Sunday, June 3, 2012

The World Cup of Politics: the Trouble with Qatar

Introduction: in Asia, the qualification phase for the next FIFA football World Cup played in Brazil in 2014 is already in full swing. In Asia's group B, Lebanon is pitched against Qatar, Iran, Uzbekistan and South Korea. 

For long decades, Arab countries were relegated to a minor role when it came to influence world politics. Too preoccupied with keeping their regimes in place, Arab leaders were not able to play any meaningful part beyond their borders. Quite to the contrary: Arab countries didn't bring politics to the world, the world brought politics to them: the Iraq - Iran war of the 1980ies as a US proxy war to fight the Islamic revolution in Tehran; Saudi Arabia hosting US troops in the holy land of Islam; and the Gulf states of Bahrain and Qatar being the locations of huge US navy and air force bases.

Now one country is out to change all that. To be different than the rest, to become relevant. Qatar wants to play with the big boys, wants to qualify for the World Cup of politics. The qualifying rounds are played during this Arab spring season. Qatar hired a foreign coach for their bid - France - and got a potent business partner on board, the United States. Their first away game was played on Libyan soil, in 2011.

In Libya, Qatar was happy to quickly join the line of attackers against Colonel Ghaddafi. Without the Arab fig leaf Qatar was providing, the NATO operation had been qualified as yet another purely Western aggression against an Arab country. What was in there for the Qatari? Oil contracts, dealt out by the prevailing Libyan opposition to diversify the mainly gas oriented Qatari core business. And a reputation as being the "moderate, reliable Arab partner", Western powers had long been searching for. The French got themselves a nice deal too: during the air campaign, they were able to present their hard selling modern jet fighters to Qatar. With the profits from the newly found Libyan oil business, the Qatari will be easily able to pay for this overpriced piece of electronics and metal. 

and then there was football: Lebanon - Qatar, June 3 2012

During their home games, Qatar tries to keep the ball low. While promoting democracy in other countries, the grip on power by the Qatari royal family is quite undisputed. Yes, women can drive. But that is not really the essence of democracy, is it? Yes, they have teamed up with the Louvre of Paris - those French again - to bring exceptional art to the Gulf. Sheikh Hamad of Qatar rather wants you to look at art than at a list of political rights you might not enjoy. And yes, Qatar is flooded with McDonald's restaurants and Burger Kings. Some weeks ago, Qatar was officially named the world's fattest country, with the highest percentage of obesity. The overzealous pupil has overtaken his puppet master in the fast food lane! Hamburger-fed and French fries-stuffed people are too busy burping and rubbing their bellies to seriously think about politics.

Despite attempts at an Arab spring, Bahrain didn't present an opportunity for Qatar for a successful away game this season. The Bahraini coach, HM Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, is a friend of Qatar, so there were no efforts made to have him sacked. And then also: Iran plays in the same group as Qatar. Why should Doha hand the ball to the Mullahs in Iran, direct competitor for the World Cup's final round? The rush for democracy and human rights stops at the penalty area.

Syria has never been a success in sport - except for Ghada Shouaa, who won the women's heptathlon in Atlanta 1996 - and certainly not in football. Yet the next Qatari away game to qualify for the World Cup of politics is played there. Trying hard to be on the right side of a new geopolitical divide, Qatar is substituting for the United States in the Syrian arena. They do all the dirty fouls - grabbing the shirts, kicking the heels from behind - while the referee, the United Nations, looks the other way, heavily corrupted by Mister "Calling the Shots", the United States of America. 

Seriously: while poor old Kofi Annan is desperately trying to put his peace plan in effect, he is undermined as he pleads by the same nations that officially endorse his plan. Qatar and Saudi Arabia ship US weapons to the Syrian opposition, Russia and Iran do the same for their goalkeeper Assad. Instead of the Americans fighting the Russians directly - did they ever? - or the Saudis fighting Iran face to face, the game is played on the already broken backs of the Syrian people. I bet you, the Iranians are very glad to divert the American attention away from their own goal posts. And if the US can't tackle Iran in their home stadium, at least they can set the offside trap for them in the Syrian Bowl at the Homs dome.

Every good football game needs spectators. Every important match has its hooligans. Hooligans are proxy warriors in the stands and outside the stadiums, beating themselves up for the fake sake of their respective teams. But while the victorious football team celebrates at a banquet, their hooligans are either put in jail, sent to a hospital, or buried. As it is the rule in Middle Eastern political games, Lebanon provides these hooligans, for all teams. In the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, pro Assad and anti Assad hooligans (which makes them pro and anti Qatar hooligans as well) bloodily fight for their teams, leaving already dozens dead and many more wounded. A quick look at the map will show you: the road to the Homs dome runs through Tripoli.

at the gateway to Homs: hooligans of Tripoli

Hooligans of Tripoli: Lebanon has its own team to field, don't you know? Well, if Lebanon only can. Let's zap to the real football World Cup where Lebanon played Qatar this Sunday in a qualifying match for Brazil 2014. Here's what happened: first Qatar uses Lebanon as a staging ground for the Syrian civil war, then tells its citizens to shy away from Lebanon this summer because it is too dangerous. This past week, Qatar asks Lebanon to ban the audience from attending the Lebanon - Qatar game, citing security concerns for the Qatari players and a possibly visiting Emir. As with previous demands, Qatar backs up this request with hinting at the fate of Lebanese foreign workers in prosperous Qatar, who quite probably would like to have their residency extended. Sure they would! But damn it's true, Qatar: you have rapidly learned your lessons from your masters in the White House. You push your ball past the goal line by any means necessary, bribing, threatening, pressuring and blackmailing the opposing teams. And you even go to bed with cheerleaders the world around, if it is that what is needed.

The audience is the 12th man in football; that's why it is called "home team advantage". For Lebanon to actually consider to give up this advantage (although in the end they didn't bow) just demonstrates how low some in Lebanon think of their own team's capabilities, in football as in politics. I am planning to attend the Lebanon - Iran game on September 11 in Beirut, another qualifier. Maybe Lebanon won't even send a team on the lawn to not compromise Iran's chances to play on the world stage! And for Qatar: don't take your mouth too full. Go get nutritionists to teach you a diet that suits your size. I hear, France has some talents in that field too.