Qataris say criticism of the country in the midst of the World Cup is rooted in stereotypes

When singer Rod Stewart was offered more than $1 million to perform in Qatar, he said he turned it down.

“It is not right to go,” Mr Stewart told the Sunday Times of London recently, joining a series of public figures to announce their boycott or express their condemnation of Qatar as the Gulf state hosts the soccer World Cup.

Leading up to the tournament, which began last weekend, Qatar has faced a growing barrage of criticism over its human rights record, including the authoritarian monarchy’s criminalization of homosexuality and well-documented abuses of migrant workers.

Yet Mr. Stewart did not express disapproval when he performed in 2010 in Dubai or 2017 in Abu Dhabi, cities in the neighboring United Arab Emirates — a country that also has an authoritarian monarchy and has faced allegations of human rights abuses but that with greater success. Refinement of a friendly image of the West. Mr. Stewart declined a request for comment through his PR firm.

It is this kind of dissonance that is increasingly frustrating the Qataris as they face the glare of the international spotlight that trains at every World Cup. The tournament has brought a disproportionate wave of negative coverage, they say, and has produced descriptions of their country and its people that feel outdated and stereotyped, painting a picture of a Qatar they barely identify with.

The Qataris say they advocate double standards. Why would Europeans buy natural gas from Qatar, they wonder, if they find the country so unsavory that they can’t watch football there? Why don’t some international figures who have spoken out against Qatar do the same for the UAE?

They also said they hoped the first World Cup to be held in an Arab country would challenge stereotypes about Qataris, Arabs and Muslims.

Instead, it sometimes seems to have done the opposite.

In a speech last month, Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, called the insult “an unprecedented campaign that no host country has ever faced.” The Qatari foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, told a German newspaper that some of the criticisms were racist and arrogant.

Organizers said that at least 15,000 journalists are expected to visit Qatar, a country of three million people, for the World Cup. The avalanche of reporting has been overwhelming for a country that rarely makes international news. This is partly why Qatari officials want to host the tournament. It fits into a broader, decades-long campaign by Qatar’s rulers to transform the once-obscure country into a leading global player, a strategy funded by vast natural gas wealth.

But the media response was not what Qatar had hoped. In response to a question from a TV presenter about his impressions of the country, A French reporter responded, “There are a lot of mosques.” in image captionThe Times of London wrote: “Qataris are not accustomed to seeing women in Western dress in their country,” a sentence that was later modified. (In fact, foreign residents make up more than 85% of Qatar’s population, and women wearing jeans or short dresses are relatively common, unlike in neighboring Saudi Arabia.)

“A lot of reporters in all Arab countries get together,” said Justin Martin, associate professor of journalism at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, who spent 10 years in Qatar. “It’s a mixture of utter ignorance and Orientalist metaphors.”

Even some Qataris who welcome the criticism as a call for improvement say they resent the media coverage, which they believe is fueled by prejudices based on racism, Orientalism and Islamophobia.

An article in a British newspaper criticized Qatar’s “brutal” laws, a reference that was later changed to “brutal”. On the ship owned by Rupert Murdoch TalkTV, a relatively small British channel, the presenter asked a guest, “How much respect do we have to show cultures that we, frankly, find repugnant?” During a paragraph on Qatar’s treatment of LGBT people.

“My biggest concern is because of all the racism, or what is seen as racism-fueled articles, it strays from critical issues,” said Khalifa Al-Haroun, who runs the online visitor’s guide I Love Qatar. He added that loving his country means fixing its problems, and he believes that concern for workers’ rights has helped bring about positive change. But he said he was troubled by the stylized images, which he felt were riddled with discrimination.

“How can we focus on the problems when it comes to tone, it’s about verbosity, it’s about the words used?” Mr. Al-Haroun said.

Mr. Martin, a professor of journalism, said he believed part of the reason the coverage was so fierce was that the tournament’s shift from summer to November had angered fans and sports journalists by disrupting football schedules in other countries. He noted that there is also “animosity” over the limited availability of alcohol in Qatar, which is a relatively conservative Islamic country.

The Times of London and TalkTV did not respond to requests for comment.

Many Qataris say that stereotypes also hurt. British football magazine was created when Saturday comes World Cup wall chart With portraits of big-nosed men, two in Khaleeji Arab attire, one pushing a wheelbarrow full of cash. The poster was used as an example of biased imagery by the Qatar-owned Al-Jazeera channel during an interview with Hassan Al-Thawadi, head of the Qatar World Cup organization.

“They have a stereotypical idea that has been rooted in the Western world for generations and ages,” al-Thawadi said. “In general, the concept is uncivilized people, and the only positive thing about them is money.”

Andy Lyons, editor of When Saturday Comes, dismisses suggestions that the wall chart plays on stereotypes. Mr Lyons wrote in an email that the magazine’s cartoonist “draws most of the characters” with big noses and the cash was intended to represent bribes that US investigators and FIFA itself said were paid to FIFA board members in awarding the tournament.

Each tournament is accompanied, to varying degrees, by criticism of the host country of the World Cup. South Africa faced it over safety concerns ahead of the 2010 competition, Brazil faced it over corruption and crime before the 2014 edition, and Russia faced it over political repression, homophobia and police brutality in the lead-up to the 2018 edition.

But for Qataris and other Arabs, much of what they see hurts because it compounds centuries of harmful representations of North Americans and Europeans.

However, some analysts see the government’s efforts to highlight prejudice as a way to stoke nationalism and deflect attention from abuses. Political participation in Qatar is very limited. LGBT people face bigotry and possibly prosecution by the authorities. Women in Qatar hold leadership positions, but require permission from a male guardian to marry or travel abroad before the age of 25.

“I think we are justified in our anger at the racist and orientalist undertones that characterize the criticism issued by the West against Qatar recently,” said Mira Al-Hussein, an Emirati sociologist at the University of Oxford.

“But we can’t get it wrong with the fact,” she added, which is that Qatar and the rest of the Gulf countries are constantly making headlines for their “lamentable human rights record.”

While the Qatari government has improved protections for migrant workers, campaigners say the changes are not enough. Vulnerable migrant workers, especially from South Asia and Africa, built the infrastructure that made the World Cup possible. They face abuse and exploitation, working grueling hours for little pay – although scholars point out that Gulf societies are just one place in a global system that creates these hierarchies.

The chain of events at the front of the tournament did not help. Journalists were concerned about the restrictions on the locations where they could film. A sudden decision to ban beer in stadiums caused outrage. FIFA has banned captains from wearing rainbow armbands at matches as part of a social justice campaign.

When the president of FIFA, Gianni Infantino, attacked Western critics of Qatar on Saturday, he wrested the narrative from some of those events.

But though his comments were sensational to some, they resonated with many in the Middle East, who focused in particular on one remark he made: “I think what we Europeans have been doing around the world for the last 3,000 years should We apologize for the next 3,000 years, before we start giving moral lessons.”

Youssef Cherif, director of the Columbia Global Center at Columbia University in Tunis, said Qatar and the UAE have similar labor and human rights abuses. But he added, “While both authoritarian regimes reached the hearts and minds of the Arabs, only one of them won in Western circles, and that is the United Arab Emirates,” attributing the difference to the fact that the Emirates had created a “brand of modernist and likable Orientalism for” themselves.

Qatari organizers have attempted to use the World Cup to introduce visitors to their culture and, more broadly, to Islam, with translations of prophetic sayings displayed throughout the capital, Doha. Officials stress that it is the first World Cup in a region full of football fans.

“For 450 million Arabs, this is something they thought they would never see in their lives,” Ali al-Ansari, Qatar’s media attaché in the United States, said in a written statement.

“The success of this World Cup will not be measured by how some people and groups in a small number of European countries, who unfortunately cannot transcend their prejudices, perceive it,” said Mr. Ansari.

Rory Smith Contribute to the preparation of reports.

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