Qatar 2022 protests – a cautionary note

Published: Monday, 29 March 2021

I’m all for protest. It’s often the only way to effect change. But let’s be sure our chosen protest is based on properly attributed facts; and that the protest is applied indiscriminately against all offenders.

Let’s also be sure that the protesters themselves aren’t publicly saying one thing, and quietly doing another privately when it suits and benefits them.

Because that’s not protesting – that’s hypocrisy; and it’s taking us all for fools. Much like an MP who protests for expenses reform, with a floating duck island in his pond. Or someone demanding the world switches to green energy, while driving around his/her private estate in a Hummer.  Do as I say, not as I do.

Before the usual mob descends on me having barely read beyond the first sentence (bigoted people don’t read full opinions, you see, one sentence is more than enough) – yes I live in Qatar. I’m a resident, not a propagandist or an apologist. This blog is completely independent - just like the podcast I do with Andy. No-one tells us what to say. No-one tells us what to do. In all the time I’ve worked in Doha never once has anyone tried to influence my opinion. Never once have I been told what I can or can’t say. That’s in stark contrast to my many years at Sky, where I was often told “just do as you’re told Keysie – James Murdoch could end up in jail if this unravels”. How many times do you think I’ve wished I’d ignored orders? Let’s also forget that an opinion from someone based in the place that’s the very subject of the debate might (in principle, but of course not necessarily) be valid. However the bigots will never have that, much better to have a trenchant opinion on somewhere you’ve never been. This country, my home, is an amazing place. It has gone through the developmental cycle of nomad-to-nationhood in the time since the world created email – just think about that, a cycle that takes most countries centuries (and based on the past 4 years I’m no longer sure where the US is on that scale). When the British Empire handed Qatar back to its people in 1971 it wasn't much more than another colonial backwater – dismissed as an Arab wasteland. Now, not only is it one of the leading sports centres in the world, it has become one of the world’s biggest trading hubs, with some of the most advanced educational and healthcare systems in the world, while having the most societally liberal norms in the region. Yes, booze is not a norm – that’s the religious choice of 1/4 of the world’s population, and the personal choice of many more. And to keep the Daily Mailers happy, they’re even going to have booze at the World Cup – why let local culture get in the way of lager louts trashing up a high street?

This has all come at an inexcusable cost. Arguing anything other than that is wrong – and it’s not a worker’s right, it’s a human right. In the course of the warp-speed evolution here, mistakes have been made; mistakes that can’t be undone. Every nation’s history is marked by these scars – many much bigger – just ask Germany, just ask Japan, just ask the “British Empire”. It’s thanks to the World Cup that these scars have been exposed in Qatar. So much has changed positively as a result. When I first visited Doha - to launch Al Jazeera Sport only as recently as 2008 - this was a very different place. And I simply couldn’t believe the changes that had been made when I returned in 2013. For almost a decade I’ve seen it develop and evolve and improve with my own eyes every day – you see I’m not living this place through algorithms; I live here, and I get out and about and I interrogate – I’m a journalist.

Can more be done? Absolutely and emphatically yes. And more will be done, that’s the way here.

However a few words of caution for the latest fury of protests against Qatar, led by Norway and Germany in the qualifiers.

First, be armed with the facts – that is the very minimum bar any genuine protester must meet, otherwise I question their agenda. Over the past month I’ve lost count of how many headlines and “opinion-leaders” and  “influencers” falsely quoted, or perhaps even manipulated, The Guardian’s 6500 figure as World Cup stadium deaths. That’s simply not correct – and it’s acceptable to say that that’s not correct, without disrespecting those who tragically did die in that way. The same factual amnesia and/or narrative manipulation applies to booze at the world cup (allowed) or LGBT fans (welcomed) or women-can’t-drive (utter bullsh*t) or the temperature in December (averaging around 23C – the only issue for the Final is likely to be rain and being naturally (not artificially) cold).

All these are facts – and facts are consistently overlooked when it comes to this country, yet inarguably relied upon as a defence when applied to others. In fact (!), you only have to look at the nonsense blockade that fractured this region recently, which was unceremoniously dropped overnight after 4 years when a sensible US President acknowledged it was all based on alternative facts in the first place.

Second, a protest is based on a point of principle and you can’t pick and choose them at your convenience – then it’s a flawed protest or an agenda. In Russia – a monumentally different scale of human rights abuse exists, both historic and continuing, but I can’t remember a single t-shirt at the Russia World Cup 2018? Human rights protests against China on behalf of the Muslim Uighurs – for years this wasn’t a la mode enough to protest. Where were your designer clothes made – I’d probably check, if human rights are the cause you're championing.

Third, a message for our obscenely paid football stars. If you want to become political lobbyists – that’s fine, make all the points you want in the world. But you can’t then be immune from the public scrutiny that political discourse is subject to – just because you’re a footballer. If you’re leading global campaigns about human rights, your third and fourth holiday homes in Dubai should be questioned. As should photos of you celebrating emergency surgery in Doha….‘human rights on and off the pitch’, but not in hospitals when you benefit? And selfies of you ring-side at the Joshua fight in Riyadh, or thumbs up in the F1 paddock in Bahrain. Didn’t support your team mate Mesut Ozil when he was harangued out of Arsenal for standing up for Muslims human rights? All too happy to take the pay cheque from Man City? I could go on. As I said before, floating duck islands aren’t a good look.

The players also might want to check Amnesty International’s position on Qatar 2022 – turns out it’s not to boycott the event. Another one of those facts pushed into the small print.

Over the years, I’ve lost track of the times I’ve invited colleagues from the Western press to visit here. I’ve even agreed to host and cover everything – on one proviso, I say: ‘tell the truth, tell people what you really saw’. Every time the answer is the same ‘I can’t do that Keysie. It won’t fit with the papers’ editorial policy’. I’ll leave that there – the scrupulous pursuit of the truth…and all that. Sadly England’s press pack has also never recovered from losing our 2018 bid – it’s still one massive conspiracy. I suggest they read the Garcia Report, all 350 pages of it (so should England’s bid team from back then).  

Anyway, here’s to more positive change and to the best World Cup in history.  A World Cup for the Arab world too – after all, football is for all, not just for the West.

By the way, some advice from a local. When you come here next December, you should know we fully celebrate ‘Christmas’ – so you can leave your ‘seasons greetings’ and ‘winter holidays’ t-shirts at home. Also, bring jumpers instead.