A political game

In Qatar this November and December, the Fifa World Cup will be played for the twenty- second time, but in a number of ways it will be unique. The timing, necessary to avoid the blistering heat of a Gulf summer, and which has required the reordering of the entire world football calendar, is a first. It will also be the first sporting mega-event to be held in the Middle East. At a conservative estimate the Qataris will have spent more than $200 billion on a transformation of the country that has centerd on staging the tournament, making it the most expensive ever, while the media coverage of the conditions of the millions of migrant workers who have built the stadiums and associated construction makes it the most closely scrutinized ever. Finally, given recent viewing trends and the country’s favorite time zone between Europe and Asia, Qatar 2022 will attract the largest broadcast audience ever for a World Cup, Olympics or anything else.

Given how little has been published on sport in the Middle East, or on the non-sporting side of the World Cup, these two books are welcome contributions that put Qatar 2022 in context: The Routledge Handbook of Sport in the Middle East by offering a range of essays on the history and the cultural and political significance of sport in the region; The Business of the FIFA World Cup by covering the ways in which past tournaments have been planned, financed, built, organized and marketed.

Two clear themes emerge from Danyel Reiche and Paul Michael Brannagan’s collection. First, that in the Middle East, football is king. This is true in much of the world, but the gap between the game and any sporting competitors is much more pronounced here than anywhere else. Why this should be unclear. Given the sport’s huge cultural and political weight, the second theme is no surprise; football across the region is inexorably and tightly bound to political power and political identities. Again, this is not a relationship on which the Middle East has a monopoly, but one in which it clearly excels.

In some states football is primarily a space in which domestic political conflict is played out. In Iran it has pitted conservatives against progressives, especially over the enduring and much contested ban on women attending men’s football matches. In Syria the Assad regime has used the men’s national football team as an ersatz symbol of national unity. In Egypt football has been an arena for conflict between successive regimes and the public for decades. The ultra groups that support the country’s biggest teams – Al Ahly and Zamalek – challenged Hosni Mubarak’s rule inside the stadium, and in 2011 were part of the coalition that toppled him. Since then their opposition to the military regime has seen them prohibited and politically crushed.

In other states, above all in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, football is primarily a matter of international politics, presence and influence. All three countries have bought a big European football club (Newcastle United, Manchester City and Paris St Germain) and staged minor international football tournaments. Qatar has gone much further than its larger neighbors: establishing the pre-eminent football broadcaster in the region, BeIN Sports; hosting the World Cup this year as the apex of its foreign policy of visibility; and making the game a primary instrument of urban development. These policies may be recent, but a number of contributions to the Handbook Remind us that football has deeper domestic roots in Qatar than one might imagine, with the country’s accession to Fifa in 1970 and first international football games, then its miraculous journey to the final of the 1981 under-20 World Cup (beating Brazil and England on the way), serving as vital moments in the collective imagining of the Qatari nation.

Some of the best chapters in the book deal with the minority sporting interests, helping to correct the cruder, flatter accounts of Middle Eastern societies that an exclusive focus on football generates. The ethnic complexity of societies is illuminated by the story of David Saad, a Lebanese Jewish judoka excluded from international competition in the 1970s as Lebanon’s repression of its Jewish community intensified. (He eventually competed at the Montreal Olympics in 1976.) An excellent chapter on the story of cycling in Qatar conjures up a bike-friendly Doha before the motorway and the 4×4, and explains how European cycling teams came to love the Tour of Qatar, whose harsh desert environments and fearsome crosswinds made it a grueling and much respected preparation for the cycle tour’s European Spring Classics. The pieces on the Bahraini royal family’s support for professional mixed martial arts (MMA), and the popularity of falconry as a “heritage” sport in the UAE are no less absorbing.

It is a shame, then, that there was no space in the collection for cricket – the game of the South Asian migrants who have built the modern Gulf – or horseracing – long the obsession of the region’s Aristocrats and monarchs. Above all, there was no space for a piece on Islam’s changing relationship to sport. Religion is by no means the only or dominant cultural force in shaping sport in the region, but in some places – Iran, for example – and on some issues, including women’s participation in sport, it has been profoundly important.

The Business of the Fifa World Cup has its moments. The account of the first tournament, held in Uruguay in 1930, draws some nice parallels with the present – a small, almost unknown country of fewer than three million people using the World Cup to advertise itself and its social and economic progress to the world. For the most part, however, the historical contextualization that should have been on offer is disappointingly thin. The book’s coverage of the role of domestic politics in shaping tournaments, the impact of critical global media coverage and the staging of political protests, all vital fields of research in looking at Qatar, are at the best pedestrian. In the case of Russia 2018, for example, no mention is made of the regime’s long-standing use of football as a political instrument at home, or the way in which the huge anti-pension-law that swept the nation in non- World Cup cities were obscured by the tournament. Nor is there much in the account of past stadiums and urban development programs at World Cups to clarify the scale and intentions behind Qatar’s construction bonanza – bigger than all the other twenty-one World Cups put together.

Politics aside, much of the book, the editors explain, is focused on questions of “leadership and brand management”, and covers the institutional and procedural infrastructure of actually making the media spectacle happen. These chapters on, among other topics, competition design ensuring the integrity of the games and making the tournament environmentally sustainable, do not mention marketing, broadcasting and social media strategies, certainly lay bare the long-to-do lists of World Cup organizers, but Offer little insight into the political processes and choices they conceal.

A final, stronger chapter on Qatar and culture takes us a little further down this road, looking at the ways in which the norms of global sporting events and federations, shaped in the global north, interact with the culture of a conservative and Islamic society such as Qatar, where homosexuality remains illegal and alcohol consumption is strictly regulated. A similar dynamic, underinvestigated in both of these books, has been the impact of global trade unions, human rights and media organizations on Qatar’s kafala system of labor migration and control which has effectively been dismantled over the past decade.

This is a significant presence. While that process is incomplete, and the new labor system is hardly Scandinavian, it probably constitutes the single largest domestic policy change induced by hosting a sporting mega-event – ​​another superlative for Qatar 2022. It is a consequence of the now unparalleled popularity, visibility and significance of football, and, compared to recent hosts of flagship global events like China or Russia, the relative openness of Qatar to the world’s media, and its greater vulnerability as a small state to global pressure and negative coverage. At their best these books help us to make a bit more sense of these extraordinary events, but neither, even in passing, can begin to address the question it all prompts. Why is football, of all things, asked to bear this kind of political weight?

David Goldblatt’s books include The Age of Football: The global game in the twenty-first century2019

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