By James M. Dorsey
When seven-time Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton wore a helmet this weekend featuring the colours of the LGBTI Pride Progress Flag during the debut Qatar Grand Prix, he was challenging more than the Gulf state’s failure to recognise rights.
So will the Danish Football Union (DBU), Denmark’s governing soccer body, that announced that its commercial sponsors had agreed to surrender space on training kits to allow for messaging critical of Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers.
The union said it would also minimize the number of trips to Qatar by the Danish team that has already qualified for the 2022 World Cup to avoid commercial activities that promote the World Cup hosts’ events.
The stance by Mr. Hamilton and the Danish union calls into question the success of Qatar’s use of sports as a pillar of its soft power strategy. Moreover, it lays bare the state-owned Al Jazeera television network's inability or unwillingness to report critically about Qatar.
It further challenges international sports administrators’ assertion that sports and politics are separate as well as their ban on political expressions on sports venues. To its credit, Formula 1’s website showed Mr. Hamilton winning the Qatar race with his demonstrative helmet.
Mr. Hamilton and the Danish union’s protests further raise questions about the nature and impact of the decade-old debate about Qatar in the wake of its winning in December 2010 of the 2022 hosting rights.
It also highlights a complicated debate on the best way to accommodate rights of gender and religious minorities in countries that legally refuse to recognise those rights. There is often merit on both sides of the argument. In the case of LGBTI, these countries often criminalise the minority’s orientation but do not enforce the law as long as the minority remains discreet.
The fragile balance is between a minority’s principled right to legal recognition and protection and a de facto live-and-let-live approach intended to avoid a situation in which public opinion turns on the minority and its members see their circumstances worsen rather than improve.
The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA World) noted in its December 2020 report on State-Sponsored Homophobia that religious interpretations of Qatari law could enable the sentencing of gays to death. It also stated that other articles stipulate sentences of up to ten years in prison.
Critics charge that the attempt by Qatar and like-minded states to stymie discussion enables situations in which gay people are not protected against discrimination and socially hostile situations and encounters.
“While there are no reported cases of the death penalty being applied for consensual same-sex sexual activity in Qatar as of October 2020, there are local testimonies indicating that LGBTI people living in Qatar face an extremely hostile context,” the report said.
The report implicitly acknowledged the dilemma in seeking to secure LBGTI rights in ways that don't further disadvantage the group in countries in which public opinion and government oppose legalisation.
Majid Al-Qatari, a pseudonym for a Qatari gay, sparked outrage in 2011 by writing an article describing what it meant to be homosexual in the Gulf state. Mr. Al-Qatari noted that many had lauded the attack on a gay bar in Orlando, Florida, that year by describing gays as ‘God’s cursed people.’
“It is very jarring living here; it is traumatizing to see that you are the cause of your parents’ anguish, that you are shaming your family. It is a constant onslaught, and it is killing me. It has caused irreparable damage to my mental health. I wouldn't have chosen to have been born in a place where my life is tantamount to my death. There is no prospect or future for me here — no normalcy,” Mr. Al-Qatari said.
The awarding of the 2022 hosting rights to Qatar may not have significantly improved the plight of gays, but it may have helped prevent a deterioration. It also halted Qatari support for a Kuwaiti proposal to ban LGBTI foreigners from gaining employment in any of the six Gulf monarchies.
The awarding has sparked a significant legal improvement in the rights and conditions of migrant labour in Qatar that accounts for the vast majority of the country's population. Nonetheless, The Guardian this week reported that legal changes were one thing, efficient implementation, a perennial problem in Qatar, another.
In the same vein, human rights group Amnesty International charged last week that labour reforms had stalled. It accused Qatari authorities of “complacency” in applying laws and said that has led to a resurfacing of the worst elements of the kafala system
Moreover, Qatar has cracked down on those who report abuse and poor or failed implementation of the reforms that stopped short of dismantling the country’s onerous sponsorship or kafala system. The system makes workers dependent on their employer for recognition of their rights.
Qatar has denied the allegations.
Yet, its Al Jazeera network, whose English-language service has been praised for its professionalism, has failed to report on either Mr. Hamilton or the Danish union's protests as far as this writer can ascertain. The network showed the F1 driver wearing his Pride Progress helmet but made no reference to what it represented. Al Jazeera English competes internationally on par with the BBC and CNN.
Qatar would have likely benefitted more if the network had been able to shine not only a positive but also a critical light on World Cup preparations and related social issues. To be fair, Al Jazeera has over the years reported on labour conditions in Qatar on various occasions but has also frequently given the story a pass
While much of the criticism of Qatari labour practice and discrimination against gays is justified, it is also true that bias, prejudice, and sour grapes frequently laced the debate over the past decade. Furthermore, the discussion was partly driven by controversy over the integrity of the Qatari World Cup bid and the Gulf state's willingness to invest far more than its competitors to win the hosting rights and stage the tournament.
Leaving aside the bias based on size, legacy, and climate that at times had undertones of Islamophobia, the debate failed to recognise that, unlike other tournament hosts, Qatar’s sports strategy was not simply intended to boost nation branding.
The strategy was part of a much broader soft power effort that aims to ensure that the international community has a stake in coming to Qatar’s rescue in case of an emergency, much as it did in 1991 when it forced Iraqi troops to withdraw from Kuwait. With a citizenry of only 300,000, Qatar cannot defend itself against a conventional attack irrespective of how much sophisticated weaponry it acquires.
Qatar’s soft power strategy involves, besides sports, a fast-paced, mediation-driven foreign policy; the creation of a world-class airline and air traffic hub; hosting of the most extensive US military base in the Middle East; sponsorship of high-profile museums and arts events; and acquisition of eye-catching real estate and investment in multi-national blue chips.
Mr. Hamilton and the Danish football association's willingness to publicly challenge Qatari policies suggests that the soft power impact of the World Cup has been less effective than its much-praised role in the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. That is at least true for Western public opinion, whose sentiments are critical to Qatar's approach towards defense and security.
Last but not least, like the Qatari bid itself, the athletes’ protests highlight that the incestuous relationship between sports and politics is written into the DNA of elite sports. It also suggests that athletes and players, like in past instances related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have become more willing to use sports as a platform to stand up for their beliefs.
Mr. Hamilton has already pledged to repeat his protest performance in the Jeddah F1 race in Saud Arabia in two weeks’ time.
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.