World cup distracts from how Britain created repression in Qatar – Socialist Worker

The Al Janoub Stadium will host a lot of the Qatar World Cup games (Picture: Palácio do Planalto)
You might hear that this year’s football world cup is an example of ­“sportswashing”—but it’s not just Qatar that’s trying to launder its reputation. Why, for instance, would Tory ­foreign secretary James Cleverly ask ­travelling fans to be “respectful” of Qatar’s ­homophobic laws? 
It was, on the surface, a clumsy attempt at shielding a British military and trading partner from criticism. But there was something more subtle at work too. Mealy-mouthed though it was, Cleverly’s excuse implies some distance between Qatar’s crimes and the British state.
We in the liberal, progressive West might object to authoritarian rule, it ­suggests. But we have to understand this is the custom of a different, “backward” culture to ours. So we need patience and understanding if we’re to bring Qatar up to our standards.
That’s the sort of toe-curling racism you’re as likely to hear at a dinner party as you are in a football stand. But it’s a perspective that even some of those who criticised Cleverly perhaps ­unwittingly share.
They want Britain to condemn Qatar from a position of moral authority. And they see Qatari lobbying and investment in Britain as a corrupting influence on the proper, honest workings of Western democracy.
The reality is much less comfortable. Far from an ancient relic, Qatar—like the rest of the “backward” Gulf Arab states—began life as a creation of the British Empire. Their conservative, authoritarian forms of government today are shaped primarily by their ­integration into a world economic system ­dominated by the West.
That integration is itself a legacy of the British Empire—and it’s not just all about oil. At first, it was about India. In the early 19th century, Britain refused to pay Arab tribes along the Persian Gulf to allow its ships to pass through to India. Instead, it laid siege to them, destroyed their ships, then forced other Arab leaders to sign an “anti-piracy” agreement allowing British ships to do what they pleased. 
It followed this up with agreements parcelling off bits of land to various Arab rulers that agreed to British ­control. Qatar was one of them.
Britain offered the “protection” of the British navy to those that agreed. It meted out bombings and attacks on the ports and towns of those that stepped out of line. This not only smoothed Britain’s plunder of India. It helped ­protect its prize colony from rivals such as France and the Ottoman Empire.
The later discovery of oil—in 1940 for Qatar—made the Gulf even more ­important to Britain. Controlling the oil didn’t just mean that Britain could profit from its sale. It also meant, as the Empire collapsed, Britain could cling on to its importance. 

It sold itself to the US as a military partner. And it used the oil trade to shore up the importance of the City of London as a centre of global finance.
As Britain gradually withdrew its own forces from the Gulf, it built up and trained the militaries and repressive internal police forces in the regimes it left behind. Britain formally gave up control of Qatar in 1970. But even today, strong military and economic ties bind the two together. 
Together with the other states in the Gulf Coordinating Council (GCC), Qatar is a vital connection between Western money and the rest of the Middle East and North Africa. Lucrative oil and arms deals are part of this. But they’re not the whole picture. Through a vast web of ­investments in industries such as construction, ­agriculture, manufacturing and retail, GCC states have been able to shape the region and beyond.
Much of this is through supposedly private business that is linked to or owned by state bodies, or quite often members of the royal families. All of this means that GCC states have been able to establish themselves as an important node in the world economic system—and an enforcer of the free market rules dictated by the West.
Britain’s dealings with Qatar and the rest of the GCC are about making sure it stays closely tied into all this. In particular, financial institutions in the City of London are an important source of foreign investment for Gulf states.
In turn this connection bolsters Britain’s position as a centre of global finance. Financial institutions here have at times even depended on the Gulf for survival. Billions of pounds worth of investment from the Qatar Investment Authority, and a member of its ruling Al Thani family, saved Britain from having to bail out Barclays bank.
Within the GCC, each state tries to advance its own competing interests—and so establish its own connections, its own plan for development. Qatar has had to try and carve out its independence from its bigger allies and rivals, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
One way it does this is to try and ­balance between them and their rivals. So, for example, Qatar both hosts one of the US’s biggest overseas military bases, and has close ties with the US’s main regional rival Iran. It was one of the first Arab states to establish ties with Israel, but also supports and funds the Palestinian resistance group Hamas.
This is designed to give itself ­political leverage and room for manoeuvre. Another, linked, method is to try and build its “soft” power—indirect political prestige and influence. 
The World Cup is one example of this. It’s not just about giving itself an attractive public face, but also about encouraging tourism and foreign investment as it tries to reduce its dependence on fossil fuel income.
Again, Britain is keen to take a large slice. In 2018, the Tory government boasted that British firms were “on track to score World Cup deals worth £1.5 billion.”
It described how the Department for International Trade had “already helped British companies to secure £940m in Qatar World Cup-related exports and aims for at least a further £500 million before the competition kicks off.” All of which points to the World Cup as far more than just an example of “sportswashing.” It’s one grubby part of a filthy system, with Britain up to its neck in the dirt.
Migrant labour is central to capitalism in the Gulf. In that sense it’s the source of a lot of the wealth that flows from the Gulf into Britain. That’s especially true in Qatar, where migrant labour makes up a staggering 88 percent of the population.
Migrants’ right to live in Qatar often depends on whether they have a job. Employers, for example, are the ones who are responsible for applying for the ID cards and residency permits that workers need in order to stay.
There has—rightly—been no shortage of focus in the media on the appalling conditions that migrants face in Qatar. But there’s been less about how sometimes those migrants can organise, fight and win.

Stephen is a British trade unionist who has spent a lot of time in Qatar in contact with migrant workers. He told Socialist Worker how migrant self-help organisations have developed into de facto trade unions.
“There are quite a few of these legal organisations in Qatar,” he explained. “They operate as kind of community hubs, organising things such as celebrations for national and religious holidays.
“But inevitably, because they’re workers, they’ve had to take up questions thrown up by being migrant workers in highly exploitative situations. If a company goes bust or for whatever reason stops paying its workers, they might take up cases in a collective way.”
Sometimes this involves lodging an appeal with Qatari authorities. But, says Stephen, “I’ve been told of several incidents of small groups of workers taking action, where they occupied the offices of a company. 
“They’d refuse to budge until they got their wages, the guarantee of a job, or a paid-for flight home. In all the examples I know, ministers stepped in and the workers came away with what they considered to be a good outcome. In the process, migrant organisations became more overtly workers’ organisations.”
Of course, the state is far from benevolent, and has arrested and even deported workers for protesting and striking over unpaid wages. But in significant cases, the strikes have been so strong, and Qatar’s dependence on migrant labour so great, that they’ve won powerful victories. 
One example Stephen heard of from a migrant organiser involved a strike of thousands of construction workers near Qatar’s border with Saudi Arabia. “Thousands of workers stopped work and blocked the main highway to Saudi Arabia over unpaid wages,” Stephen said. “They were persuaded to go back on promises that weren’t kept. So they had a second strike and occupied the main highway.
“The government intervened and arrested the employers, paid the workers back pay and increased their salaries. The strike must have been a serious problem for the authorities for them to have to do that.”
Britain loves a chance to show off its military might—and the World Cup is a fine opportunity to do just that. So earlier this year the then Tory defence secretary Ben Wallace announced that the RAF and Qatar’s airforce would “join forces to provide air policing in the skies.” 
The announcement came after Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, met with Boris Johnson, who you might remember was prime minister at the time. The operation is to be carried out by “12 Squadron”—a training unit of British and Qatari pilots. 
It’s apparently the first joint squadron Britain has formed with another country since the Second World War. That speaks to the close military ties Britain kept with Qatar even after formally ending its Empire there in 1970.

As in most Gulf states, officers in the Qatari army get military training in Britain. Both of the two Emirs that have ruled Qatar since 1995 are graduates of Britain’s prestigious Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst.
Of course, military cooperation often presents opportunities for money making. Qatar is one of the biggest buyers of British arms. Britain has approved at least £540 million worth of arms sales to Qatar since 2015.
And quite often arms sales go hand in hand with other deals. Al Thani and Johnson didn’t just agree to fly their planes together over Qatar’s football stadiums. At the same meeting, al Thani promised £10 billion worth of investment in British cyber, financial technology and zero-emissions vehicles.
Qatar is quite keen to buy influence—and more—in Britain. In the year to October it spent £251,208 on paying for British MPs’ visits to Qatar. 
And Qatar has more than £40 billion worth of investments and assets in Britain—including property, stakes in Barclays Bank, Heathrow Airport, Sainsbury’s and British Airways. They are signs of the deep economic and military ties between Britain and Qatar.
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