British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly triggered a barrage of criticism Wednesday for telling soccer fans to “be respectful” of Qatar’s anti-LGBTQ culture when the World Cup kicks off there next month.
Cleverly, a member of the ruling Conservative party, said on LBC Radio that he has spoken to Qatari authorities about how gay fans will be treated. He said the Qatari authorities are aware “they are going to have to make some compromises” with regard to their “very different set of cultural norms.”
“They want to make sure that football fans are safe, secure and enjoy themselves,” Cleverly said.
“One of the things I would say to football fans is please do be respectful of the host nation,” he went on. “They will try ― they are trying ― to ensure 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.”
Qatar was selected in 2010 to host the quadrennial tournament in spite of human rights concerns, including over its treatment of LGBTQ people. The country criminalizes same-sex relationships, although it is not clear how that law has been enforced in recent years, as British advocacy group Human Dignity Trust noted.
A Human Rights Watch report published this week stated that Qatari police have “arbitrarily” arrested LGBTQ people and mistreated them in police custody as recently as last month. The group said it documented six cases of severe beatings by police between 2019 and 2022.
Despite criticism over the choice of Qatar as a host, FIFA President Gianni Infantino has said that all will be welcome at the World Cup.
Cleverly repeated his warning to soccer fans during an appearance on Sky News, where he called on attendees to “respect the culture” of Qatar.
“These are Muslim countries,” he said. “They have very different cultural starting point from us. I think it’s important when you’re a visitor to a country that you respect the culture of your host nation.”
He added that the Qatari officials were “very, very keen to make sure that football fans have an enjoyable experience.”
A spokesperson for new British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pushed back on Cleverly’s suggestion, saying no fan should be expected to “compromise who they are.”
Members of British opposition parties were more forceful in their condemnation.
“We should always stand up for equality,” tweeted member of Parliament Ellie Reeves.
Kirsten Oswald, a top figure in the Scottish National Party, called the comments “abhorrent.”
“Foreign Secretary seems in essence to be advising people travelling to the world cup in Qatar to show some respect and not be gay,” Oswald tweeted.
“This is shockingly tone deaf from James Cleverly. Sport should be open to all,” Labour shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell said in a tweet.
“I think his comments were pretty outrageous, really,” she later told LBC Radio.
Qatar’s bid to host the World Cup has been mired with accusations of human rights abuses. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other groups have long accused the host nation of exploiting migrant workers from poorer nations in the push to build the infrastructure necessary for such a massive international event.
The World Cup 2022 will run from Nov. 20 through Dec. 18.