After what we have seen at the Formula One Grand Prix in Bahrain, with demonstrations by pro-democracy protesters, the decision to give the 2022 World Cup to Qatar must be setting off alarm bells at FIFA. The Bahrain Grand Prix was cancelled twice last year amid an uprising sparked by the success of popular revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. Bahrainis took to the streets in February 2011, but won no concessions. The government broke up the Pearl Roundabout protest camp a month later, enforced martial law and brought in Saudi soldiers. Bahrain’s Sunni-ruled government brutally crushed the Shiite uprising, though the opposition has continued to demand political reform in protests and, occasionally, clashes with authorities.
What we have witnessed in Bahrain has placed a spotlight on sport and whether or not it has a moral soul. The decision to go ahead with the Formula One race despite anti-government protests which saw the track guarded by police, army in armoured vehicles, and dogs to keep activists away was criticised by Western leaders and media groups.
Will there be similar scenes at the World Cup in Qatar? Several Western organisations and media outlets have already expressed concern over the suitability of Qatar to host the event, with regard to understandings of human rights and press freedom. It doesn’t take much imagination to see these issues being turned into a political football.
The decision to give the event to the region raises serious question over safety for the fans. There will be huge numbers of Western fans in the region, can their safety be guaranteed? It is hard to imagine that the huge anti-Western feelings in certain parts of the Middle East will have eased by the time that the World Cup comes around.
In some areas, Qatar may appear quite liberal. For example, Qatar does not have a ban on alcohol. Alcohol can currently be consumed legally in a few clubs, bars, certain hotel restaurants, and the Pearl Island by showing your passport for reporting. However, homosexuality is against the law and the state of Israel is not recognised by the current regime. Although it has to be said, during and after the bidding process, the Qatari government stated that it would let the Israeli Football team participate in the World Cup on their territory despite not recognising Israel.
Outside of the uprisings in these regions, there is the question of Iraq, Afghanistan and the threat of war between Israel and Iran over the nuclear issue, all of which could make the Qatari World Cup a very dangerous place for Western football fans to travel to. The World Cup should be for the world, but giving the tournament to a country with debatable human rights and a region that, perhaps with good reason, is hostile to the West, may not be the most sensible decision FIFA has ever made. On the other hand, maybe the decision can help football find its moral soul, if football can help build bridges between East and West.
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