Cameron Visit to Qatar Highlights Differences in Perceptions of Soccer

This week’s visit to Qatar by British Prime Minister David Cameron highlighted differences in how the West and the Middle East view soccer in political and social terms.

News reports about a press conference held jointly by Cameron and Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al Thani focused on Cameron’s insistence that gay soccer fans should not be discriminated against during the 2022 World Cup which Qatar will host and Al Thani’s admission that he knows little about soccer. Qatar like most Muslim nations bans homosexuality.

"To me it is clear – football is for everybody. No one should be excluded on the basis of their race or religion or sex or sexuality. It is absolutely vital that is the case. I am sure that will be the case when the football World Cup comes here to Qatar,” Cameron said.

Yet that is where the West and the Middle East, and the Gulf in particular, part ways. Change means different things to both worlds.

To Cameron it involves an embrace of all segments of the population irrespective of race, creed, religion, gender or sexual disposition even if Europe in the wake of September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington and economic malaise has made the continent more hostile to immigrants.

To Al Thani, change means economic and technological progress while at the same time preserving the conservative and religious values in a country in which Qataris constitute only one third of the population.

Cameron’s creed of employing soccer to break down barriers is one that Al Thani embraces to the degree that it does not endanger the Qatari minority’s national and cultural identity and privileged position.

To be fair, Al Thani’s caveats about the acceptable limits of change are in effect no different from Britain and Europe’s changing attitudes towards immigrants and minorities. The difference is that Al Thani doesn’t face Cameron’s problem of reconciling his rhetoric with reality.

Similarly, Al Thani’s frank admission “that I am very weak in the sport, I don't know the rules" of soccer, highlights differences in how the West and the Gulf define the purpose of the beautiful game.

To Cameron, sports is a key pillar of civic society and an economic generator. To Al Thani, soccer is a tool that allows the tiny Gulf state to project itself onto the world stage, establish itself as a global sports hub and create economic opportunity.

"I like sport, of course, but I am not involved in sport. I suspect Fifa chose Qatar for 2022 to take it to different grounds, different culture, different geography. This shows that football is international," Al Thani said.

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