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Flexing for Qatar

Flexing for Qatar


The foreign secretary suggested LGBTQ football fans should “flex and compromise” when visiting the Qatar World Cup. His comments reveal a truth about relations with strategically important countries that don’t respect human rights.

Hello, I’m Claudia and this is the Sensemaker from Tortoise.

One story, every day, to make sense of the world. 

Today… the latest controversy surrounding the men’s football World Cup, which starts later this month in Qatar. 


“One of the things I would say to the football fans, is, you know, please do be respectful of the host nation. They will try – they are trying – to ensure that people can be themselves and enjoy the football. And I think with a little bit of flex and compromise at both ends it can be a safe, secure and exciting World Cup…”

Sky News

That was James Cleverly, the foreign secretary, speaking to Sky News about the safety of LGBTQ football fans at the upcoming World Cup in Qatar. 

The comments prompted outrage from some human rights campaigners.

Labour’s shadow culture secretary called them “shockingly tone-deaf”. 

And it didn’t take long for his comments to be walked-back by the government. 

Here’s Conservative Party chairman Nadim Zahawi speaking to Sky News just the following day… 

“Sky: Was the foreign secretary telling people to dial down the gay? 
Nadim Zahawi: No he wasn’t. Absolutely not. What he was saying is that the policies of the government of Qatar are not our policies, nor would we condone them…”

Sky News

With just days to go before the tournament kicks off… and a million football fans due to descend on the country… what’s going on? 

“The winner to organise the 2022 Fifa World Cup is… Qatar.”

2022 World Cup announcement

The decision to award the 2022 men’s World Cup to Qatar has been criticised by human rights campaigners since it was announced in 2010. 

Same-sex relationships are illegal in Qatar, and can lead to a death sentence – although there’s limited evidence about the current extent of discrimination against LGBTQ people, partly because so few people are open about their sexuality. 

Nasser Mohamed is a doctor based in the US who describes himself as the first publicly “out” Qatari. Here he is speaking to NPR… 

“The PR that’s projecting from Qatar about Qatar is so inaccurate. It’s just not where I grew up…”


According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, security forces have randomly arrested and abused LGBTQ Qataris as recently as September this year. (The Qatari government denies these claims.)

And although the man in charge of the Qatar World Cup, Nasser al Khater, has tried to reassure gay football fans… 

“Everybody is welcome here. And everybody will feel safe when they come here.”

Nasser al Khater

Qatar’s ambassador to the UK, Fahad bin Mohammed Al-Attiyah, was more cautious… and warned against public displays of affection. 

“Fahad bin Mohammed Al-Attiya: But there are certain interpretations of what would be a public display of affection, in a particular country, that might be different in another, so I think one has to just be mindful of the norms and cultures of Qatari society in that respect.”

Times Radio

With just days to go until the World Cup begins – scrutiny of the Qatari regime is ramping up rather than fading. And it’s not just LGBTQ rights gaining attention.

The Australian football team has released a video expressing solidarity with women, poorly treated migrant workers and LGBTQ people…

“These migrant workers who have suffered are not just numbers. Like the migrants that have shaped our country, and our football, they possess the same courage and determination to build a better life.”

Australian football team

Eight teams will ignore Fifa’s rules and wear rainbow armbands. Whilst several local authorities in France won’t show the games in protest. 

It’s not the type of attention the Qatari government would like. 

Last month the Sheikh called the criticism of its human rights record an “unprecedented campaign” and accused critics of “slander and double standards”.

As sportswriter Paul Hayward said in Tortoise’s weekly football newsletter – it’s a revealing statement. When Fifa awarded Qatar the World Cup the governing body knew about the human rights concerns. 

And the UK has recently bolstered its trading relationship with Qatar – signing two new deals. 

So in a way, James Cleverly’s ill-judged remarks were revealing, too. They brought into the open the attitude the British government has towards Qatar and other strategically important countries that don’t necessarily share Britain’s commitment to human rights or free speech. That it will flex and compromise to make that relationship work. 

With something as public as the World Cup… that’s become much harder to hide.

This episode was written by Claudia Williams and mixed by Sean Collons.

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