A couple of weeks ago, I read a snippet of a story in that week’s Said & Done about Qatar attempting to rebrand itself. I thought it would be some glib statement about how Qatar Foundation was becoming Qatar Airways on the Barça shirt. Instead, it was a story that made me question the moral obligation of my club towards the sponsor it wears across its shirt. Should Barcelona be aligned with, allied with, or sponsored by those who trample on human rights?
The paragraph in question is this:
Qatar – still image-building ahead of the 2022 World Cup – reacting to union threats over “inhuman conditions” imposed on migrant workers by agreeing to reduce the number of them allowed to live in one room “from eight to four“. Also last week: poet Mohammed al-Ajami sentenced to life imprisonment for a poem satirising the ruling family. Al-Ajami’s key theme: an attack on “the repressive elite”.
And so I read up on this sordid tale of repression of freedom of expression:
In November 2011, al-Ajami was arrested during a meeting with Qatari security forces in Doha. According to Wikipedia, he was initially “charged with insulting [Qatari ruler] Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and ‘inciting to overthrow the ruling system'”. It also appears that these charges stem from one or two poems that al-Ajami wrote. During his incarceration, which has lasted since his arrest, al-Ajami has been held in solitary confinement for at least five of the last 12 months.
According to al-Jazeera, the Qatari-owned and based news agency, al-Ajami was sentenced to life imprisonment for “attempts to destabilise the country.” For what it’s worth, al-Jazeera is owned by Hamad bin Thamer Al Thani, a distant cousin of the Qatari Emir. There have been some accusations that al-Jazeera under-reports negative stories concerning Qatar and the Qatari government and certainly their inclusion of a quote from Syria’s UN ambassador, Bashar Ja’afari, makes little sense in the context of this piece other than to provide a weird distraction.
Further, CNN claims (and his lawyer, Najeeb al-Naimi, corroborates in a Democracy Now interview) that “[al-Ajami] was not in court when the sentence was issued.” Al-Naimi has promised to appeal the sentence and has mentioned an appeal hearing on December 30 in which the emir can personally intercede. It should be noted that some of this is obscured by the Qatari government’s refusal to publish the actual charges against al-Ajami.
Given that Barça’s current sponsor is the government of Qatar, Al-Ajami’s story is relevant. A poet being sentenced for using his speech–sometimes referred to as satirizing the royal family (The Guardian) and sometimes referred to as “attempts to destabilise the country” (al-Jazeera)–to promote the Arab Spring is actually no small thing.
One of the basic tenets of barcelonismo, indeed, one of the first things one learns when one studies the history of the club, is the legitimacy of expression. During the Franco regime, the Catalan language was banned, but the club and the stadium on gameday was often a place where it could be heard. The club was fundamentally changed by the Franco regime, as was Catalunya in general. Whatever your own views on that history, it would seem that a team opposed to its own censorship would be opposed to the censorship of others.
Whatever the positives of the Qatar Foundation, the team is no longer bound to it thanks to the switch to Qatar Airways. As such, the administration should attempt to live up to some sort of standard when it comes to financial support. A corporation that actively supported undemocratic and repressive policies would be turned down; why not a government?
Given all that, there is clearly a difference between the moral and political stances of Barcelona and Qatar. Any argument suggesting that this is a cultural difference may well hold water, but it misses the point: if there is a difference in stances, then the relationship should be terminated on the grounds that one entity is not striving toward the same goals as the other entity. I’m sure it’s not as easy as that, but to fail to mention it, to fail to put it out there as an idea, would be burying the club’s ideals in a sea of money.