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11/20/2022 | Literary criticism

"Qatar: Sand, Money and Games" by Nicolas Fromm: How Qatar Rules the World

by Felix Thielemann

Image: Felix Thielemann

Qatar. Criticized, much discussed, feared, but above all one thing: unknown. Despite numerous headlines and a huge discourse about human rights and soccer tournaments in Qatar, for many there remains only a great veil of obscurity over the Arab emirate. Nicolas Fromm wants to lift this veil in Qatar: Sand, Money and Games and show the background of how a medium-sized peninsula on the Persian Gulf could become one of the biggest players in global politics of the 21st century. 

Hardly any other country has succeeded in raising its international profile in recent years as Qatar has. Already since the middle of the 20th century, but at the latest in 1995 with the rise of Hamad bin Chalifa Al Thani to emir, the country has been making great efforts to increase its own status, whether in terms of financial resources or international prestige and standing. These efforts are driven by immense profits from oil and gas exports around the world. The competition is primarily with larger neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia, which pursue a similar strategy and also invest in various European sports clubs, among other things, which is why Fromm also speaks of "proxy wars on the playing field" in this regard.

The book provides a good and comprehensible account of how Qatar came to have these financial resources despite a national territory that is almost exclusively interspersed with arid deserts and corresponds to about half of the German state of Hesse, and how the country was first fought for by the current ruling family in war with various Arab states and finally founded as a state in 1878 with the help of the British crown (full independence followed in 1971). Especially this look at the beginnings of Qatar and the nomadic origins of the population, which eventually settled mainly on the coasts and earned their living there by pearl diving, bring you much closer to this region than pictures and numbers of today's skyscrapers and multi-billionaires ever could. The whole thing is done in a way that makes any prior knowledge optional. Even those who know nothing about the region and the countries and cultures there will be able to follow Fromm's explanations without difficulty.

Fromm also shows wonderfully how Qatar has been trying for several decades - at the latest since a major development plan in 2008 - to diversify its assets, which are mainly dependent on global oil and gas prices, by actively investing in countless Western companies in a wide variety of sectors. So happened among other things with the German bank, Siemens, Tiffany & Co. or Volkswagen. Also partnerships with e.g. the German course stand here on the agenda. The influence of the emirate extends thus no longer only in for many humans probably rather strange and far oil industry feel, but also very directly on locally German enterprises, which belong for us all to the everyday life.

Particular attention is paid to the purchase and management of the French soccer club Paris Saint-Germain - also in view of the topic of the World Cup. Qatar has been the sole owner here since 2012 and since then has invested around $2 billion in transfer sums alone to attract world-renowned stars such as Messi, Mbappé and Neymar and turn them into advertising billboards for Qatari companies and thus the state of Qatar itself.

In this sense, Fromm also clearly and impressively sums up how guest workers who are lured to Qatar by the relatively high wages - compared to their home countries - fall victim to the industrial growth mania of Qatari industry as well as the construction of countless luxurious skyscrapers and soccer stadiums. And even those who escape with their lives and physical integrity have to live in constant fear, as they have hardly any rights in Qatar and can even be arrested for staying away from work, not to mention rights for women or persons of the LGTBTQ+ community.

Throughout all these observations and classifications, Fromm always takes a level-headed, yet clearly critical stance towards the Qatari government, questioning and refuting its claims and propaganda with scholarly professionalism. He succeeds in this, despite the fact that the work is "only" an overview with a correspondingly small number of pages. It is all the more irritating when, at the end, after he has dealt with the awarding and hosting of the World Cup in relatively short detail, he talks about the fact that the locals and the fans who travel to the event now have it in their hands to "depoliticize the World Cup and [...] make it a model of cosmopolitanism and cultural exchange. It seems as if Fromm himself had not understood the conclusions he had reached in the previous chapters or as if the conclusion had been written by someone else. Forgotten seem to be the previously described oppression of guest workers, women and persons of the LGBTQ+ community. Suddenly the oppression of the press and human rights activists does not matter. And ignored seems even more that this naive and optimistic approach to the World Cup is exactly what the Qatari royal family wants to establish itself further in global world politics and to provide for recognition and acceptance in the populations of Western countries, which should bring their money via tourism to Qatar, for example, to ski in air-conditioned halls in the middle of the desert. A "model of cosmopolitanism" is simply impossible in a place where things like "blasphemy" and homosexuality are still punishable by up to seven years in prison.