The tens of thousands of people in attendance, and the billions watching online were captivated by the 30-minute inaugural ceremony of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022. Narrated by actor Morgan Freeman, the event, which included a performance by Jung Kook from the Korean band BTS, highlighted football's capacity to bring people from all backgrounds together, while showcasing Qatari culture and heritage at the same time.
It was a glitzy start in the face of all the criticism and boycotts in the run-up to the World Cup. After all, British royal Prince Charles, pop singer Dua Lipa and rock legend Rod Stewart, besides many other celebrities, had all boycotted the event.
Ever since Qatar was selected to host the 2022 World Cup in 2010, the attention of the international community has been focused on the country's treatment of workers. Amnesty International alleged that more than 15,000 people had died during the construction of stadiums, while the British newspaper Guardian put the number at 6,500.
Added to that are the allegations of corruption and bribery involved in Qatar's bid to win the World Cup ahead of countries like the United States, which eventually led to the downfall of former Fifa president Sepp Blatter and UEFA President Michel Platini.
On Saturday, the head of FIFA, Gianni Infantino, criticised what he termed a double standard by European countries for attacking Qatar's human rights record and justified the host nation's last-minute move to prohibit alcoholic drinks from stadiums. Defending the country's immigration policy, Infantino complimented the administration for bringing in migrants to work.
The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, has said a "ferocious" campaign has been waged against the host nation of the World Cup. Sheikh Tamim criticised the "unprecedented campaign no host country has ever faced" in the lead-up to the tournament.
"We initially dealt with the matter in good faith, and even considered that some criticism was positive and useful, helping us to develop aspects of ours that need to be developed," the emir told Qatar's legislative council.
"But it soon became clear to us that the campaign continues, expands and includes fabrication and double standards, until it reached a level of ferocity that made many question, unfortunately, about the real reasons and motives behind this campaign."
While Qatar certainly deserves criticism for their treatment of migrant workers, many of whom were Bangladeshi, their gripe with Western hypocrisy should not be dismissed offhand either.
After all, nobody talked about systemic racism, and CIA-engineered regime changes around the world during the Cold War when the US hosted the World Cup in 1994. By the time they bid again in 2010, the US were eight years into operating the Guantanamo Bay Detention Centre, where hundreds have been detained without trial for years.
Likewise, the French were not asked in 1998 to give back trillions of dollars they stole from African countries during the colonial period, or asked about the atrocities committed in Algeria. Nobody pressed the British to return the looted artefacts from the Middle East and South Asia.
Allegations of corruption and bribery during World Cup bids are not new either. A 2015 case found Fifa officials had accepted bribes during France and South Africa's bid to host the World Cup as well.
In the 2006 Fifa World Cup in Germany, Black and Asian supporters were encouraged to stay away from particular parts of eastern Germany by two human rights organisations, following a newspaper story claiming that neo-Nazi skinheads were preparing to commit acts of violence against foreigners.
The latest criticism carries echoes of what Edward Said - a renowned Palestinian academic - so succinctly described as: "the idea of European identity as a superior one in comparison with all the non-European peoples and cultures."
Not another Middle Eastern nation
In addition to being a major player in the energy, investment and media industries, Qatar is also a major player in international diplomacy. In fact, despite being one of the smallest nations in the region, it often finds itself in the middle of the power struggle of the region's larger players.
In June of 2017, four Arab governments – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt – severed all diplomatic and economic connections with Qatar, charging it with sponsoring "terrorism" and destabilising the Middle East.
The embargo of Qatar, from its inception to its conclusion, was a case study in regional crisis management in the era of US President Donald Trump, and the erosion of the rules-based global system.
With the hacking of the "Qatar News Agency" and the fabrication of a false news item claiming to portray fiery comments by Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, a power play was initiated with the intention of politically and economically isolating Qatar.
In January 2021, an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Qatar put a restraint on the diplomatic crisis.
Despite all the adversities, this Gulf Arab state has become a go-to mediator in global diplomacy by using a complicated network of alliances cultivated through its gas wealth. It does this by hosting both the Middle East's largest US airbase, as well as opening its doors to alleged Islamists and building connections with Iran. In fact, Qatar's Al Udeid Air Base houses other prominent foreign forces, including Britain's Royal Air Force.
Due to its enormous riches from natural resources, this tiny country has been able to play a significant role in its foreign policy. It has assisted in the release of hostages and secured peace deals in countries ranging from Sudan to Somalia.
For example, only a handful of acts seem to have produced nearly as big of a diplomatic payoff as Qatar's position over Afghanistan, which has been developed since it allowed the Taliban to establish the organisation's main foreign office in 2013. Additionally, Qatar served as the location for the peace discussions that ultimately resulted in an agreement from the United States to withdraw from Afghanistan.
At the same time, the Palestinian military organisation Hamas, which now holds power in the Gaza Strip, has been welcomed with open arms into Qatar. In addition, Doha was an important participant in the discussions between Hamas and Israel over a ceasefire. Besides providing assistance for humanitarian purposes, Qatar has assisted Gaza in paying its fuel expenses.
Additionally, Doha serves as a safe haven for Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation that is in opposition to the absolute control exercised by the hereditary rulers of the Gulf.
Doha is accused by its detractors of providing support to militant Islamists in Libya and other countries, as well as of aiding to enrich militant kidnappers by paying ransom for captives.
Since the establishment of the Doha-based Al Jazeera network in 1996, Qatar has established itself as a significant participant in the news industry.
Al Jazeera, which reflects Qatar's stance on regional and global matters, has influenced public opinion in several Arab nations and has been banned in some, including Egypt. The majority of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as France, receive their World Cup coverage through beIN, a media company owned by Qatar.
As a demonstration of Doha's pragmatic nature, Qatar has permitted direct flights between Tel Aviv and Doha throughout the World Cup, despite the fact that it does not have any official connections with Israel. According to Qatar, the agreement reflects a commitment to fulfilling the standards set out by FIFA for hosting the tournament and "should not be politicised."
Qatar also did not sit idle following allegations of mistreatment of migrant workers. In August 2020, Qatar made a historic announcement on the revision of its labour laws, one of which was the elimination of permission the employees need from their current employer before switching employment.
The elimination of the kafala system, the establishment of a minimum salary and the removal of departure permits from their employers in order to leave the country are some of the further labour and work reforms that have been implemented.