Published On: Thu, Jun 5th, 2014

The Middle East needs a World Cup. Let Tunisia be the host

“Congratulations to Qatar and to us for the football victory,” wrote Jihan al-Khazen in the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat. “Winning the right to host the championship is an honour to all Arabs.”

That was in 2010. Back then, even if they were perplexed as to why tiny Qatar, with little footballing tradition to speak of, had gained this “honour”, many Arabs echoed al-Khazen’s sentiments. The awarding of the 2022 World Cup sparked widespread enthusiasm that an Arab country had finally joined the major league of world sport. Today, of course, things look different.

Like many people of conscience around the world, I am alarmed that Qatar is set to host the 2022 World Cup. Far from being a moment of pride, Qatar’s successful bid to organise football’s greatest tournament has trained the international spotlight on the inhumane treatment of south Asian migrant workers in the tiny emirate and the wider Gulf region. And the allegations of bribery, which Qatar denies, have sealed many people’s opinions on the Qatari tournament.

Many Qataris and some other Arabs, however, complain of hypocrisy in the controversy. “Over 20 countries have organised the tournament and they only make this fuss about Qatar,” one Twitter user complained.

Some went even further: “We have to stand assertively against this kind of racist behaviour,” said Kuwaiti politician Ahmad al-Fahad al-Ahmed al-Sabah, who is also the president of the Olympic Council of Asia.

Though I don’t think racism comes into it, at a certain level there do appear to be double standards. After all, there is a long history of the World Cup being unscrupulously abused as a political football: fromfascist Italy in 1934 to junta-ruled Argentina in 1978. Even the imminentBrazil World Cup has led to mass street protests over the costs and thetreatment of indigenous tribes.

Even before this week’s revelations, though, in Egypt the recent strain in relations over allegations that Qatar bankrolled and supported the despised Muslim Brotherhood has curbed enthusiasm for the tournament. And most people are in any case preoccupied with meatier matters, such as the recent presidential elections and the anointing of its probable latest dictator, Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi.

However, any corruption in the Qatar bid should not deflect from the symbolic importance of staging the tournament in the region. Holding the World Cup in the Middle East is a good thing. It can be an opportunity to honour all those sacrificed for the dream of the Arab spring, provide relief to a troubled region and promote some inter-Arab cooperation amid the strained relations afflicting the region.

Given how it spearheaded the Arab revolutionary wave and has been a relative trailblazer in democratic reform, I believe the honour should go to Tunisia. The Eagles of Carthage have qualified for the World Cup finals four times. However, given the country’s modest means, a few measures would first have to be put in place. This would include the establishment of a regional fund, bankrolled by the rich Gulf states, including even Qatar, to finance the tournament preparations. Other regional footballing heavyweights such as Egypt, Algeria and Morocco could provide their technical expertise.

This would not only help to raise Tunisia’s prestige and stimulate investment in the country, creating much-needed jobs, it would also promote a deeper sense of shared identity across the region.