Freshly reappointed Foreign Secretary James Cleverly stirred controversy when he told LBC’s Nick Ferrari that LGBT football fans should show, ‘a little bit of flex and compromise’ referring to World Cup host Qatar’s record on gay rights. The statement is only the latest in the ongoing debate over the 2022 World Cup and Qatar’s approach to human rights. For our part, we must recognise that, as is often the case, football provides a mirror for wider societal issues. New questions must be confronted, not only over the tensions between religious traditions and civil rights but also over the UK’s place in a post-Brexit world dominated by non-democracies and authoritarian regimes.

The State of Play

Earlier in the week, Labour leader Keir Starmer publicly stated that neither he nor anyone from the party would attend the World Cup final in Qatar. He pointed, as many have, to the country’s anti-LGBT laws and treatment of migrant workers. It is illegal to be gay in Qatar, and the police have a particularly troubling track record of abuse. Human Rights Watch reports detention, ill-treatment, unlawful phone searches and mandated conversion therapy sessions. Evidence for some of this abuse is as recent as September with: ‘six cases of severe and repeated beatings and five cases of sexual harassment in police custody between 2019 and 2022’ having been documented.

Human rights groups also report that migrant workers have been used to build new stadiums for the tournament. These workers have faced gruelling working conditions, low pay and exploitation. There is mounting evidence of numerous deaths, with the International Trade Union Confederation putting the figure at 7,000 and Amnesty International estimating that between 2010 and 2019 more than 15,021 foreigners have died.

Qatar, unsurprisingly, denies much of this. Authorities claim there have been only three work-related and 34 non-work-related fatalities. The government have also said that no LGBT fans will face discrimination, and all are welcome at the tournament. Nevertheless, they have stated that the laws on homosexuality will not change.

Picking Teams

Nadhim Zahawi, new Chair of the Tory Party no less, seemed to completely contradict the Foreign Secretary by saying: ‘No one should need to compromise on their sexuality or their preference whatsoever.’

The debate has been framed by many as being about whose rights we should prioritise. This is, of course, partly true. But this perspective fails to see the bigger picture.

The Foreign Secretary’s argument is that we should respect Qatar’s traditional Islamic culture. Zahawi and Starmer’s is that the country’s religious laws should not be allowed to limit the freedoms of LGBT people. This seems an uncomfortable debate to have, particularly for progressives who want to protect the rights of two historically marginalised groups. An article in Doha News from 2016 offers a disconcerting insight into the mindset of many Qataris, and also challenges the received wisdom of the discourse:

‘Some people do it (are gay) because they want to adhere to a western trend that has been celebrated by western media in recent years.’

This is striking. The rationale the author uses to justify their view is not simply based on religious faith, but also on a distrust of and disdain for Western Liberal Democracy. Therein lies the issue. This debate is not really just about religious freedoms. In fact, that has become a bit of a red herring, a logical fallacy, a distraction.

Britain’s Choice

The debate is more properly about authoritarianism vs democracy. After all, there are plenty of Muslim-majority countries with less extreme laws, and Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers has nothing to do with Islamic teachings. More important than the fact that Qatar is Islamic is that it is a dictatorship. Britain is now at a crossroads. Post-Brexit, in an age of extremism, there are fewer and fewer places to turn to for democratic, liberal allies. The UK Government has a choice: continue to hold their noses and court autocracies or commit to the sort of ethical foreign policy advocated by Robin Cook in the ’90s.

What is particularly telling is that the Foreign Secretary went on to say that he would be attending the World Cup as the UK has: ‘Incredibly important partners in the Middle East.’

This, alongside other recent decisions such as closing the Department for International Development and the Rwanda Asylum Scheme, has shown that the British Government is prioritising economic growth and culture wars over human rights and ethical foreign policy. Qatar is an ‘incredibly important partner in the Middle East’ not because we share common values or a similar political outlook, but because it is a hugely oil-rich nation.

A New Age

The world looks very different today than it did in the more optimistic age of ethical foreign policy in the late ’90s. Democracies are not on the rise, the US is no longer the only superpower, and there is much less hope for the future.  As Rory Stewart argues:

‘We’re now moving into a world, a brutal world, with Ukraine and Russia and China where we’re going to have to find allies who are uncomfortable to us.’

If Britain looks around, it seems to have fewer friends and fewer like-minded allies. If we turn away from the EU, as we appear to have done, it’s hard to see who else shares our political and economic interests. It’s easy to frame this choice as one between idealism or realpolitik, but I’m not certain if this is fully the case.

Lessons from Londongrad

Rory Stewart and James Cleverly may be right to argue that we should not hold our allies and potential allies to an especially high standard. Perhaps compromise is the right course of action if it serves economic interests. To this, all I can offer is a word of caution. For years the West compromised and let things slide with Russia. We allowed Russian oligarchs to buy up property in London and launder dirty money; we let them lobby our politicians, buy our football teams and responded half-heartedly when they used chemical weapons on our streets. Our European friends in particular allowed themselves to be overly reliant on them for gas and other resources. All of this has now put the West at a disadvantage following the outbreak of war in Ukraine.

Calling a Spade a Spade

We can’t expect autocracies not to behave like autocracies just because it makes us uncomfortable. Herein lies the real idealism and wishful thinking. We courted and appeased Russia for years largely out of convenience, fear and greed. In the long term, this did not serve us well. Ethical foreign policy, therefore, is not just unrealistic idealism. It is both rational and in our best interests. If we don’t call Qatar what it is — a brutal dictatorial regime — then we risk normalising that sort of politics. No amount of oil can justify what it does to its people.

The Final Score

Let’s return to football. Should we boycott the world cup? I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that Qatar should never have been given the right to host it in the first place. Going forward, Britain must consider pursuing a more ethical long-term foreign policy strategy. Not only because it is morally right to challenge dictators and call out abuses, but also because it is in our long-term interest to be very careful about whom we call our friends.

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