18 Nov 2022

From researcher to expert: The Qatar World Cup

You don’t have to be a soccer supporter for the World Championships to turn your life upside down. CMI researcher Mari Norbakk is now the most prominent voice on Qatar in Norway.

For the first few years of her career, CMI researcher Mari Norbakk worked in relative peace and quiet on her country and topic of choice, migrant workers in Qatar. Then, in February 2021, the British newspaper The Guardian published a story revealing that 6500 of Qatar’s migrant workers had died since FIFA awarded the tiny Gulf state the World Cup. The story went viral. Norwegian newspapers, sports commentators and human rights activists were unison in their reactions. But Norbakk, with years of experience working on Qatar and having done extended fieldwork in the region, suspected the numbers were used in a misleading manner.

Immediate backlash
Norbakk raised her concerns about the accuracy of the numbers when she was contacted by one of the biggest Norwegian newspapers (one of her colleagues at the University of Oslo who was familiar with her research gave her contact information to the journalist), and the backlash was immediate.

-People were going mad in the comments sections and on Twitter, accusing me of defending Qatar at all costs and not caring about the human rights violations, says Norbakk.

For someone who is a vocal defender of human rights, the backlash felt frustrating and overwhelming. Yet, she insists that adding nuances to the debate is crucial, and that we must be able to keep two ideas in our head at the same time.

-What I said was that the statistics and numbers used in The Guardian story were misleading, not that human rights violations had not taken place. Reliable statistics showing excess mortality among migrant workers were already in place. Did we really need 6500 migrant workers for us even to care?

Yet, many readers saw it differently. Some did not settle for tweeting or posting in the comments section. She still gets angry text messages from strangers, usually men, who accuse her of defending Qatar virtually every time she is interviewed - which the past year and a half has been very often.

Some did not settle for tweeting or posting in the comments section.

So how does she deal with reactions from the Twitterati and the angry men in the newspaper’s comments section?

-I don’t even feel like reading the comments sections. Trying to convince anyone that they have misunderstood or that they are simply wrong is futile. It simply doesn’t work. The best thing is to see media attention as the opportunity it actually is.

Reaching new audiences
Because there is no doubt that also good things come out of the media attention.

- All of a sudden, I have the opportunity to reach an audience I usually don’t reach, and to talk about issues that matter in arenas where researchers are often absent. I get to talk about human rights, about LGBTQI+ rights, and about migrant workers’ rights, she says.

Norbakk hopes that by being an active voice in the public debate, she can also contribute to tear down stereotypes. She argues that an orientalist perspective permeates Western narratives about the Middle East.

-The Western image of Qatar is one of “oil-sheikhs” and modern-day slaves - both enormously loaded and problematic terms. And none of them are seen as complex human beings. Nor do we see the events taking place in Qatar as part of larger, global issues, such as how restrictive migration policies and global inequality fuels migration flows, or how the low cost of labor in the Gulf is profitable also for companies operating out of places like Norway, France or the US.

-The Western image of Qatar is one of “oil-sheikhs” and modern-day slaves - both enormously loaded and problematic terms. 

The media attention has not only led her to become possibly Norway’s most cited anthropologist on soccer. It has also contributed to the Norwegian Football Federation (NFF) launching the campaign ‘Human rights – on and off the pitch’, to NFF collaborating with prominent Qatari LGBTQI+ activist Dr. Nas, and to NFF dropping a proposal to get Qatar to temporarily suspend anti-LGBTQI+ legislation during the World Cup. And it has got her nominated to Khrono’s, the Norwegian newspaper for the university and research sector, ‘Name of the year in academia’ award.

Worlds colliding?
Norbakk makes it a point to always be available to journalists who want to do an interview, or who want background information. Not only does it give her a platform. She sees it as part of her job, working at a research institute that is partly funded through the national budget. You never know what it will look like.

And that brings us to a different question in this big public sphere where research meets journalism. Do these two disciplines even speak the same language?

-After giving an interview, you often have this sneaking feeling of doubt. Even though the vast majority of journalists are very open and clearly state what their intention is, and even though you get to check your quotes, you never know exactly what the story will look like when it is published. Journalists are part of a bigger news desk where editorial decisions are not up to the individual, and where quickly shifting events dictate the outcome. That being said, I have deep respect for the craft of journalism. Journalists work under the pressure of short deadlines, something that can be hard to relate to for researchers. We have the privilege of time.

Facts/2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar

  • The 2022 FIFA 2022 World Cup will take place in Qatar from 20 November to 18 December.
  • The decision to award Qatar the World Cup raised was met with criticism from media commentators.
  • Allegations of bribery and corruption in the selection process quickly surfaced.
  • Out of 22 persons who made the decision to grant the 2022 FIFA World Cup to Qatar, 16 have been suspended, charged or imprisoned.
  • Qatar has faced strong criticism over the way migrant workers involved in preparations for the World Cup are treated.
  • Qatar has strict anti-LGBTQI+ laws. The Norwegian Football Federation (NFF) were considering an initiative to ask Qatar to temporarily suspend the anti-LGBTQI+ laws during the World Cup in order to protect travelling supporters. NFF decided to drop the initiative after debates that such a temporary suspension would only cause backlash against Qatari LGBTQI+ persons. Norbakk was a prominent voice in this debate.


The reluctant expert
Time is not the only element that separates the world of research from journalism. Where researchers have a poorly hidden partiality for academic jargon, complexity and long sentences, journalists use a language that is clear and unambiguous. Expert is one of the words treasured by the news media yet loathed and feared by many researchers. So what does it feel like for a researcher to be appointed an expert by the news media?

Expert is one of the words treasured by the news media yet loathed and feared by many researchers.

-I feel a bit uneasy about being referred to as a Qatar expert. To claim that you’re a country expert, that it is up to me to define what this country is and isn’t, has somewhat of a colonial ring to it. If we are to truly understand Qatar, we have to talk to the people who actually live there. That being said, it is of course nice that some refer to me as an expert. In certain respects, it simply means that they acknowledge that I am good at what I’m doing, she says.

Still, to elaborate on the question feels in order for a researcher who works at a research institute that takes pride in its empirical groundedness and country expertise. The decolonization debate that has been, and still is, brought to the fore of academia is deeply intertwined with the claim to be a country expert.

-Seen from the perspective of a researcher who works on the Middle East, the term expert is quite old-fashioned. The decolonization debate is deeply intertwined with claiming to be a country expert. We cannot underestimate the potential pitfalls of us being researchers from the global North, talking about countries in the global South. I’m not an expert on Qatar. I am perhaps an expert on Qatar in the context of Norway, says Norbakk and stresses that the expert title signals that you know everything and have nothing more to learn.

-Yet, research in its entire being is about pushing the boundaries of what you know.

Mari Norbakk

Post Doctoral Researcher