Not Another Qatar Post
It's about the World Cup, but it's not about the World Cup
This is not a story with a moral.
A long time ago, we wrote about the relationship between countries’ oil (and natural gas) production and the extent of—for lack of a better term—freedoms that women in those societies enjoyed. One of the arguments we pushed forward in that piece was that the apparent high-oil/low-women’s rights equilibrium derived from a broader set of policies that authoritarian leaders supplied to social elites and powerful interest groups. In Saudi Arabia for a long time (until recently), for instance, the logic was clear: the monarchy needed the clerics’ support and the clerics wanted not (just) material goods but also enforced orthopraxy and support for external propagation of the faith.
In that regard, Qatar was a bit of an oddity for our study. The elites of the tiny, inconceivably wealthy Qatari society were far more set on displaying familiarity with Western fashions and ideas than the Saudi regime of the time (this was pre-MBS). Qatar was far more bent on educating women, allowing women to drive and to work, and opening up to sports, art, and news—all behaviors that marked them as different from the world’s other Salafi (in the American demotic, “Wahhabist”) society, the one run by the al-Saud. Qatar wasn’t quite as entrepreneurial as Dubai, but it also wasn’t as stodgy as Abu Dhabi or Kuwait, and it seemed to have enough youth and vigor in its understanding of itself to fuel the entire Arab side of the gulf.
Those were the conditions under which I moved to Qatar almost a decade ago. I only spent a year there. It was, I should note, incredibly pleasant. How could it not be? I was ensconced in Education City; I earned a slightly obscene salary for very little work; and I did a lot of reading and travel. At the end of my time, my dissertation mostly finished, I left for a job in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where it snowed but you could walk everywhere.
So I do not have particularly profound insights into Qatari society, which, at its upper reaches, is relatively closed off anyhow. But I have actually lived there, not just stopped over for a day or a long layover, and you do pick up something of the rhythms of a place.
Much of what I learned was that a place can be both open and closed at the same time. There was the time, for instance, that Christmas decorations at a major downtown hotel were rapidly torn down hours in advance of a Christmas party, apparently at the behest of the government on behalf of local notables who were offended that there was a Christmas party being held in an officially Muslim country. (The details may be wrong: one of the incidental effects of living in an absolute monarchy is that there’s not much of an independent media to report and record these sorts of things.) Yet it was not a theocracy or even a particularly closed society: the story stands out because it was unusual, and because Christmas decorations were widely for sale in Carrefour and elsewhere that were unaffected. It was the sort of thing you talked about over drinks, lots of drinks, in fancy bars for expats.
Eventually, one had to accept that this was not a negotiation but a take-it-or-leave-it offer. One might have an American passport but you weren’t running the show—you were slotted into a distinctly second (or third?) rank position. There were advantages and disadvantages and you had to make your choice under those circumstances.
What you learned was that there were lines that you shouldn’t cross, and that they were real but that they might not be enforced all the time—but when they were, everyone understood that this was a part of life. The grossest abuses were a part of this, like women prosecuted after being raped for having sex outside of marriage. One also heard rumors at second-hand that the secret police attended academic talks on sensitive issues, although the government also funded those talks (and those academics) in the first place. And despite the prosecutions for adultery, there was not just a singles scene in Doha but a gay one (at least), too.
And then there were the laborers. You could not help but see them, and they were (and I assume are) everywhere. It gets hot and humid in Doha, and yet gardening, road construction, and building trades operated all the time. I could see them from my air-conditioned rooms where I was working on some social science. I would tell myself that I was working hard, as I had throughout my graduate program, but sometimes you can catch yourself in a lie.
Of course, you wonder if you’re complicit. Probably I was. On the other hand, my day job was helping to make Georgetown University’s Doha campus run, and that was an institution that was principally aimed at educating the young women of Qatar and the Gulf in an environment that was Westernish and yet acceptable to their families. The terms of the arrangements by which Western institutions have set up Gulf satellites are secret but are widely understood to be very favorable to the Western institutions. Even if I’d stayed in Washington, D.C., as a Georgetown student, some share of my stipend would have been paid for by Qatar’s natural gas revenues, however indirectly. And I would have walked by the Rafik Hariri building and taken seminars in the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal room, and been brought up to speed on the university’s continuing efforts to make right with the survivors of the slaves it sold to keep the oil lamps burning in 1838.
Another bit of social science that I read while in Doha involved the debate over the rights of women as a marker of “civilization”. Back in the 1800s, it turns out, Western writers then used the standards of treating women as a marker of how civilized a place was—except then it was a question of admitting women into participation in government and public life that marked a country as backward. Western countries praised themselves as better fitting the natural divisions between the sexes by relegating women to the private world. Still later, I would learn about the “lavender scare” and how the U.S. government channeled Cold War paranoia into the active persecution of gays and lesbians. As part of this turn, the United States spread anti-gay practices to the rest of the Free World in the name of security, but with lasting damage.
History is not simple, and neither is the present. In light of Russia’s war on Ukraine, without Qatar’s gas, Europe will—well, the metaphor is “freeze” but really the problem, as I understand it, is that its economy will suffer. By hosting the World Cup, Qatar signaled its aspirations to be integrated into the international system (and, perhaps, to be protected by powerful countries, not least because the country is indefensible should its neighbors turn hostile)—but by clamping down suddenly and visibly on LGBT expression and alcohol consumption, the country is also rejecting rights and personal liberties that Western societies, or at least major parts of them, hold dear now. (And clamping down on both LGBT and alcohol simultaneously is a surprisingly effective way to simultaneously alienate both halves of the Western civil kulturkampf.)
It makes sense, at least to me: monarchies, like all authoritarian governments, have to respect some domestic opinions. The content of elite opinions are always going to appear to be fickle, and that’s all the more true when dealing with a country that’s powerful or rich enough to damn the consequences of defying external tastes. (Americans should appreciate that, at least.)
Indeed, if anything, I suspect that one factor fueling the reaction to the current contretemps is that Western cultural power is not prevailing: Qatar bought the World Cup and now the countries that think of such institutions as inherently theirs are seeing it be traduced. It does not often happen that Western powers are, well, powerless. But the combination of moral indignation in the media and the submission of not only European football clubs but also, you know, Budweiser also says something about the correlation of forces.
Wealth and power are linked, but they are not linked in straightforward ways; envisioning international relations as a series of titanic conflicts obscures how often the real stuff of world politics is compromise, in every sense of the word.
Quinta Jurecic in The Atlantic nails the grimy feeling of Twitter drama:
There are a million lenses through which to understand Trump’s potential return to Twitter. Consider the ramifications for social-media platforms alone. What will happen to Trump’s suspended Facebook account? What might Trump’s sojourn at Truth Social show researchers about the impact of “deplatforming”—the banishing of toxic users from a social-media website? Truth Social runs on Mastodon, the decentralized social-media network that many Twitter users are now treating as a life raft. If Trump stays on Truth Social, and onetime Twitter aficionados flee to Mastodon, what could that signal about the growth of smaller, less-centralized networks as a possible future for social media?
Ultimately, though, I find something absurd and even insulting about having to consider these questions at all. You are reading this, and I am writing it, because a very rich man who desperately wants people to pay attention to him posted an easily rigged poll on the website he’d just bought for $44 billion. The answers to many of the questions I have just posed will depend on the fancies of another rich man who desperately wants people to pay attention to him. There’s an indignity to having one’s attention jerked around this way.