixture of white supremacy and orientalism, complete with comments on the ‘world cup in the desert’ and camels”. Although Europeans have a strong football tradition and their national teams have won more cups than any other continent, today “football is a global game”, underlines Abu Helal, and it is time for Europeans “to accept that the cup is played in different countries and continents”.
This vision of Qatar as a land of barbarism is “a self-congratulatory but incoherent show of moral superiority,” adds Imran Mulla in Middle East Eye.
Social networks are full of images in which Arab fans express their solidarity with Palestine, in defiance of their governments’ policies
Responses to Europe’s arrogance towards the Arab world appeared in several other Middle Eastern newspapers. On the pan-Arab Al Quds, the Yemeni journalist Mahmoud Gamyi accuses Eurocentrism of still and always believing itself to be the only “axis around which civilization revolves”. Gamyi observes that the strength of the Qatari proposal is that it has restored honor to the nomadic Arab culture, mortified by colonialism.
An example of this culture is the Al Bayt stadium, inspired by the Bedouin tent, which illustrates how Qataris have managed to present their heritage without “feeling any sense of inferiority”. And if many Europeans are victims of “media, cinematographic and academic distortions that aim to imprison Arabs and Muslims in stereotyped pictures” (as Edward Said extensively elaborated, the Arab is always portrayed in his tent), Doha shows the world that this “Arab tent that used to move in search of water and pastures has now become fixed. Now it is water and pastures that come to Qatar from different parts of the world. After centuries in motion, we have reached a phase of stability, with all that it entails in terms of civilization, stability, openness and modernity”.
During the opening ceremony, Qatar, continues Gamyi, was also able to convey the main spiritual messages of Islam to the world: with the Koranic verse on the single origin of all mankind, it linked the spiritual message of Islam to the rejection of all forms of racism, arrogance and other stereotypes expressed by those who attack the Arab and Islamic country, because basically they do not accept that the World Cup is organized in this “wild geographical periphery” far from the “sacred central geography”.
Pan Arab wedding
Outside of Qatar, the Arab press notes how much the sporting event has reawakened the great foundations of pan-Arabism, the ideal of an Arab union in opposition to the division of the Arab world created by the borders of colonial maps. The newspaper Al Quds headline on the cover: “Historical opening that embodies the Arab dream and dazzles the world“. Despite decades of division and war, columnist Ibrahim Darwish notes that Saudi Arabia’s victory was celebrated everywhere in the region, in Cairo, Amman, Fallujah, Iraq, and even among the war-torn Houthis of Yemen against Saudi Arabia, “even the many Arabs who detest Saudi foreign policy cheered the victory.”
Al Jazeera’s television coverage in Arabic is all about showing that these World Cups are those of the Arab world and not just the small emirate. The journalists sent delight in showing marriages between people of different Arab nations, such as the one between an Egyptian bride and a Palestinian in front of the Doha stadiums while Tunisians and Algerians exhort the couple with ullalí, the typical songs of Maghreb weddings. This festive atmosphere “embodies Arab unity in the Doha World Cup”.
Another element of pan-Arabism, the question of Palestine has returned to the center of attention. The emirate is one of the few Gulf countries aligned against the normalization of relations with Israel, and social networks are awash with images in which Arab fans express their solidarity with Palestine, despite their governments: Lebanese fans turn their backs to the Israeli journalist and remember that his country “is called Palestine, not Israel”, the Moroccan fans show up wearing keffiyehs and T-shirts with the photo of the Palestinian journalist of Al Jazeera, Shireen Abu Akleh, assassinated on May 11, 2022, and remember that “if the leaders have signed the Abraham accords, the Arab peoples remain in solidarity with the Palestinian cause”.
At the geopolitical level, writes Al Quds, the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Doha after a five-year boycott of Qatar is perhaps only symbolic but could be important “given that Muhammad bin Salman sat next to the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, in the royal booth, and Sheikh Tamim hailed victory by waving the Saudi flag. These political relationships can end as abruptly as they began, but small gestures matter, and even more so in the Middle East, where they remind us how divided the region is.”
For the first time in the history of the World Cup, the tournament takes place in the Middle East. In one region, explains Abdullah Al Arian, professor at Georgetown University in Qatar, who “considers football much more than a sport”. In his book The turbulent world of Middle East soccer James Dorsey, academic reference on Arab football, explains how much this sport is equivalent to “an arena where struggles for political control, protest and resistance, self-respect and gender rights take place”.
Since the beginning of their presence in the region, many clubs were born with a pro or anti-colonialist spirit, such as the famous Al Ahly in Cairo opened in 1907, and “they have been engines of national identity and social justice”. According to Dorsey, the stadium, in the Arab world, can be compared to the university campus – in that it has long been a breeding ground for revolution, an “incubator of protest”. The Egyptian ultras, for example, were “fundamental in breaking the cycle of fear that had enveloped society, showing that the forces of order were not invincible”. Their experience of fighting with the guards in the stadium was foreign to the middle class who descended to demonstrate: “Without their militancy and their organization, the overthrow of Mubarak might have proved impossible,” concludes Dorsey. Indeed, the Arab world is not in its first political confrontation over football.
The latest Qatari jabs at the European condemnations of the World Cup are ironic: many Arab social networks have commented on “the ignorant arrogance of the English fans who have come to give lessons in civilization dressed as crusaders”, while an article on beerwashing by Al Jazeera entitled “Beers, sports and men: the holy trinity of alcohol marketing” studies the male culture of drinking and stadium violence in Europe and observes that… it may be time to change this culture.