Soccer World Cup: self-confident Qatar, self-righteous Berlin

EOne of their promises is the World Cup in Qatar already fulfilled: It has become a world championship of the Arabs. Fans from across the region are celebrating a new kind of football pan-Arabism, regardless of the borders and differences between those in power.

They are not only united in their joy at the billion-dollar spectacle that the rich hosts are giving them. They are also united in their rejection of Western criticism of the human rights situation and the exploitation of foreign migrant workers in Qatar. This is justified in the matter, but has been presented too often in such a way that it can be dismissed as condescending and hypocritical. The broadcast-conscious World Cup frustration in countries like Germany can irritate Arab World Cup fans, sometimes even annoy them greatly. But that doesn’t stop her from partying.

The mechanics of the World Cup

The political mechanics of the World Cup work in a similar way. The German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser has provided momentous proof of this with insensitive and sensationalist performances in Qatar. It has damaged bilateral relations and achieved nothing in the matter. The Qatari government is particularly angry about a visitor who, in order to score points at home, gives the impression that homosexuals cannot take to the streets in Qatar without “safety guarantees” obtained from her. The last remnant of the – anyway very limited – willingness to talk about the rights of the LGBTQ community may have fizzled out in Doha even before the visit.

Qatar’s rulers want to reorganize their strategic relationships after the World Cup. And diplomacy may no longer be able to compensate for the upset. Before the end of the World Cup preliminary round, one thing was already clear: Germany cannot afford a lack of seriousness and such self-righteousness as the German government has shown in the form of the Minister of the Interior.

Qatar doesn’t need us that badly. This applies both to human rights and to the relationship with one of the most important energy suppliers in the world. Natural gas deals can continue. In Doha, politics and business are strictly separated. But different rules apply to strategic relationships and public appearances by government politicians from friendly countries.

Berlin would have been better off using the World Cup in Qatar as an opportunity to signal something else: namely to get even more involved in the Gulf region, including on security policy issues. The football tournament is not only a milestone for Qatar. At the same time, it stands for the global gain in power of the Arab Gulf States. And their authoritarian monarchs have long since begun to diversify their strategic relationships. They position themselves as independent actors who no longer want to dance to the tune of their Western partners. They may be looking for security in the West, but security in the East for prosperity. In the major systemic conflict with China and Russia, they don’t want to have to choose one camp.

Disappointment that the West has not taken the threat posed by Iran seriously enough plays a role here. Like the subjects at the fan festivals, the ruling houses no longer want to be publicly cornered by their Western partners for human rights violations.

Big challenge

The new self-confidence in the Gulf is a major challenge for Western foreign policy. The authoritarian monarchies and their deeply conservative societies will strain our pain tolerance for what is morally tolerable and politically justifiable for a long time to come. But there are good reasons to put up with it. Colin Kahl, head of the Pentagon’s defense policy department, recently appealed to Saudi Arabia to remember that, despite all the differences, China and Russia cannot replace the partnership with America. He did so in one wise phrase: “Don’t compare us to the Almighty, compare us to the alternative.” It’s a two-way phrase.

It doesn’t take any flirtatious gestures to win the favor of the Gulf States. Just don’t confuse attitude with disparagement. The West can take clear positions behind closed doors, especially when it shows through action that it takes fears in the Gulf of the threat posed by the Iranian regime and the rocket terror of its armed proxies seriously. Those who gain the respect and trust of the monarchs in the Gulf in this way can speak more effectively about human rights. And can also explain itself more easily in an emergency when foreign policy was once again made for a local audience.

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