As winter takes hold and the majority of the northern hemisphere buckles down for the hibernation period, and Europe in particular tries to find anyone to give them gas due to some political gas jostling by Russia on the open market, where better to hold a winter wonderland World Cup than in the gas-and-oil-laden former British colony of Qatar.
In the background of an active war zone being played out in Europe, and as the human suffering the war inflicts on us continues to destabilise global peace and economics, we are plunged into another world event, before you can even say the word "Goal".
Like reluctant groupies, the rest of the world has to now sit through and be active accessories. It reminds me of a long, poorly-copied, pirated Bollywood movie from the late 1980s that my parents used to watch and make us watch, all in a vain attempt to try to imitate disco fever, while we try to make out what they were actually saying without the subtitles.
Anyhow, I digress, let's go back to football.
Qatar, a very small (population of 2.9 million with 2 million of whom are actually expatriates) but extremely wealthy chink in the Arabian Gulf peninsula bordering Bahrain and other flamboyant Emarati nations has a rich history dating back 50,000 years, during what was an eventful Stone Age. Even then, Qatar showed signs of coastal civilisation, which comprised some early Mesopotamian remnants dating from 6500-3800 BC.
Qatar, similar to Bangladesh, actually gained independence in 1971, but unlike Bangladesh, Qatar did not have a violent adversary intent on stifling its long-term progress through mass killings and infrastructure destruction, all in the name of brotherhood, or should I say nationhood.
Qatar has been under the monarchic rule of the current Al-Thani family, initially under the auspices of a then-broad Ottoman empire from 1870, till the British took over in 1915. Qatar officially came under British protectorate in 1916 through a treaty signed by then Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani. In so doing, the Sheikh received guaranteed military protection from the British from any attack either from land or sea. This continued well into 1949, when crude oil was discovered in the region.
When the British decided in 1968 that they would be leaving the Persian gulf, Qatar and other neighbours such as Bahrain entered into talks to be part of a federation of gulf states. However, by 1971, Qatar and Bahrain splintered from this federation to become independent sovereign nations, leaving the rest of the tribes in the region to become the UAE we know today.
That would have been the story were it not for the 1990s when the exploration of natural gas reserves, now accounting for 14% of global gas supplies, were found, and so began the rapid economic development we see before our very eyes.
During this period and into the new millennium, Qatar was the fastest economically accelerating country in the world. Currently, it is estimated Qatar's GDP per capita is in excess of $120,000 - amongst the top four richest countries in the world, and the only one to be in the top four amongst any of the other Arab nations. This ascendency has continued due to recent fluctuations in the oil and gas commodities markets during and post-Covid.
So you have a country that is 13 times smaller than Bangladesh, five times less population dense and with oodles of money thanks to natural resources. That's all well and good, but the main issue of who builds such a country, quite literally, to provide the services to all its citizens, has made the host nation of the first World Cup in the Arab world come under the spotlight of many an international observer.
The plight of migrant workers remains an issue, and the poor labour laws mean it makes the sweater shop garment factory conditions and the Amazon warehouses look good. The government has officially said they are working on this, but with apparently only "41 migrant deaths" during the preparation for the World cup, one can be forgiven to seem a bit curious as to how and who is counting these numbers.
Indeed, an analysis by The Guardian in February 2021 found that more than 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka had died in Qatar since the awarding of the tournament. The death records were not categorised by occupation or place of work. These economic migrant workers have built this World Cup and are the human capital for many a developing world economy, providing much-needed foreign remittance.
So what do we do, whilst we watch the likes of Mbappé and Messi and other football galacticos have a go at trying their luck on the global stage for football immortality? Some have boycotted watching, but we are a fickle bunch as a species, and the majority look on until their own teams do badly or exit the competition, and then they start criticising.
Do we act as if nothing happened and it is business as usual in the most expensive ($200 billion) World Cup ever staged, which is difficult to reconcile given the economic needs of a global economy now stuttering? Or do we engage in dialogue and instigate worker rights through active participation, the argument made by FIFA, the middleman?
It is easy for us to raise these points, whilst none of us reading this excellent column by yours truly over some cha and bakorkhani have most likely actually never been affected by the real-world conditions of these workers.
Many of these workers have had little or no option given the economic climate at home, to make the perilous trip to a foreign land. To travel to a land, culture and weather very different to the fertile deltas from which many had departed from. They dream and they will continue to dream for a better life for themselves and their loved ones. In an increasingly globalised world we are a majority of economic or educational migrants, but we do not often sacrifice to the levels a lot of the migrant workers, whom we see in droves being escorted into the aeroplanes for this dream of a better life.
We may not condone it and we may scream and shout about it, but what do we really do about it whilst nodding our heads and then turning our heads to the next match?
No amount of lip service can pay for a free meal daily for a family. Welcome to our global reality. Sounds good till you don't put your money where your mouth is, and no one gives a free lunch it seems in the global aid game. Sorry, navel-gazing is not going to help. We all have to chip in for the utopia of an egalitarian and equitable world. So-called developed countries have tried for generations and they still cannot do it. Yet, try we must, as it is the only way to economic emancipation, maybe not today or tomorrow but someday.
There is no doubt the Qatar World Cup has shown to the rest of the world that there still remain differences, culturally and ideologically, to the Western mindset across the globe. For many of us, this is nothing new, we all knew about it, but as ever we never really wanted to talk about it. New global contenders are keen to flex muscle, from China and Russia to the Middle Eastern countries, keen to take the expressway to global development. The question that many of us are thinking about but are scared to say is: with the carrot of economic might, does Qatar really care about what the rest of the world thinks, and does it need or want to do anything about it?
Professor Rameen Shakur MD PhD (Cantab) FRSA FIBMS FRSPH FRSB is a professor of genomics and cardiovascular medicine and Director of the precision health and translational medicine centre, University of Brighton, UK.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.