The concept of “sportswashing,” in exposing how states or corporations use sporting events to cleanse their images on international stages, draws our attention to human rights abuses, labor conditions, political repression and the regulation of social behavior. Yet, examining the language around Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup, the collective Habibi FC notes how this critique is unevenly deployed—sportswashing is most frequently applied to (non-white) countries from the Global South and partakes in a larger discourse of the “West vs. the rest.” Habibi FC call for a more nuanced use of the term, one that does not depend on Orientalist binaries and enables us to better see Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup as a strategic calculation: risking its moral image to project competence and gain global influence.
As fans from around the world travel to Qatar for the 2022 World Cup, this mega sporting event reveals how processes of division and unification are central to Qatari state power. While the World Cup constructs and fortifies a distinctly Qatari nationalism, the tournament has not erased the underlying tensions and inequities in Qatar’s migration system and citizenship policies. Beginning with the “Hayya Card,” a new visa tied to the purchase of a FIFA ticket, Jaafar Alloul and Laavanya Kathiravelu consider how ambiguous legislation is being used to differentiate and divide resident groups for purposes of retaining control. At the same time, they highlight emerging spaces for everyday solidarity between Qatari citizens and migrant communities made possible through generational change.
Legacies of colonialism and decolonization have long shaped what football means to the large shared population of binational citizens between France and Algeria. One in every ten people in France has a direct familial connection to Algeria, complicating any distinction of national belonging and clouding footballing loyalties. Fans decide which national side to back, or opt to support both, in international tournaments. In the case of professional footballers, they must choose which nation to play for. This tense footballing relationship, rooted in colonial France’s civilizing mission, reverberates in social life in France today. Meanwhile, the sport itself grows increasingly enmeshed in systems of global capital.
The past decade has seen the growing presence of political protest and expressions of Palestinian national identity in football stadiums in Israel, with Ultras Sakhnin setting a powerful example. Revisiting arguments made in his 2007 book, Tamir Sorek traces how interrelated local, regional and global factors are contributing to the increasing audibility and visibility of politics in Palestinian football. From songs on social media to signs in the stands, the actions of fans and athletes reject the designation of sports as an apolitical field and challenge the regime of racialized supremacy football has largely legitimized—until now.
With Morocco’s youth reeling from bleak educational and job prospects following two years of strict COVID lockdowns, football clubs offer unique outlets for expressing frustration, anger and opposition to the authoritarian status quo. The stadium has become one of the few public spaces relatively free of state control where citizens feel they can express their grievances. Although traditionally known for their rivalries with other clubs, “ultras”—associations of a team’s most ardent fans—have, over the past ten years, emerged as quasi-social movements, facing off against authorities to demand greater economic opportunities and political inclusion.
Women’s football in Sudan has grown significantly since the 2000s, with more than 720 players and 21 teams now participating in the women’s national league. Yet attitudes toward women’s play vary across the country, with many footballers facing religious condemnation, social stigmatization, police harassment and even arrest. Players also point to “gender washing” by the Sudanese Football Association, an organization that diverts funds dedicated to developing women’s football from international bodies like FIFA. Based on interviews with women football players in Khartoum, Sara Al-Hassan and Deen Sharp highlight the challenges to women’s pursuit of the beautiful game, and their tenacity in continuing to play.
When Algeria defied the odds to win the Africa Cup of Nations in 2019, many Algerians heralded the moment as a victory for more than just football. The team’s previous and only win on the international stage had been in 1990 and was followed by a decade of civil unrest that ended with Bouteflika’s election in 1999. The 2019 victory, meanwhile, came on the heels of the months-long Hirak protests ousting Bouteflika after nearly 20 years in power. Mahfoud Amara explores Algerian football’s swinging fortunes as they mirror political tensions and transformations leading up to and following the Hirak.
In a troubling symbiotic relationship, Britain’s so-called “levelling up agenda,” begun by Boris Johnson, aims to address the regional divide between the country’s North and South, in part, by courting investments from the Gulf. Within this agenda, football clubs—important local assets with emotional power and cultural significance—are perfect platforms for Gulf investors to shape local policy environments and gain political influence. Proudfoot and Reda analyze these developments within a longer history of economic ties between the Gulf and England’s North.
As football fans around the world tune in to the World Cup in Qatar, President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s regime is rather turning its back on the game, which used to constitute a centerpiece of Egyptian nation building. Based on research conducted for his book, Egypt’s Football Revolution: Emotion, masculinity, and uneasy politics, Carl Rommel discusses the history of football in Egypt between 1990-2019. How has the sport shaped and been shaped by notions of masculinity? What is its role in and relationship to the country’s dramatically changing political landscape?
With the approach of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, Natasha Iskander speaks to Arang Keshavarzian about the politics of labor that underpin the tournament – and their devastating effects. From the deliberate framing of migrant workers as “unskilled” to the regulation of workers protests, minimal reforms to the kafala system and strategic recruitment from climate damaged areas, Iskander highlights how calculated policies and practices shore up power at the cost of human life.
The Fall 2022 issue of Middle East Report, “Football—Politics and Passions,” examines the regional and global importance of the beautiful game in the lead up to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The authors of issue 304 reflect on the multiple ways football moves individuals and systems between South Asia, the Gulf states, Palestine, the Maghreb, Sudan, Egypt and Britain’s post-industrial North.
Issue 303 (Summer 2022) Masthead
Many movies, television shows and advertisements film on location in the busy and crowded streets of Cairo. Mariz Kelada explains with ethnographic detail the complex and multilayered work of production assistants, fixers and sub-fixers to create the right conditions and relationships for filming in diverse neighborhoods and navigating inevitable tensions. Despite their precarious status as informal workers, she makes the case that their labor is integral to the formal system of media production in Egypt.
Could the use of Bitcoin allow Palestinians to escape Israeli control over the economy and money in the West Bank and Gaza Strip? Hadas Thier examines the arguments of the crypto enthusiasts and finds serious problems with their vision of liberation via Bitcoin. Thier talks to political economist Sara Roy, whose scholarship on de-development in Gaza is being used by some Bitcoin boosters, about the real roots of Palestinian oppression and why cryptocurrencies are not the solution.
State-sponsored credit campaigns are not a new strategy for Turkish governments but the low-interest consumer loans that were extended to almost 7 million people in the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic surpassed all earlier financial inclusion programs. Inviting masses into the financial sector amid stagnating or declining real wages and expecting people to reinvent themselves as entrepreneurs or small-scale investors were the main pillars of the project. It did not, however, solve the problems faced by low-income groups, women and minorities. Ali Rıza Güngen examines the state’s shifting approach to debt and the consequences for borrowers.
In July 2021, former President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner obtained a $2 billion investment for his newly formed private equity firm, Affinity Partners, from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Notably, the deal was approved despite opposition from the Saudi fund’s investment screening panel. According to the minutes of the panel, objections to the investment plan included a major fee that “seems excessive,” the “inexperience of the Affinity Fund management” and a due diligence determination that the firm’s operations were “unsatisfactory in all aspects.” The panel was overruled, however, by the sovereign wealth fund’s board, controlled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.
Special economic zones are fast becoming the instrument of choice for African countries looking to attract mobile capital and increase their integration into global markets. Among the many initiatives planned or in operation on the continent are a series of economic cooperation zones in six African countries, all established with financial and technical support from China. The Suez Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone (SETC-Zone) in Egypt, established in 2008, is a flagship of Chinese zone-based cooperation in participating African countries and an important example of the impact Chinese industrial zones have on the development pathways of host locations.