Qatar slams ‘prejudiced’ views despite embracing criticism with lightning speed

Qatar has faced increasing scrutiny that has been described by officials as racist.

Qatar’s Ambassador to the United States Sheikh Meshal Al Thani defended Doha’s hosting of the first World Cup in the Middle East in response to a CNN opinion piece vilifying the Gulf state.

Titled “Qatar’s Ambassador on why the Middle East deserves the opportunity to host soccer’s biggest event”, the piece takes on criticism from Roger Bennett, founder of the Men In Blazers Media Network, and Tommy Vietor, former US President Barack Obama’s spokesperson, both of whom penned their thoughts in an opinion piece published just days ahead of kick-off.

Bennett and Vietor’s opinion article comes amid growing scrutiny towards Qatar, mainly driven by the West through various media organisations as the tournament edges closer.

While authorities in Qatar have addressed concerns on migrant rights conditions, officials say recent criticism has morphed into a racist campaign against the first World Cup in the Arab and Muslim world.

Responding to Bennett and Vietor, Sheikh Meshal said the tournament is “a great chance to alleviate misconceptions and prejudice not only against Qatar but about Arab and Muslim culture as a whole.”

“Qatar has always believed in the power of sport to drive positive change, bring people together, and build bridges of respect and cultural understanding[…]we want fans to travel home with a better understanding of our country, culture and region,” wrote Sheikh Meshal.

Sheikh Meshal noted that “preconceived and often prejudiced views” about the region have increased, noting that the Gulf state itself has embraced the flood of criticism it has received. 

“Qatar is not opposed to scrutiny – in fact we have embraced it – but too often platforms have been used to present one-sided, factually inaccurate arguments that go beyond what some other countries awarded major events have faced,” said Sheikh Meshal.

The two authors claimed that journalists in Qatar are “thrown in jail” and the LGBTQ+ community are allegedly “treated as criminals”.

The allegations echo similar headlines that have emerged in Western media which have been slammed as baseless, inaccurate and misleading by Doha.

In his response, Sheikh Meshal stressed that Qatar is “an enormously welcoming country” where visitors will experience “the hospitality” of the Arab world.

“Our culture is rooted in values that treat all guests with the utmost generosity and respect, and every year we welcome millions of visitors from around the world,” said the Qatari envoy.

However, the campaign targeting Qatar is nothing new. Since it won the bid to host the World Cup in 2010, Western nations have taken aim at the Gulf state from all angles.

“Qatar – a peninsula smaller than Connecticut and with heat so extreme that it’s a potential health risk to play soccer there during the summer months – is the last place it would make sense to host a giant international sporting tournament,” said the two authors in the opinion piece.

For the first time in its history, this year’s FIFA World Cup will instead be played during the winter season to avoid the Middle East’s hot summer season.

While the changed November-December schedule is a lot cooler, the World Cup’s organising body has prioritised the issue when designing and building all eight stadiums for the tournament.

Footballing officials have also repeatedly said it’s time the sport is hosted beyond the borders of the West and Europe.

“European countries feel they have monopoly over the World Cup. Europe has hosted 11 tournaments out of 22 tournaments, of course it refuses that a country like Qatar or an Arab Muslim country hosts a tournament like the World Cup,” the Chief Executive Officer of Qatar 2022 Nasser Al-Khater told Al Jazeera just two weeks before the tournament.

Speaking to Sky News, Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said critics of the World Cup in Qatar are “arrogant” and “cannot accept a small country from the Middle East”.

Echoing the same sentiment, Al-Khater said accusations targeting Qatar have appeared to be backed by racist and political motives.

“We can say that they are highly racist given that a country like Qatar, an Arab Islamic country, a small country, was able to compete with large countries that consider that they are more deserving of hosting this tournament,” noted Al-Khater.

Migrant workers’ rights

Bennett and Vietor also referenced a misleading headline by The Guardian that falsely claimed 6,500 migrant workers had died while working on World Cup projects in Qatar.

The reported figure had referred to deaths of workers from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, and Bangladesh without providing a thorough investigation into their cause of death, as well as the alleged association with the sporting event.

Last year, Qatar’s Government Communications Office (GCO) said the report was “a far cry from reality” that failed to clarify the reasons behind the deaths.

“6,500 deaths – at least. The total death toll is almost certainly higher, as this figure does not include many countries sending workers to Qatar, including the Philippines and African nations,” said the two authors.

The Gulf state maintained that it recorded only three deaths linked to the World Cup, though officials have repeatedly stressed that each and every death is a tragedy.

While labour reform was already part of Qatar Vision 2030, the World Cup has helped accelerate development and change. Such reform includes the dismantling of the controversial kafala, or sponsorship, system that prevented workers from freely changing their jobs.

Over recent years, Qatar has doubled up its efforts to protect workers by partnering with key global rights organisations, including the United Nations International Labour Organization (ILO).

“Several misleading campaigns have included dangerous misreporting on worker statistics in Qatar – including figures that the ILO and others have refuted – but we have nevertheless pushed on with our reform program,” said the Qatari diplomat.

Sheikh Meshal said that despite Qatar’s reform, the Gulf state continued to witness “numerous misleading public campaigns attempting to disparage” the 2022 World Cup.

“When it comes to labour rights, for one, Qatar has actually welcomed critics and worked with global experts, including the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO), to implement and enforce sweeping reforms at lightning speed,” said Sheikh Meshal.

The Qatari envoy added that the “conditions for millions of workers in Qatar have improved, new standards have been set for the region, and other regional countries are following suit.”

Cultural differences

With Qatar being the first Arab host nation of the World Cup, some of the some 1.5 million football fans are likely to be visiting the region for the very first time.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos in May, Qatar’s Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani said the discrimination Doha has faced is due to people outside of the region refusing to learn about the Middle East.

“Even today, there are still people who cannot accept the idea that an Arab Muslim country would host a tournament, like the World Cup,” he said.

Sheikh Meshal said that the World Cup aims “to show that people of different nationalities, religions and backgrounds in fact have more in common than they think.”

“There is genuine enthusiasm for the Qatar World Cup – 97% of tickets for the tournament have been sold, with US sales among the highest of any country. We are excited to welcome every fan from around the world,” said Doha’s envoy to Washington.

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