Footballing for soft power – A conversation with James Corbett

It’s a good time to take a step back and evaluate where we stand as we enter the final weeks before the World Cup in Qatar.

The Qatar World Cup has emerged as one of the more controversial tournaments, if not the most controversial in the history of world soccer body FIFA.

At the core of the controversy were questions about the integrity of the Qatari bid.

In other words, did the Gulf State bribe its way into becoming a host? Can potential hosts be disqualified because they’re small states, Qatar has a mere 300,000 citizens, or because they have an extreme climate?

In Qatar’s case, it gets very hot in the summer, traditionally the time of the year that the World Cup takes place. And, of course, human rights including political rights, labour rights, and rights related to sexual gender diversity.

Joining me today to take a stab at evaluating the often fierce debate about the Qatar World Cup that has sparked deep seated emotions on both sides of the divide, and to look at what the debate has produced in terms of change in Qatar and lessons learned by human rights groups, trade unions, and other activists and NGOs, as well as what happens to these issues once the World Cup is over, is renowned sports journalist and historian James Corbett.

I invited James, both a friend and a colleague, because he is, in my mind, one of the most level-headed, best-informed reporters who has covered the Qatar World Cup from the day the Gulf State launched its bid.

Here follows a transcription of the conversation:

James, welcome to the show and to what I hope will be a conversation and discussion rather than an interview.

Corbett (01:59):

Thank you for having me on, James.

Dorsey (02:02):

It’s a pleasure and an honor. Let’s start off with throwing out a dilemma that I’m grappling with. Qatar has become a kind of lightning rod, much like Iran or perhaps Turkey. It evokes guttural, l instinctive responses among European and American fans. To be fair, Qatar got off on a wrong foot from the outset with a suspicion of corruption in its World Cup bid. It never was able to shake the allegations as well as satisfy its critics on multiple other issues such as Labour and LGBT rights. I can come up with lots of reasons why, and hopefully we’ll dig into that in a bit. But there is one issue I struggle with. It had annexed Crimea, it was persecuting LGBT, had labour issues related to the World Cup, and was violating rights in human rights. In general, I’d like to think that the difference is more than simply bias and prejudice. Am I missing something?

Corbett (03:14):

No, I don’t think you are missing anything, James. I think the best thing that ever happened to Russia’s successful World Cup bid happened, happened about 25 minutes later when set Blatter pulled Qatar out the envelope and the world looked the other way. And I think it’s a symptom perhaps, of journalism and the media’s failings that it can only look at one issue at any one time, which is being Qatar instead of looking at both Qatar and Russia. But even in the buildup, in the immediate buildup to the Russia World Cup, it was during the Gulf blockade, there’s all sorts of misinformation coming out of the region anyway trade union groups and rights activists retained, despite all that background, they retain their focus on QATAR instead of looking at Russia. And there were very, very egregious labour abuses. That’s just one issue around the building of Russian World Cup stadiums, which was almost entirely overlooked in the media. Obviously, Russia’s a sort of Pandora’s box of corruption and human rights abuses. It’s obviously in the midst of an illegal war in Ukraine and was when it was hosting the World Cup and all these things were overlooked. And I think it’s been a failure of the media in general to have covered that and to have taken it’s eye off Russia when things were going on. But of course, that isn’t to minimize the very many and very serious issues arounds status as well.

Dorsey (05:07):

Sure. It’s actually interesting, I hadn’t thought of it from Russia’s perspective, but indeed they must have been delighted that there was a lightning rod that didn’t put a focus on them. And it also raises the issue, and it’s actually an issue that I think goes much broader than just Qatari World Cup, which is that as a consequence of that, the Qataris, of course, are not totally unjustified in their sort of sense that they’re being singled out and that there are double standards involved. And it strikes me that the whole double standards discussion is all the more important. If you look at the much bigger picture with regard to the rivalry between Russia, China, the United States, for shaping the 21st century world order with, in many ways, many countries having not fully endorsed the US position on Ukraine because of double standards. So, in that sense, the Qataris really have a foot to stand on.

Corbett (06:15):

Yeah, I mean there’s complete double standards. I’ve said this from the start. When London was awarded the Olympic Games in 2005, it was in the midst, the UK was in the midst of an illegal war, an occupation of Iraq. If we’re going to apply the sort of standards that we’ve seen the rest of the world apply and the sort of indignation, where does it stop? Are we going to have a planet where the only event hosts can be Switzerland and Norway and Bhutan? Maybe every country has its shortcomings and failures in every country has its advantages too. But the Qataris have also made quite a thing of this victimization, perhaps quite rightly in some instances. And I don’t think they ever anticipated the fury of the response that their host status would get.

Dorsey (07:31):

No, I think they were to totally taken by surprise. And, basically, they thought, a little bit like an ostrich that puts his head in the sand, and when he pulls his head out this will all have blown over. And instead, what happened is whatever moral high ground they had vanished and they were on the defensive.

Corbett (07:52):

Yes, absolutely. And the Qataris were out in South Africa during the year that they won host status in 2010, and they saw the level of scrutiny that South Africa got. And every time there’s a World Cup, there is a sort of moral crisis around the host nation. In South Africa. It was crime. And I remember being part of the media there, and there was a section of the media, perhaps the tabloid media, who were literally waiting for the first reports to go get mugged so they could write about it and sensationalize it. And it happens with every single tournament, Japan, South Korea. The outrage then was that some Koreans eat dog in Germany, there was sensationalized stories that it was going to be a meeting point for hooligans all over Europe. In Brazil it was crime as well. And also, the issues of infrastructure. So, every World Cup tournament has these issues arising out of it. But when you have a tournament in a place like Qatar, which is small and alien and hot and probably not very well understood by the rest of the world, then those issues are going to, they’re gonna be amplified even further.

Dorsey (09:18):

So, they should have been prepared for this. We saw this in South Africa and elsewhere. Maybe one reason why they should have been prepared for this is that, in contrast to the Gulf States and the Middle East, the Qataris did try to engage with their critics and bring them in rather than just build a wall and have nothing to do with them.

Corbett (09:41):

Yeah, look, I think there’s a couple of things going on there. One is that, yes, at one level the Qataris engaged, they spend a huge amount on public relations. They have lots of very smart and very well-educated Western advisors. And on another level, the actual leadership of the country, the people who are making the decisions in the palaces and so on, they don’t actually care that much. And they believe what they want to hear. Oh, sorry, they, I’ll say that again. They hear what they want to believe. They don’t listen. And we’ve seen this again and again, and I’m sure we’ll come back to it later in our conversation, where there’s been a readiness for engagement on issues about labour, abuses of human rights and so on. And the rug has been pulled from underneath those wanting to enact change in Qatar by the people that were ultimately running the country.

Dorsey (10:43):

Yeah, it seems to me that, I think I agree with that. It seems to me that part of the problem was that you had, for example, the World Cup organizers, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, which really, I think in many ways was of good will and understood the issues and in some ways even understood what it needed to do but had no freedom of movement in decision making. All the decision making was all centralized coming down to even what they would were able to say in a press release. And, therefore, they often weren’t able to respond appropriately or even in a timely fashion. I mean, I remember that on issues with dealing with the IUTC at one point where Sharon Burrow, the Secretary General, had visited the wrong stadium and I asked them about it and they wanted to respond, but I only got the response I wanted when I said: ‘Look, I’m publishing in three hours. You’re either part of the story or you’re not.’

Corbett (11:49):

Yeah, yeah, there’s absolutely some of that. And even back in 2010 and 2011, I remember a member of the Royal family had a press officer personally assigned to him and being called at 11 o’clock at night saying, you know, can’t have that story out because it looks like he’s less important than a civilian who was on the Supreme Committee or the bid committee. You know, you have all these little things going on behind the scenes and people who are terrified that they’re gonna upset the wrong person. And that can have very devastated consequences in someone like Qatar.

Dorsey (12:46):

Absolutely. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that my sense of this is that the whole debate as it’s taking place and it has taken place about Qatar, is that there are very genuine issues, and those issues are serious enough ins of themselves, whether that’s the labour issue, the LGBT issue, or the issue of the press, freedom of the press to freely report and to look for elements of their story, for example, through unfettered access to the living quarters of migrant workers. But on the other hand, some of that got blurred or distorted by what I would call bias, prejudice, and sour grapes. So questions like what you mentioned in the beginning, it’s a small country, it’s 300,000 citizens, it’s a desert country, it’s hot in the summer. But who defines what size you have to be, to be able to stage an event like this, or on what grounds are you holding a country hostage to its climate? And then, of course, there were the sour grapes, which in my mind, leaving aside for now, the integrity of the bid, Qatar spent a multitude in comparison to what its competitors, the United States, Australia, and others spent. But there were reasons for that. And those reasons were never delved into in the debate. It seemed to me that in some ways, yes, the critics were engaging, but they were also complicating their own positions by virtue of the fact that they could not separate these issues.

Corbett (14:30):

Although the critics have engaged, that’s been part of the problem. Very few reporters until really the last year have actually gone out to see it on the ground. And they’ve all made snap judgments and they’ve misrepresented data, which is not always very good data to make their cases and so on. Look, I think at the heart of it, we talked about the size and the heat, and there’s also the lack of football culture, the perceived lack of football culture and so on. I don’t think you can ever get over that, you know, you can spend all you want on PR companies and try sponsorships and influencing the sport in different means and ways, whether that’s club ownership or owning a broadcaster or even sponsoring an NGO as Qatar has done in several ways. But you’re not gonna get over the core issues, which is that the World Cup is gonna be hosted in a few weeks in somewhere that is hot and alien and unfamiliar and very, very foreign to an awful lot of people.

With regards to your comment about the sour grapes, again, I don’t know that that’s necessarily past the agenda. I think it’s, it’s certainly influenced some bits of it. We all have our suspicions where, for instance, the so-called FIFA files that the Sunday Times published, where they came from and where they originated from and why they were published and where they were. And it’s been alleged that an executive from a failed bid sponsored the acquisition of those allegations. So, The Times vehemently deny. But I don’t know that sour grapes has necessarily influenced the debate. It’s just, it’s just the way that football is and football reporting it is particularly on these big issues. You’d go from one day of outraged headlines to another, and that’s essentially what drives sales or web traffic these days.

Dorsey (16:52):

I mean, let me touch, you brought up implicitly three points separate points. One is the issue of legacy. And again, what is legacy? If you look at Qatar’s football history, if you wish, they won their first regional tournament in 1992, no, sure, they’ve never been in a World Cup before, but they’ve won multiple regional Asian, Middle Eastern golf tournaments. So, there is what constitutes legacy. That’s one question. The other thing is, yes, you’re right. I mean, I agree with you. The media really only recently started putting in the resources to report and investigate on the ground. But if you go back to the early days, you did have Amnesty International, you did have Human Rights watch the International Union of Trans Transport Confederation, the IUTC, all of them, for one, first of all, getting access to Qatar, whereas at a time that nobody was getting access to the Gulf, nobody of that ilk was getting access to Gulf countries and the Qataris engaging with them. And you got drafting of model contracts for World Cup related projects and so on and so forth. So, when I was talking about critics, I was referring to more than just the media. And it’s the question then is, so part of that question is engagement work to a degree. So, with other words, the willingness on both parties to talk to each other and maybe only a limited, but to some degree of will to entertain changes, I wonder whether we would’ve gotten these changes, one without the World Cup and two without the engagement.

Corbett (19:05):

No, I don’t think we would’ve got the changes. And I think, also, the sort of work that the human rights groups have done wouldn’t have gotten the same attention. I mean, this came up when we were on a panel together at the Play the Game conference in June with Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch. And I asked her, did human rights groups actually take their eye off the ball? Because it was not really until the latter part of 2013 that people started talking about human rights issues in Qatar. And, certainly the media covering the bit process. I started reporting on it in June, 2009, you know, could see it in front of you. You could see these Indian migrant workers on the old American school buses being taken to their workplaces. And you could see the way that they were operating on building sites around the cities. But you tended not to think about it because frankly we weren’t educated in it and we failed as well. So, there was a lack of engagement on these issues and until it was too late. But yeah, definitely, there’s no question that had it not been for the World Cup that Qatar would have engaged, there’s no popular mandate for labour reform or kahala reform within the country. And if you look at the research, overwhelmingly, we’re talking 90% plus the population didn’t think anything needed to change in the condition of its migrant label labour force.

Dorsey (21:05):

For one, I think in fact, I would take the issue of not having had your eye on the ball much further. I mean, if you look at 40 years of Gulf coverage, the situation of migrant workers never played a big role. I mean, I remember going to the Gulf for the first time in 1976 and writing a full-length page in a newspaper about what I was terming in Kuwait an apartheid system. So, you’ve had this going on since the oil boom after the 1973 oil boycott of America during the Middle East War. And the media never really picked up on it, even though it was an urgent and burning question even then. But the other part of all of this is, which has struck me, and it struck me also in fact during the Play the Game conference that you mentioned, was that after years of Qatar and its critics battling it out, there’s this incredible gap of distrust. It hasn’t in any way brought people together. So. I get a lot of questions and I assume so do you, so, is Qatar going to roll back these reforms once the spotlights are out and the tournament is over and nobody looks again, I find for reasons that we can get to in a moment, in my mind, there’s no way that they’re gonna roll this back. They have every interest in retaining it, if not expanding it.

Corbett (22:29):

Yeah, I think it’s a very interesting point. You talk about that sort of 40-year sweep of or nearly 50 years sweep of history since you.

Dorsey (22:59):

I’m giving away my age.

Corbett (23:01):

<laugh> reporting on it. I studied Middle Eastern history in politics at the London School of Economics in the late 90s, and we hardly did anything on the Gulf. We really didn’t do anything. It was all about conflict and all about Iran, Palestine, a little bit about North Africa, but the Gulf, we never did anything about it. But because it’s so wealthy, it has such an incredible impact on not just regional affairs, but increasingly global affairs. And the governments of these countries have really integrated way into the global social and political system of world governance in a way that’s almost crept up upon us. So this malay goes back, as I say, years and years. And it’s not just the media, probably academia as well, and the way that we look at the Middle East as a whole,

Dorsey (24:13):

I mean it’s also, but this is an aside but nonetheless worth mentioning in this context. It’s also that now you do have a focus on Gulf studies, but in a sense, Gulf studies, certainly at Anglo Saxon universities are corrupt cause they’re all funded by Gulf States. So, it’s money, it’s Emirati money, it’s Omani money, it’s Kuwaiti money. And there’s a colleague a professor in Britain who has written very critically about the Emirates. And when his umpteenth book on the Emirates was being published, the university came to him and said: ‘But we’re being funded by Abu Dhabi.’ To which I must say, with great respect for him, answered: ‘That’s your problem, not my problem.’ But with other words, so even now that you do have a focus on the Gulf, you in some ways have often a distorted focus because academics want to maintain their jobs, want to maintain their access, and therefore are willing to cut corners. if you wish.

But I want to come back to, for a moment, to this whole issue of Qatar’s interest in all of this. And that also goes to what I’ve called sour grapes, but certainly goes to why Qatar spent so much money on this. I think that nation branding is a tool. It’s not a goal in and of itself, and most countries bid for nation branding issues, for opportunity issues and so on and so forth. To me, for the Qataris, this was part of a soft power strategy that was defense and security first and foremost. Sure, it was diversification of the economy and all these other things, but the real driver was that the World Cup and the sports strategy were part of a soft power-driven defense and security policy. It doesn’t matter how many weapons the Qataris buy or how sophisticated those weapons are, Qatar will never be able to defend itself on a conventional battlefield

So, Qatar looked at Kuwait and the Iraqi invasion in 1990. The conservative Kuwaitis fled to Saudi Arabia, the less conservative Kuwaitis went to the casino in Cairo. That’s what the Qataris want to replicate to embed themselves in the international community, to be relevant to the international community, and to have the empathy needed for the world to come to their rescue in a crisis. Sports was one more element in this relevance to the international community and to build empathy and understanding as part of a defense and security strategy mean. One of the things that strikes me about this whole thing is that Qatar has every interest, not only to maintain the reforms that it is embarked on, but also to make sure that they’re properly implemented and even enhanced once the World Cup is over. Because this World Cup was not just simply about nation branding, it really was about making, contributing one more element to Qataris’ relevance to the international community and to trying to build empathy and understanding of the country as part of its defense and security strategy. And the issue then there is that in a sense they failed because it’s their problem when it comes to fans and therefore the public opinion is really in Europe and the United States rather than in other parts of the world, and it’s Europe and the United States, which would have to come militarily to their support. It’s not gonna be China or Russia.

Corbett (28:15):

Yeah, yeah. It’s quite interesting when you visit these countries and they do have so much wealth, and if you’re a Gulf citizen, you can effectively live anywhere in the world. So how do you make your own country relevant? How do you make other people care about you? I suppose the World Cup in a way is part of that. I think for a long time though, it might have looked to a backfire, but I think once the tournament kicks off next month, I think people’s, the people who are watching it, which will overwhelmingly be at home and on tv wherever they are on the planet, will be overwhelmingly positive. And that long term PR strategy will have starts to pay you some dividends finally.

Dorsey (29:10):

Right. It’s interesting, one of the questions I’m asking myself is what lessons does Qatar draw from this whole experience, but what lessons do others draw from it? I mean, you’ve now got the Saudis, incongruously, having been awarded the 2029 Asian Winter Games, which in my mind makes the idea those who thought that Qatar was an unlikely candidate, well, winter games in a neighboring country seems even more impossible, but they’re also bidding for the 2027 Asian Cup and, together with Egypt, with whom they also constitute two of the world’s worst human rights violators, are thinking of bidding for the 2030 World Cup. So, it’s almost as if countries like Saudi Arabia think they can buy themselves out of whatever dilemmas hosting bids are going to create, rather than having drawn lessons from the Qatari experience and looking for ways to preempt that.

Corbett (30:23):

Yeah, I mean, this is something I was going to ask you later. If Saudi operated properly joined up football strategy. like Qatar did in the naughties, where they had representation at FIFA, they had Aspire, which was making all sorts of friendships and alliances all over Africa. They had Al Jazeera sports, which is now beIn which became a massive influence on the global rights market, which again, exerts influence and so on. Can Saudi ever replicate that or has that boat passed?

Dorsey (31:11):

I don’t know if the boat has passed. My sense is that they simply think that money talks. So, you mentioned beIn. The Saudis for much of the period of the economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar were trying to get a sports and rights entertainment company of their own off the ground and if not on their own than in collaboration with the Egyptians. And they weren’t able to do it. And things got as bad as that , during the boycott, the Saudis were pirating beIN with something called beOut, which the Qataris took to the World Trade Organization and also in a one billion dollar legal case. Now, what’s happening is that the Saudis are actually looking at buying a stake in beIn, in and beIn is actually entertaining that idea. So, it strikes me that the Saudis haven’t quite understood what happened over the last 12 years and haven’t tried to start building, as you mentioned, the building blocks that would enable them to turn this into a soft power strategy that works in their favor. I mean, the Egyptians don’t have, they don’t have the wherewithal, they don’t have the funding. They’re dependent on Gulf funding to even try and do this. And yet they’re also bidding. They’re even looking at the 1930, sorry, at the 2036 Olympic Games. So the question is whether we are gonna actually look back at Qatar and think, Gee, Qatar had an easy time. It’s the Saudis and the Egyptians that are really gonna be hit.

Corbett (33:13):

Is that why Saudi keeps failing because they haven’t understood what Qatar did because we see all this grand talk. They’re gonna set up a broadcast network, they’re going to bid for the World Cup, gonna buy Premier League, which they eventually did, but it took two or three years to do. Is it this sort of lack of sophistication that holds Saudi’s back because they certainly have the money?

Dorsey (33:40):

Well, money’s not the problem, obviously. But in the case of the broadcasting rights company, I think what it shows you is that money isn’t enough. It’s one element in all of this, but you need much more what I do, what I think you have in. So again, I think that the bidding for, and this brings us also to a discussion which I find a problematic term, namely sports washing. It brings us to the whole discussion or much broader discussion of what Saudi Arabia is doing. So, in my mind, Saudi Arabia is determined to become the hub or the go-to place for anything and everything in the Gulf. And they’re trying to position themselves as the hub at a crossroads between Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East. And that means, for example, that the Saudis have told international business, ‘You want to do business with us, You move your headquarters from Dubai to Riyadh by 2024 and otherwise we won’t do business with you.’ They’ve tried to undermine the free zones, particularly in the Emirates. They’re talking about expanding their port network much in the way that the Emirates has a first starter advantage. And of course, they’ve got these futuristic projects like the 500 billion neon city, futuristic city on the Red Sea, where you’re gonna have a vertical horizontal skyscraper that’s going to stretch on for hundreds of miles. It’s hard to believe how they’re gonna do all of this stuff. And so, there’s almost a degree of hubris and thinking that money will do it. We can buy our way out of this, which say in many ways did for example, with dealing with the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist in 2018.

Corbett (35:55):


Dorsey (35:58):

I mean, that’s my reading of it. And they may very well be in for a surprise because in terms of the human rights record there’s this one of the worst, just look at the recent sentencing of people to 34, 45 years in prison for sending out a tweet. This relates to the Asian Winter games. You’ve had three tribesmen just sentenced to death or 50 years in prison because they were protesting the confiscation of their lands.

Corbett (36:43):

Yeah, yeah. It’s absolutely horrific.

Dorsey (36:46):

Yeah. So, I think that in that sense, I’m not sure that the Saudis have learned any lessons. The other question, of course, is whether the human rights groups, the labour unions and the LGBT community has learned any lessons out of this. I mean, one of the things that strikes me, you talked about it before, that Qataris, by and large, didn’t have a problem with the labour regime as it was, but they had practical concerns about changing the regime. They didn’t have a deep-seated, ingrained cultural opposition to it. And that’s very different with the LGBT issue. And the Qataris are not alone on this. It goes for much of the Muslim world. And so, the question is whether or not human rights groups and other groups have drawn lessons out of this. The lesson in my mind being that yes, pressure is needed and should be maintained, but there also has to be a dialogue and a long-term process because this is not social change at the stroke of a pen. It’s social change that touches on things that are deeply ingrained in society.

Corbett (38 :12):

Yeah, I think there’s a sense that jumping up and down and getting excited in the West about these things is not going to affect any change. In fact, it’s probably gonna be counterproductive ultimately. I don’t know whether that is, that’s down to the right groups or the way that it is, again, covered in the media. And we’ve certainly had cases where footballers have been put in situations where they’ve been asked questions on, there’s been in gay rights, all labour rights, and they simply don’t know. They don’t have the expertise. Well, famous athletes, but they sure they don’t have the authority to speak on these matters. And the idea that they can somehow pressure a golf government into making changes which have societal and religious connotations as well is it’s simply not gonna happen.

Dorsey (39:28):

No, but it’s also, I mean, in a sense, you weren’t gonna get a public outcry of the issue of labour rights in Qatar that, but you could get that in over LGBT issues. And so, you’ve got a government that’s really walking a tight rope between what is a very conservative society and what are the demands it has to meet with regard to the World Cup. I mean, Indonesia in this sense, is an interesting case where LGBT is not banned, it’s socially frowned upon but it’s not illegal. And so, what you get really is something along the lines of ‘don’t talk, don’t tell,”, the principal of Bill Clinton when he was in office with regard to gays in the US military and that live and let live is really a situation in which everyone can accommodate each other. And the moment you turn it into an issue, you really are putting the LGBT community at risk.

Corbett (40:48):

Look, I mean, I don’t know enough to be honest about the situation of the lesbian and gay population in Qatar. I don’t think that there’s been enough research because it’s probably an incredibly difficult issue to cover. What you don’t have in Qatar, which you do have in places like Iran and Saudi is a religious piece. This is a question for you because I don’t know the answer. Is there this sort of live and that live attitude in Qatar where it’s ignored or it’s done in secret rather than being openly persecuted?

Dorsey (41:32):

Well, it’s certainly done in secret, but it’s not a live and live situation now. It’s not that you’ve had a lot of public court cases and people going to prison. The pressure’s from within the family and it’s family honor that’s at stake. It’s deep seated, ingrained attitudes within the family. And so people who are just different are ostracized. One of the things that the World Cup, it was very brief, and nevertheless, I thought it was important, was that several years ago you had one, maybe two Qatari gays speak out publicly and speak about the mental stress that they were under and what this was doing to them in terms of their mental health.

That discussion was quickly closed down. But on the other hand, what you’re gonna get if all goes the way, I think the Qataris envisioned that it will go, you’re gonna get a month in Qatar of live and let live. You know, you’ve had Nasser al-Khater, the CEO of the World Cup organizer, for the first time last week, say, ‘If you are walking same sex hand in hand down a street in Qatar, nobody will touch you’. Now, to be fair, men holding hands is something that is culturally widespread in Qatar as well as another gulf in Middle Eastern states. But it’s always perceived as not being homosexual. It’s just simply an expression of friendship, of closeness.

Corbett (43:27):

So, I was in a media briefing with Nasser last December in Doha and there were a number of journalists from across the world and a Spanish journalist who had never been to Qatar before, asked him about this. But he was obviously so intimidated by what he heard, he couldn’t say LGBT or gay rights or whatever. He used the euphemism, a different kind of love. And Nasser, didn’t understand what he meant. One of his aides, had to whisper in his ear. And Nasser sort of laughed and said, ‘Well, I’ve never heard it. I’ve never heard LGBT rights described that way.’ And it was this sort of wonderful little cultural clash. But I think that goes back to what we were saying earlier in the conversation about everybody believing every single worst preconception about the country. And it’s got a lot of failings, but it’s not as bad as that, I know. I don’t what the Spanish journalist thought was going to happen? Were religious police, were gonna jump out the cover or something and incarcerate him.

Dorsey (44:48):

Righy, I mean, we’ve got, just to round up the conversation we’ve got four weeks to the first game as first matches played. And there are all kinds of things in my mind that Qatar could do to significantly, almost by a stroke of a pen, to significantly improve its image in the short term, but also in the long term. For example, one of the issues that’s still playing out on the human rights groups front and the labour rights groups front is the issue of compensation for workers who suffered injuries or for the families of workers who died on World Cup related projects. And sure, the committee is saying that they’ve already engaged in a compensation process for those who have paid outrageous recruitment fees to get to Qatar in the first place. But it’s often seemed to me that if they, for example, not only would embrace the notion of compensating workers who suffered injuries or death as a result of their work on the World Cup but would expand that to construction sites across the country, irrespective of whether they’re related to the World Cup or not, they would be doing themselves an enormous favor.

Corbett (46:18):

Yeah, that’s an easy win. You know, come out and you say, ‘Look, there’s things that we’ve got historically wrong. We’re establishing this fund. It’s going to be independently administrated by experts, international experts in their field, and it looks to provide restitution.’ We’ve been talking about this for well over a decade now, and I think one of the most common friends in our conversation, James, is they don’t do themselves any favors. So they have all these there.

Dorsey (46:52):

Own worst enemy.

Corbett (47:58):

Yes, that’s the other one. They have all these mechanisms, and they have these protections on paper, but they don’t always see them through. I’ve seen it myself, where Nepal laborers have passed away within their worker accommodations rather than building sites and so on. And the family have had to fight to get compensation that is there written in contracts, which the Qataris will show you, and they’ll give all their guidelines out when they’re trying to make that case for what wonderful employee employers there are. But they don’t see these things through all the time and people fall through the system. So, if you had an independently administered mechanism that could provide restitution, not just for the people in the World Cup sites, but across the country, it would be a huge win and it would diffuse an awful lot of the criticism in my mind

Dorsey (47:56):

I mean the implementation thing really is a problem. And I think there are two aspects to it. One is the aspect that you mentioned, which really, as far as I can see, is just simply shortsightedness. I mean, there was a case several years ago, I think it was a Moroccan or an Algerian player who was playing for the Qatari club, Al Jaish, who was forced, and the issue was the payment of his salary and he was forced for 18 months to stay in the country, his career was destroyed. and so on. And frankly, the PR damage that was done by that case as opposed to what 18 months salary would’ve cost, just pay him and get him out. It made no sense.

But I think that the other part of this is that it is that they have implementation problems, not only with regard to whatever it reforms they have enacted, they have it across the board. So, you have a foreign policy that is, again, it’s soft, our strategy, it’s fast paced, it’s geared towards mediating conflict, and they do successfully bring people to the table and they can obviously smoothen things out because they’ve got the money to smoothen it out. But that’s only the first step towards resolving a conflict. You need follow up and they just don’t have where with all the implementation of that. So, I think you’ve got two sets of problems here.

Corbett (49:43):

Yeah. And also, I suppose if you’re going to equivocate on this as well, you are dealing with, particularly with the migrant workers issue, you’re dealing with people who are coming from parts of the world where there isn’t always the bureaucracy to support families and victims’ families.

Dorsey (50:07):

That’s the other part of the problem, of course, which takes you into a whole other area, which may take us too far today, which is there’s the problem on the part of the Qataris labour receiving country. But there are also huge problems in the countries that are labour supplying countries, whether it’s Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Philippines, and so on. I mean, ultimately, just to round all of this off, ultimately I think on balance, despite the nature of the debate about Qatar and the way that it’s in some ways become very entrenched, this has been a soft power success or will be a soft power success story for Qatar. And in the end, the vindication of having invested not only financially but otherwise in this tournament, may prove to be for them a milestone.

Corbett (51:08):

Yes, I believe it will. I believe in the long-term, it will be considered a success story for Qatar that it was a very fraught journey both for the country and the awarding body. FIFA. Let’s not forget that the decisions on the 2nd of December, 2010 effectively brought the organization down.

Dorsey (51:32):

Absolutely. Well, in some ways you can argue that that was a Qatari contribution. <laugh>

Corbett (51:39):

<laugh>. Yes. Yes. Qatar, say football, governance.

Dorsey (51:51):

So on that note,

Corbett (52:53):

I’ve not heard that one before, but yes,

Dorsey (52:56):

<laugh>. On that note, James, thank you very much for joining me. I enjoyed this conversation and I hope that lessons are learned on everybody’s part cuz there are a lot of lessons to be learned from the Gotter experience.

Corbett (53:10):

Yeah. Okay. Thank you.


Thank you. And all the best.

Corbett (53:14):

Thanks James

To watch a video version of this story on YouTube please click here.

A podcast version is available on Soundcloud, ItunesSpotifySpreaker, and  Podbean.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

James Corbett is an acclaimed sports journalist and historian.

About the Author
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute. He is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
Related Topics
Related Posts