Navel-gazing debate about sports washing in Arab countries

The head of Wasila, Usman Rana, has written a column about sports washing in the Norwegian newspaper Morgenbladet. Here is an English translation of the column:

The Gulf countries’ increasing contact with the international world – through trade and cultural events – is what can lead to gradual reforms, writes Usman Rana.

In 2019, an important celebration for the state of Norway took place, far beyond our borders – in the Far East. In an area with many rich desert countries, which we in social media have learned to hate and seek to boycott. For their primitiveness, absolute monarchies and lack of liberal values. The celebration took place in the Gulf state of Qatar, and marked fifty years of successful business cooperation between Norway and Qatar. Crown Prince Haakon of Norway was present. Norwegian companies with significant investments in the World Cup host country, such as Hydro, Yara, Kongsberg Group and Equinor were behind the celebrations in Doha. What these companies have in common is that they are state-owned. In the latter two the Norwegian state, including Norwegian taxpayers, is the main shareholder. In this light, the recent one-sided Norwegian debate on sports washing by wealthy Arab countries, culminated by the football World Cup in Qatar, appears exceptionally navel-gazing, self righteous and arrogant.

Economic alliances

The fact that Norwegian Hydro also shares the prestigious Qatalum aluminium project with the Qatari authorities’ Qatar Petroleum also gives an indication of the depth of the Norwegian-Qatari relationship. The aluminium smelter is actually Norway’s largest industrial project abroad, and our future king was also present during the opening of the smelter in 2010. Naturally, it was not the crown prince’s own initiative, but he travelled to the World Cup country as a symbol of how highly Norwegian elected officials, diplomacy and State-owned Norwegian businesses regard these connections. The need for cooperation with the Gulf countries, on oil and gas among other things, is also not going to diminish in light of Russia’s war against Ukraine. This was well illustrated when the Chancellor of Germany – the nation that, after Donald Trump’s entry into American politics, is seen as the liberal beacon of the West – recently travelled to the Gulf to secure a supply of gas. At a time when many countries in Europe are suffering from energy shortages and high electricity prices, we could see pictures of Olaf Scholz smiling together with the president of the United Arab Emirates, Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, after a gas agreement was signed between the countries. Quite remarkable, really, in a country where German soccer star Mesut Ozil was met with national outcry, incitement and condemnation for posing with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a photograph.

The Germans’ gas agreement with the Emirates also coincided with the French energy giant TotalEnergies signing an agreement with Qatar. Scholz and the French naturally did the right thing, buying energy from long-standing and faithful allies instead of depending on Russia.

Satisfied migrant workers

Considering such energy and economic alliances, the harsh and constant criticism of the Gulf countries seems quite out of place. Not least when Western geo- and security policy, including the fight against terrorism, is also taken into account. Here, the alliance with these countries is crucial and has been for several decades. For example, the United States, by far NATO’s most important country, has its largest military base in Qatar. The Al-Udeid base was invaluable during the American war in Afghanistan. Kuwait, The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain also have significant US bases including US soldiers.

This is not to say that allied countries cannot criticize each other. A friendship is not genuine if good advice and well-intentioned criticism are absent and perceived as hostility. There is no doubt that several Western European countries, with the Scandinavian countries at the forefront, are world leaders in terms of human rights – such as equality before the law, equality for all kinds of people and freedom of expression. In a historical context, the treatment migrant workers have received in countries such as Norway has also been exceptionally good compared to other parts of the world. My own father came to Norway in 1974 and was quickly integrated into Norwegian society with the same rights as a Norwegian with descent from the mountains of Norway. Then it is also part of history that our country and other European countries quickly introduced some form of immigration freeze several decades ago, and there is broad political agreement that immigration must be sustainable – a euphemism for «very limited» and «useful from an economic perspective». It is also part of the story – which is rarely retold in the Western media – that many migrant workers in the Gulf are happy to be able to work there and thus provide for their families in their home country, so that their children receive acceptable education.

Much needed jobs in the Gulf

From a country like Pakistan, there are many migrant workers, especially in The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. They are often poorly educated and often originate from remote areas in Pakistan, with poor job prospects. For these men and their families, the job in the Gulf is highly needed, although they probably would not have been as satisfied with their work-life balance if they had been exposed to work culture in a social democracy beforehand. At the same time, they are often well informed about the working conditions before they go to the Gulf.

Improving working conditions for migrant workers in countries such as Qatar should be on the agenda. But is aggressive harassment and boycotts from allies in the West what will bring about change? Presumably, the approach of the Norwegian Crown Prince Haakon and then Minister of Trade and Industry Torbjørn Røe Isaksen has a greater effect, when during the 50th anniversary celebrations in Qatar they deliberately profiled a meeting with the International Labour Organization (ILO). The Gulf countries’ increasing contact with the international world – through trade and cultural events – is what can lead to gradual reforms that improve the conditions of guest workers. We see these positive reforms taking shape in Qatar and the Emirates, among others. It is also not constructive to repeat The Guardian’s somewhat misleading article about 6,500 deaths among migrant workers, which in half the world has created the impression that the deaths were in connection with the construction of World Cup facilities.

The figure refers to all types of deaths, regardless of cause and occupation, over a ten-year period among several million migrant workers and cannot be simply put in the context of the World Cup preparations.

Unnecessary double standards

In the Muslim world, which is now experiencing its first sporting event of this size, there are also many who react to Western European countries’ strong boycott focus on the basis of human rights and liberal values. Primarily because of what is perceived as a blatant double standard. Because were not these values important enough when Russia organized the World Cup in 2018, four years after the annexation of Crimea? Norwegian news outlet ABC Nyheter has proclaimed it will not write a single word about the Qatar World Cup. But why did the same news outlet cover Norway’s Olympic gold medals in this year’s Beijing Olympics, in a country that surpasses the vast majority of the world’s countries in terms of human rights violations, and is to be considered a security policy threat to Western Europe? And where were the subtle protests and posters of the Norwegian national ski team in Beijing? Or what does Israel do in the Eurovision Song Contest and Israeli football teams in the European Champions League, when the country commits gross human rights violations and, according to Desmond Tutu and Amnesty, is an apartheid state? There was also no significant mobilization for a boycott when Western European countries participated in the Eurovision Song Contest event in Tel Aviv in 2019. Additionally, we should not forget the next football World Cup in the USA in 2026. Will there be much talk of boycott of a country that lied when starting a major war in Iraq in 2003 with about half a million dead people and ISIS as the main consequences? This country also had a president who not long ago killed several hundred innocent civilians in the Middle East and Pakistan with remote-controlled drone strikes? It may not matter much, because his name was Barack Obama and he is liberal and cool.

No, this cannot be dismissed as inappropriate whataboutism. As the British philosopher Jonny Thomson states, whataboutism is relevant and important when it exposes inconsistency and double standards. Interestingly enough, the accusation of whatboutism quickly becomes a whataboutism in itself.

Foto: Tord Torpe.





Foto: Tord Torpe.