Qatar calling its critics racist opens a debate that may be worth having

Increasingly prevalent line may sound dubious, but talking it through sensitively could have unexpected benefits

Qatar calling its critics racist opens a debate that may be worth having

The film Triangle of Sadness, released last month, features an “extreme vomiting” scene that has divided opinion among viewers. The film’s setup – vacuous moneyed people on a yacht – is intended as a satire on the super rich and those who fawn over them. The big food-poisoning set piece is used to express disgust at the vapidity of these hyper-spoilt lives.

Some have walked out in shock. Others have objected that the vomiting conveys revulsion and nothing else, that billionaires are people too; that to dehumanise these people in return is an ignoble response. The overclass also have feelings. This should be our starting point.

It is at least a nuanced view. And in this spirit of less not more bile, it is only right to treat with all due sensitivity a recurrent line that has emerged recently from the discourse around the Qatar World Cup and the ownership of European football clubs. Scrutiny of human rights and financial dealings is increasingly being described, by Gulf state rulers and their mouthpieces, as a form of racism.

Only last week the Qatari ministry of foreign affairs summoned the German ambassador to explain comments from the interior minister Nancy Faeser criticising Qatar’s human rights record. A Qatari government memo suggested Germany is in fact applying a racist trope, that Qatar’s ruling family has been “suffering from an unjust stereotype for decades”.

It is not the first time this point has been made. As long ago as 2015 an editorial in the Al-Raya newspaper, a pro-government filter, raged against the “racist campaign” to undermine Qatar’s World Cup, in this case the corruption findings around the Fifa bid process. The World Cup chief executive, Nasser Al Khater, also refused to rule out this idea in a recent interview with Sky Sports, noting, when asked, that criticism was “possibly” racially motivated.

Qatar is not alone in taking this view. Two weeks ago an anonymous briefing linked to Manchester City suggested Jürgen Klopp’s comments about City’s financial power were considered to be borderline xenophobic.

On the one hand this could be seen as smart PR. Qatar in particular is a serial employer of the kind of western public relations vessels who will see a checkmate move here. Chuck a little mud, blur the edges, toss your own online army a bone. Get out of that one, post‑colonial virtue signallers. And don’t mention arms sales, historic slavery, or the Gulf war.

On the other hand this is also an entirely legitimate issue if those involved believe it to be true, and one that must be treated with sensitivity. Football’s billionaire overclass, like the denizens of that vomit-strewn yacht, are people too.

It is also an interesting point in other ways. For a start it invites fair scrutiny of those making it. Plus there is the obvious response that to suggest concerns over corruption, intolerance and workers’ deaths are driven by racism is to devalue and disrespect the racism that less empowered people routinely suffer. And that to do so for political gain is something straight out of the Trump script, the Putin manual, the entitled‑billionaire hissy‑fit playbook.

So what is the substance here? It is hard to see any actual evidence of xenophobia in Klopp’s words. Klopp said “nobody can compete with City” on financial matters. Klopp said: “No matter what it costs, you just do it.” Klopp said: “There are three clubs in world football who can do what they want financially. It’s legal and everything, fine, but they can do what they want.”

There is nothing here that isn’t fair comment. It is the case that there are three nation-state clubs in Europe’s top tiers, and all three happen to share a coastline. Perhaps Klopp could have offered balance by mentioning the wild lines of credit extended to certain members of “the cartel” or the absurdity of Chelsea’s rolling oligarch debt. But those clubs can still go bust. Whether it’s a Gulf state or the Danish government buying your local rivals, this is a legitimate topic.

It has been impossible to dig any deeper into why City feel this was borderline xenophobic given the club’s refusal to give further details or go on the record properly with such a serious accusation. City have refused to answer questions on the subject this week.

So it is just left hanging there, fed into the opinion matrix. And unsurprisingly the other place where this idea has taken root is on social media, which are buzzing with voices responding with commendable patriotism to unsympathetic Qatar news stories.

Some of this could be induced. This week it emerged in the Netherlands that Qatar is paying at least 50 Dutch fans to travel to the World Cup next month, in return for signing a document committing to making “a positive contribution”. This ambassadorial role involves liking certain online posts and, most intriguingly, taking action against “offensive comments” from third parties.

And no doubt this is all just part of the game now, an adjunct to more formalised types of reputation management. Fifa has in the past employed the American company Weber Shandwick, among many others, to manage its World Cup PR. Qatar is advised by the global giant Teneo. It is legitimate, in this company, to manage the narrative however your client sees fit.

But it is worth noting two things along the way. First, the company you’re keeping. Vladimir Putin, for example, who has described Russia’s ban from sporting competition as an act of racism. Or Sheikh Ahmad of Kuwait, one‑time president of the Olympic Council of Asia, who accused Qatar’s critics of “racist actions” in 2014, and was convicted last year of fraud. Or indeed Sepp Blatter, who told delegates at the 2015 African congress attacks on the Qatar World Cup were “racist”, a reaction to revelations that would end with various criminal convictions.

More hopefully this kind of comment does at least open up the debate. No doubt workers in Abu Dhabi will welcome City’s owners’ concerns over racial profiling. Last year Amnesty International revealed police in the United Arab Emirates had seized 375 African migrant workers in the middle of the night and deported them without trial.

“The authorities have brutalised hundreds of individuals on the basis of their skin colour, ill-treating them in detention, stripping them of their personal possessions and their dignity,” Amnesty’s report concludes. Which definitely sounds like borderline xenophobia.

Qatar has also arguably done itself a service by turning the spotlight on these issues. A recent report by the UN’s special racism envoy voiced “serious concerns of structural racial discrimination” in Qatari society, and a “de facto caste system based on national origin”. These problems must now presumably be high on the agenda.

None of this means Qatar is necessarily wrong. There may well be a racist campaign to portray its working conditions or the criminalisation of homosexuality as bad things. Manchester City’s owners can be the victims of genuine prejudice whatever the issues in the Emirates.

There is also a legitimate point that other nations are guilty of the same faults. The US got to stage the World Cup while deploying troops on almost every continent. Britain recently played host to both the Windrush scandal and the final of the European Championship.

But this is also a question of degree. The criticism of Qatar has come from human rights bodies, trade unions and left‑leaning voices. Is Amnesty racist? Is Antonio Rüdiger racist? Is Unison racist? Are the only non‑racist people out there Adidas, McDonald’s, Budweiser, Coca‑Cola and Visa, which have wisely kept their council on Qatar’s World Cup?

It is a line that will be explored more often as the noise around Qatar 2022 reaches its peak; and an issue to be treated as more than just a shared bile-fest. Albeit with the proviso that such statements start to look cheap or vexatious without proper substance; and that there is a danger cries of discrimination from football’s hyper‑rich powerbrokers might ring a little hollow to the less privileged, or sound like an unearned smear.

These are just some of the contortions to be unravelled before we get to the basic business of playing and watching football. Who knows, perhaps beyond the talk, the endless vomit of bluff and counter-accusation, there might even be the shadow of progress waiting to be made.