Will There Be Backlash Against Gays in Arab Countries After World Cup? Some Are Pessimistic

Wednesday November 30, 2022

A German fan wears a rainbow-themed T-shirt at a World Cup event
A German fan wears a rainbow-themed T-shirt at a World Cup event  (Source:AP)

The West's reaction to Qatar's official anti-gay policies has been one of the biggest non-sports stories to come out the current World Cup. Rainbow flags and armbands are on display, according to the Middle East website Albawaba (though not without controversy). The new openness, the site says, is "creating new risks for people who have long relied on discretion to survive."

The issue has been brewing throughout the long buildup to the games with high level protests including such gestures as the Captains of seven European football teams having planned to wear the rainbow-themed "OneLove" armbands as part of a campaign to embrace diversity. But they backed down after a threat of disciplinary action from FIFA.

"It's not great to live in the closet, but it's also not great to live out of the closet," said a 32-year-old entrepreneur from the neighboring Gulf nation of Bahrain, who requested anonymity for safety concerns.

"The World Cup will end, FIFA will leave, and the hate will continue..."

"No one from the queer community here has ever been asked about their opinion of what they think the rainbow flag does," he said. "I am worried about the future."

The Bahraini entrepreneur says that when US embassies in Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates raised the rainbow flag and posted solidarity messages on social media to mark Pride Month this past June, it triggered a scathing response from Arab countries.

"They're ruining a lot of things for people," he said, referring to the Western campaigns. "I don't necessarily hide who I am and I also don't walk around flying a rainbow flag."

Amongst the responses was a crackdown on rainbow-themed products in Saudi Arabia (where homosexuality is punishable by death) and posters in Bahrain that showed "silhouettes of a family under an umbrella, taking shelter as a rainbow flag spilled over them like a downpour." Additionally, Western films containing LGBTQ+ content are either edited or banned.

"Religion remains central in the Gulf, despite relaxing some laws and social restrictions," Saudi researcher Eman Alhussein told Agence France-Presse (AFP). And the LGBTQ+ cause "is probably not up for local debate anytime soon," she said. Alhussein is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. She added that the recent Western criticism of anti-LGBTQ policies in the region "has failed to produce change, and is unlikely to do so at least for the short term..."

Another voice, "Tarek Zeidan, executive director of Lebanon-based Helem, the Arab world's first officially registered LGBTQ organization, laments a 'missed opportunity' to bring positive change to the region."

"As many Gulf citizens remain conservative, maintaining some boundaries is seen as crucial to accommodate all segments of society," Zeidan said.

"Obviously we need to have a conversation about human rights despite the efforts of those trying to prevent it," he told AFP. But "if you care about human rights, lift up the voices of the people who are actually at the receiving end of violence" as opposed to the overwhelming attention on what he called "Western outrage."

A former Qatari citizen, Zeiden added: "It's going from bad to worse. The backlash is probably going to be very, very harsh, if not deadly. The coming years are going to be extremely punishing for LGBTQ people in the region."