Football in the Middle East: State, Society, and the Beautiful Game

21 November, 2022


Foot­ball in the Mid­dle East: State, Soci­ety, and the Beau­ti­ful Game, edit­ed by Abdul­lah Al-Arian
Hurst Pub­lish­ers (2022)
ISBN 9781787387133


Justin Olivier Salhani


It was in 2010 that the Inter­na­tion­al Fed­er­a­tion of Asso­ci­a­tion Foot­ball (FIFA) announced that Qatar would host the 2022 World Cup. Almost imme­di­ate­ly, the selec­tion of the gas-rich Gulf Arab state with a pop­u­la­tion of just over one mil­lion peo­ple ignit­ed con­tro­ver­sy. It led to a shake­up with­in FIFA itself that blight­ed the rep­u­ta­tion of its pres­i­dent, Sepp Blat­ter, and ulti­mate­ly led to the end of his tenure. Yet the con­tro­ver­sy has con­tin­ued. With the World Cup hav­ing just kicked off, there seems to be less atten­tion paid to the teams and play­ers as there is to the hosts.

Foot­ball in the Mid­dle East is pub­lished by Hurst.

When dis­cussing Qatar as a host for the World Cup, it can be dif­fi­cult to know where to stand. There’s been a bar­rage of both good faith and bad faith crit­i­cism. Good faith argu­ments tend to cen­ter migrant work­ers and vio­la­tions of their rights. Bad faith crit­i­cisms might include Ori­en­tal­ist or racist under­tones. Some­times, there are good faith crit­i­cisms of the bad faith crit­i­cisms. Yet often the bad faith crit­i­cisms are high­light­ed to dis­miss any, and all, criticism.

This is impor­tant to keep in mind when read­ing Foot­ball in the Mid­dle East: State, Soci­ety, and the Beau­ti­ful Game, an anthol­o­gy of twelve chap­ters writ­ten by var­i­ous aca­d­e­mics and jour­nal­ists, and curat­ed by Abdul­lah Al-Ari­an, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at George­town Uni­ver­si­ty in Qatar.

Exam­in­ing the rela­tion­ship between foot­ball and pol­i­tics, the book spans North Africa, the Lev­ant, Turkey, Iran, and the coun­tries of the Gulf Coop­er­a­tion Coun­cil (GCC), of which Qatar is one. Of the twelve chap­ters, three focus on Qatar, with an addi­tion­al one look­ing at the GCC more generally. 

There are superb con­tri­bu­tions here, includ­ing dis­cus­sions of the vast­ly unequal treat­ment of women foot­ballers in Turkey com­pared to their male coun­ter­parts (Yağ­mur Nuhrat), the unique form of dis­crim­i­na­tion suf­fered by Pales­tin­ian foot­ballers in Lebanon (Danyel Reiche), foot­ball and the transna­tion­al Boy­cott, Divest­ment and Sanc­tions move­ment for Pales­tine (Aubrey Bloom­field), and the impact of social media on women’s strug­gle to attend foot­ball match­es in Iran (Niki Akha­van). In fact, one of the most suc­cinct descrip­tions of foot­ball in the region comes from this last:

The con­tin­ued polit­i­cal and social con­tes­ta­tion cen­tered on foot­ball games […] cap­tures the posi­tion in which the state finds itself: caught between the ben­e­fits of foot­ball for engag­ing the pop­u­la­tion and allow­ing the state to legit­imize its poli­cies and the down­side of foot­ball as a site where demands are made on the state.

One might also men­tion the chap­ter by Maher Meza­hi (full dis­clo­sure: Meza­hi is a friend) on the his­to­ry that led to Algeria’s 2019 Hirak move­ment. He takes the read­er on a jour­ney from pop­u­lar cafes to the foot­ball sta­di­um and out into street protests. Con­nect­ing the three, he shows how hard­core foot­ball fans, com­mon­ly known as ultras, con­tributed to anti-gov­ern­ment protests through pop­u­lar chants, music, large chore­o­graph­ic dis­plays referred to as tifos, and graffiti.

The most thought-pro­vok­ing chap­ter is the anthology’s first, titled “The Polit­i­cal Game: A Geneal­o­gy of the Egypt­ian League,” by Ibrahim Elhoudai­by. This entry cov­ers the ori­gins of the Egypt­ian foot­ball league and the class and colo­nial dynam­ics at play in the ear­ly days of the sport in Egypt, from British occu­pa­tion to inde­pen­dence. Elhoudai­by reframes the rela­tion­ship between sport and pol­i­tics by argu­ing that the lat­ter is not only insep­a­ra­ble from the for­mer, but also that pro­fes­sion­al foot­ball is “a polit­i­cal ter­rain in its own right.” He also explains how foot­ball was used by the British as a means of colo­nial subjugation:

Tar­get­ed colo­nial sub­jects were not peas­ants or urban poor play­ing on the streets, but effendis — the colo­nial­ly edu­cat­ed mid­dle-class men who were to be dis­ci­plined into civ­i­lized impe­r­i­al cit­i­zens. Sec­ond, mix­ing with the colo­nial sub­jects on play­ing fields was a means of empha­siz­ing colo­nial dif­fer­ence. It was an expres­sion of British supe­ri­or­i­ty man­i­fest in their mas­tery of team tac­tics and indi­vid­ual self-dis­ci­pline. Colo­nial dis­cours­es had deemed the Egypt­ian body “weak­er, less dis­ci­plined, and insuf­fi­cient­ly mas­cu­line” and there­fore unfit for nation­al ser­vice, and British supe­ri­or­i­ty on the field val­i­dat­ed these claims.

Sit­ting uncom­fort­ably along­side the afore­men­tioned entries are oth­ers of con­sid­er­ably less mer­it. Those on Qatar emerge as the main offend­ers. While many of the chap­ters in Foot­ball in the Mid­dle East, includ­ing Al-Arian’s, share research on peo­ple in the region fight­ing for free­dom from oppres­sion, or peo­ple who are over­looked by their country’s rul­ing pow­ers, those focused on Qatar are more con­cerned with deflect­ing crit­i­cism of the country’s regime or defend­ing it outright.

This short­com­ing is most unfor­tu­nate, par­tic­u­lar­ly as the issues of soft pow­er and “sports­wash­ing” (whether or not explic­it­ly iden­ti­fied as such) fig­ure promi­nent­ly in the book. In edi­tor Al-Arian’s own chap­ter, “Beyond Soft Pow­er: Foot­ball as a Form of Regime Legit­i­ma­tion,” which exam­ines how football’s pow­er and influ­ence are often enlist­ed in the ser­vice of state-build­ing, he defines sports­wash­ing as states using “their pro­mo­tion of foot­ball to coun­ter­act inter­na­tion­al iso­la­tion and neg­a­tive pub­lic­i­ty result­ing from dam­ag­ing poli­cies in oth­er are­nas.” In addi­tion to describ­ing George W. Bush’s polit­i­cal use of the Iraqi nation­al foot­ball team’s suc­cess­es dur­ing his time as pres­i­dent of the coun­try that invad­ed Iraq, he is not averse to dis­cussing the sub­ject with­in the con­text of the Arab Gulf.

For exam­ple, Al-Ari­an high­lights the UAE’s pen­chant for repres­sion both on the domes­tic front and in terms of which Arab regimes or move­ments abroad it sup­ports. And he has the fol­low­ing to say about Sau­di Arabia’s prob­lem­at­ic involve­ment in inter­na­tion­al sport:

Sau­di Ara­bia has active­ly stepped up its invest­ments in foot­ball, for instance by host­ing both the Ital­ian and Span­ish domes­tic cup final match­es and the pur­chase of Eng­lish club New­cas­tle Unit­ed by the state-owned Pub­lic Invest­ment Fund. Con­cur­rent­ly, the Sau­di regime has waged a destruc­tive war in Yemen and car­ried out a vio­lent cam­paign to repress dis­sent at home and abroad.

What, then, of Qatar? Even as Al-Ari­an apt­ly describes Sau­di and the UAE’s attempts to use sport to white­wash their repres­sion of free­doms at home and their adven­tur­ism abroad, he does not sub­ject Qatar to the same sort of scruti­ny, whether in terms of its host­ing the World Cup or its acqui­si­tion of a Euro­pean foot­ball club. Al-Arian’s is the book’s sec­ond chap­ter; it is a sign of things to come.

In “Home­land: Nation­al Iden­ti­ty Per­for­mance in the Qatar Nation­al Team,” Thomas Ross Grif­fin pur­sues a some­what dif­fer­ent approach, albeit one sim­i­lar­ly char­ac­ter­ized by omis­sion. What Grif­fin con­spic­u­ous­ly leaves out of his dis­sec­tion of Qatar’s nation­al foot­ball team mem­bers’ patri­o­tism is that Qatar is an auto­crat­ic state. The author breaks down the team into three cat­e­gories: full Qatari cit­i­zens (jus san­gui­nis), long-term res­i­dents born in Qatar (jus soli), and play­ers nat­u­ral­ized to rep­re­sent Qatar (jus tal­en­ti). Grif­fin finds that despite the dif­fer­ing cat­e­gories, the dis­plays of patri­o­tism and rev­er­ence for Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani show lit­tle variation. 

This was most notable, he states, dur­ing the 2017 block­ade of Qatar by its Gulf neigh­bors, when pub­lic dis­plays of Qatari patri­o­tism surged. “Qatar play­ers wore t‑shirts with the Tamim Al-Majd [Tamim is glo­ry — ed.] image embla­zoned across the front,” Grif­fin writes of a 2018 World Cup qual­i­fi­er against South Korea. “What is cru­cial to note in this per­for­mance of social nation­al­ism dur­ing such an extra­or­di­nary moment in Qatar’s his­to­ry,” the author con­tin­ues, “is that every play­er par­tic­i­pat­ed in this very pub­lic per­for­mance of Qatari iden­ti­ty. It was not just those in the jus san­gui­nis group.”

Grif­fin may be right. Yet, aside from the fact that he seems to con­flate patri­o­tism and rev­er­ence for one’s ruler, such rev­er­ence for a ruler none of the play­ers have any say in elect­ing does not seem to strike him as at all bizarre. Sep­a­rate­ly, he con­curs with Qatar’s view of itself as “a mod­ern, open” nation —with­out not­ing the rights it denies its cit­i­zens, includ­ing those in the sup­pos­ed­ly envi­able jus san­gui­nis group. 

Where­as Grif­fin fails to prop­er­ly lay out the real­i­ty of an auto­crat­ic state, Zahra Babar’s chap­ter, “Qatar, the World Cup, and the Glob­al Cam­paign for Migrant Work­ers’ Rights,” goes one step fur­ther. Babar bold­ly defends Qatar’s labor reforms in the face of wide­spread crit­i­cism. This is iron­ic. True, under pres­sure, Qatar dis­man­tled its kafala sys­tem, in which for­eign work­ers’ visas were spon­sored by local cit­i­zens or com­pa­nies, mean­ing that these for­eign­ers’ legal pres­ence was entire­ly depen­dent on an employ­er and open to exploita­tion. Yet thou­sands of migrant labor­ers have died in Qatar since 2010, many of them work­ing on infra­struc­ture relat­ed to the World Cup. While the Qatari gov­ern­ment has said many of these deaths are from nat­ur­al caus­es, the uncer­tain­ty around the issue stems from Doha’s fail­ure to make data avail­able to researchers or rights groups. Instead, the gov­ern­ment has clas­si­fied many deaths as car­diac arrests — a man­ner or mode, but not a cause, of death — or sim­ply deter­mined them to be “unex­plained.”

More­over, accord­ing to advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tion Migrant Rights, kafala is “still alive,” even if unof­fi­cial­ly. Babar her­self acknowl­edges that “[t]he largest infra­struc­tur­al projects in Qatar that require labor input from migrants are state-led. […] With such an intense blur­ring of bound­aries between ‘state’ and ‘busi­ness,’ it is disin­gen­u­ous for the state to posit that it is not account­able for labor vio­la­tions that occur.”

One of Babar’s cen­tral argu­ments is that inter­na­tion­al human rights groups would have been bet­ter served spend­ing the last twelve years build­ing rela­tion­ships with Qataris in an effort to spur change, instead of lev­el­ing crit­i­cisms at the Qatari gov­ern­ment. This comes across as some­what cav­a­lier. After all, con­nect­ing with Qatari activists could endan­ger them; many Qataris who have spo­ken out about polit­i­cal or human rights have been jailed, some­times with life sen­tences. As for non-cit­i­zen work­ers’ rights activists in a coun­try in which trade unions are ille­gal, one has only to look at the case of Kenyan blog­ger Mal­colm Bidali — whom Babar fails to men­tion. On May 4, 2021, Bidali was forcibly dis­ap­peared after blog­ging about his expe­ri­ence as a secu­ri­ty guard in Qatar and the plight of oth­er for­eign work­ers. After 26 days in soli­tary con­fine­ment, Bidali was oblig­ed to pay a hefty fine and deported.

Anoth­er chap­ter that proves prob­lem­at­ic is Simon Chadwick’s “GCC Foot­ball Fans and Their Engage­ment: Estab­lish­ing a Research Agen­da.” Ear­ly on, the author cor­rect­ly dis­miss­es Ori­en­tal­ist cri­tiques of Gulf Arabs that por­tray them as lack­ing ade­quate pas­sion for the game and con­se­quent­ly claim that they would make for unsuit­able World Cup hosts: “Such views are at best naïve or per­haps ill-informed, but at worst they are patron­iz­ing, con­de­scend­ing, and reflect a trou­bling xenophobia.” 

This is about as infor­ma­tive as Chad­wick gets in his chap­ter, the crux of which is ded­i­cat­ed to prov­ing that research on GCC foot­ball cul­ture is “insuf­fi­cient­ly diverse in its foun­da­tion and focus, as it fails to account for the dis­tinc­tive­ness of engage­ment across the region.” While it is true that there is a pauci­ty of schol­ar­ship on sports fan­dom in the GCC, sim­ply point­ing this out, with­out ven­tur­ing into the realm one­self, serves lit­tle pur­pose. Say­ing “I don’t know” might be hon­est, but doing so in a chap­ter of a book about foot­ball in the Mid­dle East, rather than before one is assigned to write said chap­ter, is curi­ous. Then again, per­haps this is a delib­er­ate, and eva­sive, maneuver.

Indeed, though this book includes illu­mi­nat­ing chap­ters on sub­jects of great impor­tance both in and to the Mid­dle East, inso­far as Qatar is con­cerned, the goal appears to be obfus­ca­tion. To be sure, nuance is always wel­come. Many issues are not with­out moral or eth­i­cal com­pli­ca­tions, and the World Cup in Qatar is at times sub­ject­ed to sim­plis­tic analy­sis. When it comes to the rights of migrant work­ers and local minori­ties, how­ev­er, the moral toll of look­ing away or equiv­o­cat­ing is abun­dant­ly clear. 

Foot­ball in the Mid­dle East con­tains much of val­ue in many of its pages. But read­ers keen for per­ti­nent infor­ma­tion and insight­ful analy­sis on Qatar would do bet­ter to look elsewhere.



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