I was just in Oxford, UK, for “Sport 5.” (The full name of the conference, sponsored by Inter-Disciplinary.Net, is in the previous post about my contribution there.) I tweeted some of the highlights of Sport 5 (link to Twitter from the ribbon atop this page, Sept. 13-15, 2016). I want to share a bit more about one paper at Sport 5 that stood out for its unconventional thesis. The paper came from this year’s conference coordinator, Professor Susan Dun, a communication scholar at Northwestern University in Qatar.
I don’t want to steal Dun’s thunder or evidence, so I’ll give only cursory treatment to her thesis and outline three rationales that I found persuasive. My own impressions have mixed with recollection, so blame me for any misstatements.
In essence, Dun posited that however much Qatar deserves condemnation for corrupt dealings with FIFA (see generally Blake & Calvert’s The Ugly Game), the ills of the kafala labor system, or dreams of air-conditioned desert stadiums, the regime is not getting a fully fair shake in global perception. She made a compelling case, and activists, journalists, and scholars investigating the social and economic implications of the upcoming World Cups in Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022—myself included—should take note.
First, Dun placed the Qatari bid for 2022 in the context of Qatar’s ambitious struggle for political legitimacy through soft-power sport. In its rush onto the world stage, Qatar was not ready for intense scrutiny and scathing criticism that accompanied the award (and then was amplified by the FIFA corruption fiasco, pointed out David Storey of the University of Worcester, who, by the way, presented a fascinating paper on the GAA). Within Qatar, criticism of Al Thani leadership is not just legally problematic, but socially taboo. So Qataris were utterly ill equipped to respond to an external public relations crisis in a way that would have seemed natural to Western observers—with press conferences, collaborative inquiries, and affirmative information dissemination. Instead Qatar took an outmoded defend-or-deny stance, which only bloodied the waters.
Second, Dun explained that Qatar actually implemented a great many reforms to redress exposed deficiencies, for example, illegalizing passport retention and improving living conditions for foreign laborers. The communications failure has meant that reform stories have not gotten much play. Meanwhile, reform has been slowed by understandable challenges. Employers might still seize passports. Wrangling the middlemen is a laborious process in part because rapidly developed Qatar lacks regulatory and enforcement mechanisms that Westerners take for granted in key areas, such as workplace safety and banking. Communications failure again means that these impediments are not explained. Reform is necessarily incremental, but unresolved problems on the ground are misconstrued to signal government indifference, if not malice.
Third, Dun documented a media affection for criticism of Qatar. In part the penchant seems driven by ignorance. Journalists, bloggers, et al., tend not to be familiar with Qatar, so are more likely to republish judgmental commentary without critical analysis for fairness and accuracy. I suspect that hostility toward a wealthy Islamic state in the post-9/11 era also plays a role. Again, communications failure exaggerates the problem. Dun gave evidence that even Russia is more likely than Qatar to get a fair shake in media coverage. I can attest that in my own research, I only recently read about changes in Russian labor law—allegations not unlike those that have plagued Qatar for years—to hasten World Cup infrastructure development at the expense of worker rights. (See Martin Müller, How Mega-Events Capture Their Hosts: Event Seizure and the World Cup 2018 in Russia, Urban Geography, 2015, doi).
Dun got push-back in discussion with Sport 5 attendees, but she held firm. To be clear, Dun makes no motion whatever to justify human rights abuses; quite the contrary. She simply laments that the whole story of Qatar's reform is not being told. It would be a mistake to pull the World Cup from Qatar, she says, because there are desirable reforms occurring that should not be undermined. (This is happily consistent with Benavides and my extension in World Cup Dreaming of Jeremiah Ho's incrementalist theory). She makes that case well enough that those of us who fancy ourselves objective observers should pay attention.