Tyrant of the year 2022: Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Qatar

The atrocious worker conditions and contempt for basic human rights in Qatar have certainly been on our minds over the last year. However, relatively little attention has been paid to the man pulling the strings. 

“Al Thani holds a relatively lower profile than his counterparts in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but his dedication to censorship is no less concerning. From concealing thousands of workers’ deaths due to poor working conditions to arresting both local and international journalists, Al Thani remains committed to curtailing freedom of expression at every level,” says Emma Sandvik Ling, partnerships and fundraising manager at Index on Censorship. 

Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani became emir in Qatar in 2013. Since then, he has demonstrated a commitment to censoring dissident voices. Qatar boasts widespread censorship in the press, academia, and civil society. Blatant cases of censorship are certainly not hard to come by: In 2021, blogger Malcolm Bidali was arrested and spent 28 days in solitary confinement for writing critically about the Qatari royal family. Indigenous groups are excluded from participating in Shura Council elections. In November, two Norwegian journalists were arrested hours before a scheduled interview with Abdullah Ibhais, the former communications director for Qatar’s 2022 World Cup.

Like his regional counterparts, Al Thani has invested in soft power strategies to appease international critics. Index editor-in-chief Jemimah Steinfeld reflected on the 2022 World Cup in Qatar in the autumn edition of the Index on Censorship magazine: “Here’s a nation that prohibits homosexuality, has no free press, forbids protest, restricts free speech. It has stadiums built using migrant labour with little to no workers’ rights. And yet come November these stadiums will open to the world, international dignitaries will be wined and dined and Qatar will revel in the glory associated with hosting a World Cup.” 

Global attention will likely move on to new issues and challenges after the World Cup final on 18 December. Still, Al-Thani’s oppressive regime will remain.

Keep up focus on rights in Qatar argue Index panel ahead of World Cup

“If there is ever an opportunity to try and pretend a country is a nice country, it’s when everyone is diverted by someone kicking a football,” said Ruth Smeeth, CEO of Index on Censorship. Smeeth was introducing a panel discussion entitled “Qatar 2022: When Football and Free Speech Collide”. Hosted in collaboration with Liverpool John Moores University, the event marked the launch of the Autumn 2022 edition of the Index on Censorship magazine, which looks at the role of football in extending or crushing rights ahead of the Qatar World Cup.

Index on Censorship Editor-in-Chief Jemimah Steinfeld was joined by David Randles, the BA Sports Journalism programme leader at Liverpool John Moores University, who has spent much of his career on sports desks and in press boxes. She was also joined by Connor Dunn, a public relations account manager who deals with big names from the football world, including Liverpool footballer Trent Alexander-Arnold, and was formerly a journalist at Reach PLC.

The issue of whether the FIFA World Cup 2022 being held in Qatar will be a force of change for good was prominent. Dunn was unsure whether there would be any long-term change in the country but felt there will in the short term, saying that “Qatar will want to show the world they are the best country on earth. They’ll be lax with those sort of rules people in the West will be used to [the human rights violations], as there will be potential for stories to be blown up”.

Therein lies a danger, as Steinfeld pointed out. Reeling off a series of examples, she said: “All of the editorials said that while France won the 2018 World Cup Putin was the real winner. The world forgot about the invasion about Crimea.” The fear therefore is that Qatar will relax their attacks on human rights during the tournament, court international leaders, put on a great show and as a result people will walk away with a much better impression of the country than they really should.

Despite attempts to appear more moderate, Randles said that he thinks most minorities would not visit the country due to safety issues. He said: “Would you go to support your team in a regime which doesn’t support you? I don’t think so. If you don’t feel safe, why would you go?” He also pointed out the fact that in Qatar’s neighbouring country Saudi Arabia (whose Sovereign Fund bought Newcastle FC last year), women still cannot attend football games.

Naturally discussion came round to the issue of migrant workers, who have died in huge numbers during the building of infrastructure for Qatar. Sadly the exact numbers are hard to come by, a nature of how tightly information is controlled in the country.

Dunn though highlighted one potential positive that has emerged from the heightened awareness of awful working conditions in Qatar. With claims of potential slave labour being used due to Qatar’s punitive ‘Kafala’ system (which has since been reformed on the back of World Cup coverage), there are hopes for reparations in the future. Dunn said: “There are calls to give the same amount of money the World Cup winner will win, which is about 440 million dollars, to make reparations and give that to underpaid migrant workers and families of those who have died. It’s not a big chunk of the predicted profits from the tournament but goes some way to changing things.”

On other positives that could come out of Qatar, all the panel agreed that football still has a unique way to be transformative. Steinfeld cited Permi Jhooti’s story from the new magazine which inspired the film Bend it Like Beckham, an interview with the head of the Afghan Women’s football team and the England Lionesses winning the recent European Championships for the nation’s first major trophy in 56 years.

And of course footballers, with their millions of fans, are often more listened to than politicians and could use their platform when in the country to raise rights issues. While they accepted that footballers shouldn’t be compelled to speak up, the event was full of examples of those who have – like Marcus Rushford and his campaign for free school meals – and in so doing have brought about important and far-reaching societal change.

Contents – The beautiful game? Qatar, football and freedom

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]The autumn issue of Index takes as its central theme the FIFA World Cup that will take place in Qatar in November and December 2022.

A country where human rights are constantly under threat, Qatar is under the spotlight and many are calling for a boycott of the tournament.

Index spoke to journalists, human rights activists and philosophers for the latest issue to understand their view on the tangled relationship between football and human rights. Is football really the beautiful game?[/vc_column_text][vc_custom_heading text=”Up front”][vc_column_text]The Qatar conundrum, by Jemimah Steinfeld: The World Cup is throwing up questions.

The Index, by Mark Frary: The latest in the world of freedom of expression, with internet shutdowns and Salman Rushdie’s attack in the spotlight. Plus George M Johnson on being banned.[/vc_column_text][vc_custom_heading text=”Features”][vc_column_text]An unholy war on speech, by Sarah Myers: A woman sits on death row in Pakistan. Her crime? Saying she was a prophet.

Perfecting the art of oppression, by Martha Otwinowski: Poland’s art scene is the latest victim of nasty politics.

Poland’s redemption songs, by Martin Bright: In anti-apartheid solidarity, reggae rode with revolution in Europe.

Fighting back against vendetta politics, by Hanan Zaffar and Hamaad Habibullah: In India, tackling fake news can land you in a cell.

The mafia state that is putty in Putin’s hands, by Mark Seacombe: The truth behind the spread of pro-Russian propaganda in Bulgaria.

Bodies of evidence, by Sarah Sands: A new frontier of journalism with echoes of a crime scene investigator.

Chasing after rights, by Ben Rogers: The activist on being followed by Chinese police.

The double closet, by Flo Marks: Exploring the rampant biphobia that pushes many to silence their sexuality.

Is there a (real) doctor in the house? By John Lloyd: One journalist uncovers the secret of Romania’s doctored doctorates.

The mice hear the words of the night, by Jihyun Park: A schooling in free expression, where the classroom is North Korea.

The most dangerous man in Guantanamo, by Katie Dancey-Downs: After years in Guantanamo, a journalist dedicates himself to protecting others.

America’s coolest members club, by Olivia Sklenka: Meet the people fighting against the surge in book bans.[/vc_column_text][vc_custom_heading text=”Special report: The beautiful game?”][vc_column_text]Victim of its own success? By Simon Barnes: Blame the populists, not the game.

Stadiums built on suffering, by Abdullah Al-Maliki: Underneath the suds of Qatar’s sportswashing, fear and terror remain.

Football’s leaving home, by Katie Dancey-Downs: Khalida Popal put women on the pitch in Afghanistan, before leading their evacuation.

Exposing Saudi’s nasty tactics, by Adam Crafton: A sports journalist is forced into defence after tackling Saudi Arabia’s homophobia.

It’s foul play in Kashmir, by Bilal Ahmad Pandow: Protest and politically motivated matches are entwined in Kashmir’s football history.

How ‘industrial football’ was used to silence protests, by Kaya Genç: Political football: how to bend it like Erdoğan.

Xi’s real China dream, by Jonathan Sullivan: While freedoms are squeezed, China’s leader has a World Cup-sized dream.

Tackling Israel’s thorny politics, by Daniella Peled: Can Palestinians de-facto national team carve out a space for free expression?

The stench of white elephants, by Jamil Chade: Brazil’s World Cup swung open Pandora’s Box.

The real game is politics, by Issa Sikiti da Silva: Is politics welcome on the pitch in Kenya?[/vc_column_text][vc_custom_heading text=”Comment”][vc_column_text]Refereeing rights, by Julian Baggini: Why we shouldn’t expect footballers to hand out human rights red cards.

The other half, by Permi Jhooti: The real-life inspiration behind Bend it like Beckham holds up a mirror to her experience.

We don’t like it – no one cares, by Mark Glanville: English football has moved away from listening to its fans argues this Millwall supporter.

Much ado about critics, by Lyn Gardner: A theatre objects to an offensive Legally Blonde review.

On reputation laundering, by Ruth Smeeth: Beware those who want to control their own narrative.[/vc_column_text][vc_custom_heading text=”Culture”][vc_column_text]The soul of Sudan, by Stella Gaitano and Katie Dancey-Downs: What does it mean for deep-running connections when you’re forced to leave? Censored writer Stella Gaitano introduces a new translation of her work.

Moving the goalposts, by Kaya Genç and Guilherme Osinski: Football and politics are a match made in Turkey. Kaya Genç fictionalises an unforgettable game.

Away from the satanic, by Malise Ruthven: A leading expert on Salman Rushdie writes about an emerging liberalism in Islamic discourse.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]