Orientalist Double Standards: A Critique of Western Reporting on the Qatar World Cup
By Majd Ayyad | Spring 2023
For the first time in its history, the FIFA World Cup took place in an Arab country. Over three million spectators from all over the world gathered in Qatar and got the chance to experience the Arabian Gulf’s culture for the first time. In other words, Qatar was given an opportunity to address the differences between how Arabs are portrayed in Western media and their true lifestyles. That being said, the lack of cultural sensitivity shown towards Qatar’s culture has raised concerns about whether double standards still exist in the way Arab countries are represented in popular media.
The excessive criticism that Qatar received during the World Cup raises the question of whether this criticism is motivated by genuine human rights concerns or instead, closed-mindedness and white supremacy. In particular, Qatar was accused of overcontrolling the fans’ actions by banning beer in the stadiums and only permitting alcohol in private settings. On the other hand, the media was not concerned in the slightest when France banned beer after the European Football championship in 2016, which caused clashes between fans and left 50 people injured. Both actions were the same: banning alcohol in the stadiums. The former was justified by the country’s compliance with its religious rules and cultural norms, while the latter was driven by the need to stop violence; however, Qatar was the only country facing unwarranted criticism.
Another example of the media’s double standards can be seen when Lionel Messi wore a bisht, a traditional men’s cloak popular in the Arab world, typically worn by royalty. The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, gifted Messi a bisht just before Messi lifted the trophy. Afterwards, Western media exploded with racist comments. For example, Mark Ogden, a senior ESPN journalist, tweeted: “All the pics are ruined by somebody making him wear a cape that looks like he’s about to have a haircut.” In his sarcastic comment, the American journalist clearly insulted the country’s culture by demeaning Qatar’s traditional attire. In contrast, one would be hard-pressed to find similar backlash against the act of gifting traditional clothes when it was done in a non-Arab country: during the 1970 World Cup held in Mexico, a sombrero was put on Pelé’s head after Brazil won the World Cup. Furthermore, foreign athletes put on olive wreaths during the 2004 Athens Olympics as homage to the ancient Greek tradition.
The Western media played an important role in painting a misleading image of Qatar. One of the most repeated myths about Qatar is the alleged high fatalities among migrant workers since the country won the bid for World Cup. The Guardian, for example, emphasized that 6,500 immigrants from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka died between 2011 and 2020. Such reports overlooked the fact that the death number was proportionate to the size of the workforce, however; Craig LaMay, former acting dean at the Northwestern University campus in Qatar, noted that given the country’s population of 1.4 million migrant workers, 6,500 deaths over 10 years roughly corresponds to the mortality rate of young men in Germany. While Qatar certainly deserves scrutiny over its harsh labor laws, which have been somewhat relaxed in recent years, the mainstream media fails to do the emirate justice by misrepresenting the severity of the migrant workers’ death toll.
These unedifying reports about Qatar highlight the intellectual laziness of Western journalists. It is one thing to boycott countries violating human rights and press the government to change draconian laws, but it is quite another to pursue a single story about Qatar’s irreducible evil and degrade its cultural practices with a heavy splash of orientalism. Hosting the World Cup in Qatar granted football fans, and the rest of the world, a glimpse into the Middle East. Instead, the potent force of orientalism fueled Western spectators’ anxiety about an unknown Middle East into an irrational fear about the many vices of an authoritarian Qatar, despite its rich culture and progress in liberalization. When the next sports competition is hosted in the Middle East, Western journalists should learn to decolonize their writing.