Fights, flights, and sports' changing world order

February 08, 2019 10:50
Footballer Hakeem al-Araibi, a vocal critic of Bahrain’s government, was detained in Bangkok, Thailand, following a holiday flight to the country. Photo: Reuters

There’s something perplexing, though disconcertingly engaging, about social media and the way it randomly throws up stories that sit uncomfortably alongside each other. In the space of a few hours recently, posts condemning Qatar’s record on the treatment of immigrants sat alongside photos glossily depicting the latest progress on the construction of 2022 World Cup venues.

A little later in the day, stories emerged of an English football fan having been detained in the United Arab Emirates for wearing a Qatari football shirt in public. This came only shortly after the Qatar national team had triumphed in the Asian Cup, held in the UAE, which ordinary Qatari fans had struggled to attend given that they had effectively been barred from entering the country.

The ongoing regional Gulf feud has fostered all manner of absurdity, one of which is a flight ban preventing Qataris traveling to places like the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Which is rather ironic as, thanks to the freedom of people elsewhere in the world to fly, footballer Hakeem al-Araibi was detained in Thailand following a holiday flight to the country.

Previously, Al-Araibi had been charged by the Bahraini authorities for allegedly damaging a police station. He is now a refugee in Australia, having fled Bahrain in fear of his life. His visit to Thailand was supposed to be a holiday, the first time he had been outside Australia since his exile there. Now he is stuck in Thailand pending extradition to the Gulf state, his prospects hardly looking rosy thanks to what seems to be an increasingly close relationship between Bahrain and Thailand.

On social media, there is already evidence that Australians are seeking to orchestrate a consumer boycott of Thai Airways, the carrier that transported Al-Araibi to Bangkok. Strangely, little has been said about Gulf Air (Bahrain’s state airline) or about Qatar Airways. Indeed, little of this nature is ever said about Qatar Airways; although people routinely label Qatar is being exploitative, the carrier is also routinely voted one of the world’s best airlines.

Among the juxtaposition of opposed social media posts that day, two others caught my attention. The first was by an official (Nate Sibley) from a US-based conservative think tank in which he berated authoritarian kleptocracies for spreading crime, corruption and malign economic influence. As an antidote to this, he advocated the embrace of capitalism and democracy.

Almost simultaneously, International Ski Federation boss Gian Franco Kasper was stressing how much easier sport is to run in dictatorships, where "[they] can organize events without asking the people’s permission". Khanna Parag, in his book The Future is Asian – Global Order in the 21st Century, prefers to label such people "generational rulers" (compared to the West’s elected politicians), who can make decisions unencumbered by democratic processes.

And, for me, this is where an important narrative emerged from the daily deluge of social media posts that I read. The complexities and sensitivities of today’s world, and of sport, are obvious. More notably, what is becoming clear is that the first two decades of the 21st century have been marked by the opening of an ideological schism between a geographically western view of the world and one that is associated with what is commonly referred to as the "The East".

Crucially, sport appears to sit on the frontline of the schism and has thus become host venue for all manner of ideological and geopolitical flashpoints. Many in Europe and North America view Qatar’s (indeed Gulf countries' in general) treatment of immigrant workers as being ethically and morally reprehensible. For rulers from the region, however, the khafalalabor system (which is based upon the principle of bonded labor) is part of their countries’ heritages, traditions and identities.

In turn, it is inconceivable to western eyes that peaceable football supporters from one country can be banned from entering another country simply because their rulers are at loggerheads with one another. For someone wearing a football shirt to then be arrested appears to be a violation of a person’s right to freedom of expression. Yet in countries characterized by authoritarian systems of government, battles are apparently fought by any means necessary.

None of which is helpful to Hakeem al-Araibi, who finds himself not only marooned in the middle of a flashpoint, but also caught at the apex of a changing world order. Western interpretations of human rights have inevitably led to a volley of calls from commentators for Thailand to release the player from custody. However, in an emerging world order where deals rather than rules are fast becoming more important, al-Araibi’s fate is as much an ideological acid test as it is a case of one man’s liberty. 

The apparent schism need not necessarily have become so stark; after all, countries and sports across the world have always dealt with their affairs in often hugely different ways. However, things are different this time; with globalization and the growing economic strength of Asian nations, countries such as Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and China have progressively created a growing dependence upon them by "western" institutions.

Hence, for governments like France’s or Great Britain’s to call out Qatar on its labor system is problematic when their countries are increasingly tied into lucrative economic relationships with it. If a further illustration of what this means is needed, football’s world governing body FIFA has openly acknowledged how important Chinese sponsors have become to the organization’s financial coffers. China’s future hosting of the World Cup is therefore surely beyond doubt. Nate Sibley presumably holds strident views on this development?

To those in Asia, the world’s current trajectory may seem inevitably, irresistible, rightful and possibly even harks back to eras when liberal western ideology wasn’t globally dominant.

For Europeans and North Americans, however, there is an inconvenient truth emerging: that established, accepted ways of organizing and governing sport are now being severely challenged by nations with a very different view of the world.

This might help explain how, in another moment of social media uproar, the Qatari owner of Paris Saint Germain (a club currently being investigated by UEFA) has just been elected as a member of UEFA’s executive committee.

Get used to it, though, because there are plenty more such developments ahead.

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Simon Chadwick is Director of Eurasian Sport, Professor of the Eurasian Sport Industry Director, Centre for the Eurasian Sport Industry.