Qatar is basking in the global spotlight as host of the 2022 World Cup. Less prominently, it is the latest country to introduce an asylum law. Frowin Rausis argues that Qatar’s new-found status as a global host, of football and of asylum seekers, serves to showcase the country, and boost its global reputation
FIFA’s choice of Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup in October 2010 sent shockwaves across sport and politics. It was particularly surprising given that Doha’s bid was generally viewed as the weakest of all the candidate states. Football has become a wildly popular sport in many other Arab nations. Matches in the Qatar Stars League, however, typically attract only a few hundred spectators.
In 2018, Qatar adopted a national asylum framework. It was a move that attracted far less attention than its winning World Cup bid. Yet introducing an asylum law was equally surprising given Doha’s almost complete lack of prior interest in refugee protection. Nevertheless, international NGOs praised Doha’s apparent commitment to becoming a safe haven for people fleeing persecution.
In 2018, Qatar introduced a national asylum framework – a surprising move, given the country’s lack of prior interest in refugee protection
Hosting the world's biggest sporting tournament and hosting people seeking protection appear to be two fundamentally different things. However, we can view both as attempts to convince the world of Qatar’s attractiveness and to enhance its global standing. In treating asylum as a political football on the field of international politics, Qatar follows a well-worn path.
Political scientists call the ability of one country to influence other states without military or economic superiority 'soft power'. States applying soft power aim to improve their international influence and standing by persuading other states of their political and cultural capacities. Argentina’s hosting of the 1978 World Cup under military dictatorship, and India’s worldwide promotion of Yoga, are two clear examples.
When Qatar became the first Gulf state to enact an asylum law in 2018, it did so amid a diplomatic crisis. One year earlier, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt had cut diplomatic and economic relations with their Gulf neighbour. The Arab Quartet publicly accused Doha of supporting terrorism, and petitioned FIFA to revoke Qatar as 2022 World Cup hosts.
By announcing it would provide protection to people fleeing persecution, Doha burnished its humanitarian credentials before the international community
Against this backdrop, introducing an asylum law reflected Doha’s aspiration to improve its public perception and overcome international isolation. By announcing it would provide protection to people fleeing persecution, Doha burnished its humanitarian credentials before the international community. It also signalled to the world that Qatar is a safe, modern state in a sea of strife and conflict.
The simultaneous deployment of asylum as an instrument of humanitarian protection and to signal national honour is hardly new. During the Cold War, Western governments often gave a warm welcome to people fleeing the Iron Curtain. Welcoming refugees was seen as a sign of the superiority of the democratic capitalist West over the totalitarian communist East.
In turn, countries east of the Iron Curtain celebrated the arrival of artists and scientists leaving the capitalist West. Communist states welcomed these arrivals as proof that Western states were failing and that their citizens were tiring of the capitalist rat race.
However, the end of the global superpower contest brought about by the fall of the Iron Curtain meant that welcoming people from the other side no longer signalled moral and ideological superiority. Indeed, asylum seekers were rapidly recast as an economic burden and a cultural threat. Consequently, the collapse of communism was one reason behind the rise of policies of deterrence and containment, and the increasing adoption of physical and procedural barriers to asylum.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino has praised the 2022 World Cup as the 'best in history'. However, Qatar's host status has been highly controversial because the country stands accused of abusing basic human rights. Moreover, the event has gained notoriety for lacklustre energy in the stadiums and the apparent ambivalence of host-country spectators. For example, when Qatar went 2-0 down in the first half against Ecuador, many Qataris simply left the stadium.
Despite having adopted an asylum law, Qatar has failed to establish the necessary structure to process asylum applications
Qatar showed similar ambivalence towards people seeking asylum in the country. Despite having adopted an asylum law, the Gulf state has been reluctant to establish the necessary structure to process asylum applications. This became abundantly clear when human rights organisations learned Qatar had threatened to expel a Yemeni national without bothering to consider his asylum claim.
Internationally, Qatar has been more generous. This year it launched the initiative FIFA Qatar 2022 for All: Sharing the Joy of Refugees and Displaced Persons, giving people in refugee camps across Africa and Asia the opportunity to watch World Cup matches on big screens. But just as other countries treated their asylum laws as signals of virtue and used refugees as political footballs, it seems that Qatar's national asylum framework is only for show.