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Abdullah Al-Arian on First Middle East World Cup & Western Media’s “Orientalist Outlook”

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Image Credit: Reuters (photo right)

As the 2022 World Cup plays out in Qatar, the first Arab country to host the major sporting event, we speak with history professor Abdullah Al-Arian, who says the international media is projecting an “Orientalist outlook” in its coverage of the games. Al-Arian says despite mainstream discourse, football in the Middle East has historically been used by nationalist movements as “a means of organizing collectively on the basis of achieving their own liberation against colonial rule.” His recent New York Times opinion piece is “Why the World Cup Belongs in the Middle East.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Qatar looking at the FIFA World Cup underway there, the first Arab country to host the tournament, which takes place every four years. On Monday, a protester ran onto the field during a game waving a rainbow flag and wearing a Superman T-shirt that read “Save Ukraine” on the front and “Respect for Iranian woman” on the back.

Today, much of the focus is on a big game between Iran and the United States that could determine who advances to the next round. Iran’s state media has called for the United States to be kicked out of the tournament after the U.S. national soccer team posted a now-removed picture of the Iranian flag on social media without the emblem of the Islamic Republic in support of ongoing anti-government protests in Iran. The U.S. Soccer Federation said the change was, quote, “a one-time graphic.” This is U.S. soccer player Walker Zimmerman.

WALKER ZIMMERMAN: I think, you know, we’re huge supporters of women’s rights. And I know the post that got mentioned. We didn’t know anything about the post, but we are supporters of women’s rights. We always have been.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as human rights advocates have raised alarm over the harsh and deadly conditions faced by migrant workers in Qatar who built the World Cup stadiums and other infrastructure as part of the kafala sponsorship system. Tournament organizers put the official death toll of migrant workers at 40, but rights groups and media outlets like The Guardian estimate thousands have died.

For more, we go to Doha, Qatar, to speak with Abdullah Al-Arian, history professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and editor of Football in the Middle East: State, Society, and the Beautiful Game. He just wrote a The New York times op-ed headlined “Why the World Cup Belongs in the Middle East.” In it, he writes, “The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish once noted that football 'is the field of expression permitted by secret understanding between ruler and ruled in the prison cell of Arab democracy,'” unquote. The game, Abdullah adds, “represents a breathing space, allowing a splintered homeland an opportunity to join together around something shared.” Again, these are the words of Darwish. “In the decade since the Arab uprisings, many countries in the Middle East have become even more repressive, making the breathing space of football feel more urgent than ever,” Abdullah Al-Arian wrote.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! Why don’t you just elaborate on this and the whole context of these games?

ABDULLAH AL-ARIAN: Yeah. Thank you, Amy.

I mean, I think, you know, when we consider the conversations that have been had around the Qatar World Cup — and we’re talking, you know, a process that began all the way back in 2009, when Qatar made its initial bid to host the games. It was approved in 2010 by FIFA’s voting body under, obviously, major clouds of suspicion, given the kind of levels of corruption that we now know all about within FIFA. And then, of course, a number of other questions and legitimate concerns were being raised around the conduct of the planning for the World Cup.

And so, I think there are so many different conversations that are being had around this event, and yet there is something that’s also lost in all of this, which I try to kind of share a little bit in some of what you’ve just read in terms of thinking about kind of what football represents, especially considering that some of the critiques that were shared over the last decade or so tended to be around the idea that this region lacks a football history or a football culture, that it’s not deserving in any way of kind of hosting a major event of this sort, and focusing obviously exclusively on the question of Qatar as opposed to kind of what this might represent for the broader region, given what we know.

You know, Qatar is a country in which only about 10 to 15% of its population are actual Qatari citizens. Everyone else who lives here hails from elsewhere, whether we’re talking about the migrant worker population, whether we’re talking about, you know, many generations of Arabs coming from places like Tunisia and Egypt and Lebanon and Palestine that also are kind of sharing in this event. And so, in that sense, I think there is a kind of an important historical component to the event in terms of what football has represented historically in the region.

Of course, this goes back to the colonial days, when it was being introduced by British and French officials as a way of kind of instilling discipline and kind of civilizing the local populations. And then, of course, moving forward, it then becomes kind of internalized and embodied by nationalist movements that are then using football as a means of organizing collectively on the basis of achieving their own liberation against colonial rule. We see that, for instance, in the Algerian case, where the FLN, which fought the Algerian Revolution against France, formed its own team in exile and went on to kind of spread awareness about the Algerian case to the entire international community in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

And so, there is that kind of historical component, even in a place like Qatar, where football was introduced through the oil companies that came with the British colonial presence back in the late 1940s. You know, a Qatari league was established in the early ’60s, and then, of course, Qatar itself was not independent until the early 1970s.

And so, there is a kind of a deeper history there that I think often gets lost, especially when we consider some of the more recent history, for instance, and thinking about the uprisings going back to 2010, 2011, the way that football fan groups, or ultras, as they’re known, had much deeper experience in terms of confronting the repression of state security forces in places like Egypt and elsewhere. And so we saw, of course, examples of them withstanding the brutality of the Mubarak regime’s security forces when it was desperately trying to cling to power in the face of a massive uprising.

And so, I think all of these stories being interwoven with the daily experiences, with the political, social, economic development of the region, I think, was certainly part of the story that, unfortunately, has been lost in all of the kind of conversations around the World Cup. And I think we’re seeing it now manifesting in terms of the success of many of the teams in the region that have been performing quite well here. I’m thinking, of course, about Morocco’s historic win, even Saudi Arabia’s win against Argentina. I mean, there is a kind of an atmosphere of this being kind of a home field advantage not just for the Qatari national team but really for teams from across the Global South, in Asia and Africa.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain the kafala sponsorship system?

ABDULLAH AL-ARIAN: Yeah. So, the kafala system, which there’s been a lot of discussion around, was the kind of migrant labor governance structure. This was something that was put in place initially by British colonial authorities at a time when they were trying to preserve their own interests, as they were recognizing the fact that, you know, in the process of trying to secure their economic interests in the form of the oil sector and gas sector, or in terms of maintaining security, in terms of their presence, that they wanted to tie all of the migrant workers to their sponsorship, meaning that their employer would dictate the extent to which they would be allowed in the country, for how long. And so, things like changing jobs were not permitted without the permission of the employer. There was no real protection over things like a minimum wage or even safety considerations.

And so this was a system that was then inherited by all of the independent states in the Gulf, especially for those who found themselves essentially outnumbered, right? As we said, only about 15% of Qatar is its Indigenous population, which meant that there was a kind of a demand on the part of the state rulers, the elites, to try to maintain a certain degree of control over the rest of the population that lives there. And so, the kafala system has kind of worked to serve that purpose.

And, of course, as we then fast-forward to the process by which the economy has modernized, the state sees itself rapidly expanding its infrastructure, having major demand especially for these kind of heavy construction projects as we’ve been talking about throughout the lead-up to the World Cup, that we’re seeing kind of the edges fray on the system to the point where the exploitation has become far more stark. We’ve seen, obviously, a lot more questions about things like the lack of basic safety provisions, questions about things like wage theft. We’ve seen retaliatory deportations. And so, there are concerns that have been raised on the basis of kind of the rapid hypermodernization that’s occurred, especially, I would say, in last couple of decades, not just in Qatar but really kind of regionwide. We’ve seen the same thing in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, the U.S. coach and players were questioned by Iranian journalists. This is the team captain, Tyler Adams, being questioned.

MILAD JAVANMARDI: First of all, you say you support the Iranian people, but you’re pronouncing our country’s name wrong. Our country is named Iran, not I-ran. Please, once and for all, let’s get this clear. Second of all, are you OK to be representing a country that has so much discrimination against Black people in its own borders? And we saw the Black Lives Matter movement over the past few years. Are you OK to be representing the U.S.; meanwhile, there is so much discrimination happening against Black people in America?

TYLER ADAMS: My apologies on the mispronunciation of your country. Yeah, that being said, you know, there’s discrimination everywhere you go. You know, one thing that I’ve learned, especially from living abroad in the past years and having to fit in in different cultures and kind of assimilate into different cultures, is that in the U.S. we’re continuing to make progress every single day.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, earlier at the World Cup, Iran’s football coach, Carlos Queiroz, confronted the BBC correspondent Shaimaa Khalil as she tried to ask him about the protests in Iran.

SHAIMAA KHALIL: You don’t think that it’s fair to ask the question?

CARLOS QUEIROZ: No, no, I’m asking one thing to you now.


CARLOS QUEIROZ: The press conference finished. What do you think is fair, OK to ask other questions to the other coaches? That’s the only question I like.

SHAIMAA KHALIL: Absolutely, but I’m asking an Iranian player about his own country.

CARLOS QUEIROZ: Sure. But why you don’t ask the other — why don’t ask to the other coaches — why you don’t ask Southgate about what do you think about England, and the United States that left Afghanistan and all the women alone?

SHAIMAA KHALIL: This is an Iranian — this is an Iranian player, Mr. Queiroz.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Abdullah, if you can talk about this, the dropping of the logo within the Iranian flag, but also the Iranian team itself not singing the Iranian national anthem, which seemed to be an solidarity with the protests in Iran? They would later sing it at another game, but extremely significant, given they have family at home, not to mention they’re returning home. So, if you can talk about this moment today as the two teams are going to play each other?

ABDULLAH AL-ARIAN: Yeah, I mean, it’s really interesting, especially when we contrast with the last time that both of these teams met one another, so going back to the 1998 World Cup, in which the U.S. and Iran met. And at that point, we saw a lot more kind of conciliatory gestures. There was kind of attempts to — you know, the U.S. team brought a bouquet of roses to present to the Iranian team. We saw conciliatory gestures from the Iranian president at the time, Khatami and Bill Clinton both kind of saying, you know, maybe this is a chance for a new opening. Of course, we didn’t really see that happening. And so, it’s really quite a stark contrast to what we’re seeing now.

I mean, I think the U.S. kind of mini protest on its web presence, I think, in some ways, it’s kind of unprecedented. I don’t know that we’ve really ever seen two teams that are going up against one another on the field, for one team to kind of take on an outside protest against that team on a kind of political basis. And I think, to that extent, I think this clearly demonstrates the extent to which there is a recognition that there could be change coming, or that at least the protest movement in Iran is something to kind of give a little bit more hope to.

But at the same time, as I think many people have pointed out, the idea that the United States simply has the best interest of people who are seeking freedom or democracy, we’ve seen that, time and time again, that’s never really been the case, that these are really ultimately about kind of narrow agendas and political interests that the U.S. has pursued, particularly in the Middle East, as we’ve seen, again, with the example that was brought up about Afghanistan, but you can include Iraq in there, as well, not to mention the lack of support for democratization basically everywhere else in the Arab region, that the U.S. has far preferred to support authoritarian rulers that have been incredibly repressive of their populations, both men as well as women. So, I think that there’s certainly a kind of obvious hypocrisy here that has been called attention to time and time again.

And at the same time, going back to the question of the Iranian players caught in a really difficult situation, you know, that has perhaps even impacted their ability to kind of remain focused on the task at hand, which is to perform on the field, they certainly had a really great performance in their second match, not so much in their first match. And, of course, now all eyes will be on how they perform today.

But, of course, there are far more serious things going on back home, as you mentioned, thinking about having to balance between the demands of what the state expects of its national teams. And I think we see this with basically every national team, is meant to be there to kind of represent their country, their government, their state, and so the room for protesting or for speaking out against things that are happening at home is incredibly limited.

And so there’s a certain kind of bravery, I think, when we consider some of the demonstrations, not just in terms of the national anthem but even some of the remarks that were made by some of the Iranian players that were expressing sympathy with kind of the victims of the crackdown against the protests. And so, these are obviously still really precarious moments for the team, as it’s also, you know, coming up against a kind of an incredibly important moment in the careers, the football careers, of all of these players.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Professor Al-Arian, what do you think the Western media gets most wrong about coverage of the World Cup? And what surprised you most about being there and participating and, you know, watching the games and what doesn’t get conveyed?

ABDULLAH AL-ARIAN: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s really a question of covering things as they exist, as opposed to sort of what we tend to hear about as being kind of the situation on paper. So, certainly, we know about Qatar’s system both politically, economically. We know about the kind of the cultural questions that have come up. And I think that for people who tend to do research on the region, who do activism within the region or have been here on the ground covering a lot of these really serious questions and a lot of the important issues that have been raised — tend to get it right, in a way that people who are doing all of that work from a distance and doing it from a context that kind of smacks of a sort of Orientalist outlook, that tends to treat the region as exceptional rather than thinking about it as kind of part of a global system of exploitation, for instance, if we’re talking about the migrant labor issue — right? — that Qatar doesn’t exist in a vacuum but is, rather, beholden to, you know, multinational corporate interests that are also dictating the flow of labor and capital in many directions, as opposed to kind of thinking about it as purely an isolated case, or when we’re thinking about kind of cultural questions, the fact that these things tend to be negotiated far more within society than the types of laws and things that we tend to hear more about. And also the fact that it’s a place that has been kind of encountering change and encountering a lot of diversity in terms of the populations that have lived here for many years, in terms of it being a place of exchange, a place of interaction between people not just in the region but also global communities that have sort of found a home here one way or another.

I think there is something more happening quite often than what we’ve been led to believe on the basis of kind of some of the more superficial or sensationalist reporting. It’s not to say that there’s not a lot of room for critique, and I certainly welcome that, particularly on the part of people who have been consistent in their criticisms elsewhere, and will continue, hopefully, to do so with regard to the very serious issues that exist here. But I think, in terms of seeing the oftentimes reliance on just kind of cultural arguments or just referring to this as sort of being — I think we’ve seen this a lot from some of the commentaries, particularly coming out of Europe, you know, where Klinsmann, for instance, the former U.S. national team coach, made quite racist arguments the other day in his commentary on the games. We’ve seen other examples of that in terms of even just references to kind of Qatari dress and culture and things like that. And I think none of those have been helpful in terms of thinking about the more serious issues that should be confronted.

AMY GOODMAN: Abdullah Al-Arian, we want to thank you so much for being with us, history professor at Georgetown University in Qatar, editor of Football in the Middle East: State, Society, and the Beautiful Game. We’ll link to your New York Times op-ed, “Why the World Cup Belongs in the Middle East.”

Next up, we speak with former pro soccer player Jules Boykoff, who says the World Cup in Qatar is a climate catastrophe. We’ll talk about this and other issues with him. Stay with us.

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“Sportswashing & Greenwashing”: Ex-Soccer Player Jules Boykoff on Qatar Hosting World Cup

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