Commerce and culture

| Updated: December 28, 2022 20:48:25

Commerce and culture



Neo-liberalism replaced the Cold War in the 1990s. Did that open global markets? How was that absorbed in a culturally diversified world? Amid the severe economic crisis of 1991, India's Finance Minister Manmohan Singh, for instance, replaced protectionism with a market-based economy, but the climax was in 1996 when McDonald's, one of the world's largest food franchises, inaugurated its first restaurant in the world's second most populated country.

Such a bonanza move did not fall from the blue sky. McDonald's momentously substituted its top-selling Big Mac beef-burger with Chicken Maharaja to succeed in Hindu India, where cows are revered. Home delivery began, kiosks were opened, McAloo Tikki burger entered the menu from 1998, and McCafe coffee challenged tea from October 2013. McDonald's had done its homework in a country where half the population are vegetarian.

A quarter-century later it boasts nearly 500 outlets. Is that success? During that time McDonald's battled its original Indian partner, Vikram Bakshi of Connaught Plaza Restaurants, Private, Limited (CPRL), before an out-of-court buy-out settlement (McDonald's purchased Bakshi's 50 per cent CPRL shares in 2019), but was caught abusing India and its culture. It claimed its French-fries were cooked in vegetable oil when disbelievers proved it was beef fat (costing the company 10 million USD in compensation). Since 2019, McDonald's faces Hindu nationalists making anti-halal charges.

In spite of several economic missteps and the inherent clash between commercial pursuits and culture, neo-liberalism is not limping away. Instead of learning long-term lessons, we notice neo-liberal resilience and indifference: perhaps the private sector dismisses cultural adjustments unless the market is big enough to pay back for the changes.

Qatar's World Cup Soccer Tournament from November 20, 2022 raises similar commercial-cultural clashes. Eyebrows tightened when Qatar became the first Islamic country to host such a tournament at a time when Muslims had long been portrayed in the west as the threatening brand: 9/11 fundamentalism. Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomeni's violent 1978-9 Islamic Revolution in Iran could be traced back to Palestinians being unfairly labeled 'terrorists' in the 1970s (for being evicted from their homeland and using violent nationalism to regain it).

Two World Cup controversies have already stirred global headlines: Qatar prohibited alcohol in and around tournament arenas; and its dehumanised treatment of migrant workers for over a decade just to prepare the environment for a global tournament. These were not concerns when Qatar was selected as host in December 2010, indicating how commercial instincts dominated cultural concerns (or anticipation).

Like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among other petroleum-lubricated Middle East countries, Qatar symbolises not only wealth, enough wealth to recruit dirt-poor migrants for 'dirty' jobs (a label euphemistically referring to anything an affluent patron does not want to do). As a country of just under 400,000 people, Qatar hired 2,500,000 migrants (370,000 of them arriving in the last year just for the tournament), to build a total of just under 3 million people. Many migrants are low and medium-waged, some high-income visa-holders.

These class boundaries stand out against the global spread of democracy. Behind these boundaries lie egregiously segregated treatment of Muslims whose Scripture distinguishes largely between Dar-al-Islam (Realm of Peace) Muslims (the believers) and Dar-al-Islam (the non-believers). Whereas the 400,000 Qatari citizens get seemingly allocated into the former category, benefiting from literally not having to work, a bulk of the 2.5 million more migrant workers have no choice but to work in, even die from, the searing heat. Qatari exploitation of fellow Muslims migrants from other countries seems no different than China's with Uighurs.

On the one hand are the 229 billion USD spent to prepare for the tournament, yet on the other Qatar is anticipating 17 billion USD in profits. No more than a fraction will ever go the 2 million or more of migrant workers. According to the Economist, the typical migrant worker, who earns about 1,000 USD per month, perspire in heat from early morning until dusk, without healthcare, often with only a makeshift home, and constant racial and social abuse. That 6,500 of them died on the job does not capture headline news. Migrant worker deaths have not been treated as human rights violations in the way LGBT protests have been projected. Money not only dents cultures, but also brands impressions about culture. New cans of worms may open, but can the smell of cash also camouflage them?

Many, if not all, of the 6,500 who died were from Bangladesh, India, and Nepal. Silence greets that news even in home countries, indicating how the money they remit opens eyes, ears, and voices, but not if their rights are violated. Instead of covering the inauguration ceremony, a seemingly retributive BBC News programme highlighted this migrants' plight.

Protests from about three years ago amended some work-rules (like relaxing work hours), but the underlying exploitation, stratification, discrimination, abuse, and maltreatment continue not just for profit-making, but also for instinctive reasons.

Inviting the World Cup tournament to a tiny portion of the world may be ambitious and extravagant, but requires accepting the World Cup entrapment without scrutinising the details that come with this casts a dark shadow on news reporting, country-specific policies and attitudes, and those profiting from related transactions. That LGBT protests were voiced and heard may scar the fair name of Islam where these were not even possible: Qatar distanced itself from LGBT presence, but without commensurate steps to boost Muslim migrant morale, the word of chastising Muslims will spread to other contexts. We did not have to cross this bridge on the eve of the tournament when sorting this kind of incongruities could have been sorted or ironed out.

With the tournament underway, these concerns could very well disappear from front-page news; and when it concludes, instead of counting goals, many will be counting monetary costs and benefits more than lives lost. Lessons could dissuade selecting another Muslim country as host in the future; open-ended migrant invitations may now be shunned away, aggravating a delicately poised global economy; and whatever forces have been pumping up populist forces across the Atlantic or Antipodal zones, will only grow stronger since populists also get bothered by Muslims (for many of the above reasons).


Professor Imtiaz A. Hussain, Department of Global Studies & Governance, Independent University, Bangladesh.

[email protected]

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