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LGBTQ Arabs fear backlash after World Cup 'spotlight'

Captains from a number of leading European football nations will wear armbands with the message 'One Love' in an anti-discrimination campaign during the World Cup
— Dubai (AFP)

With rainbow flags and "OneLove" armbands, World Cup fans have protested against host Qatar's anti-LGBTQ policies, but many queer Arabs fear a Western solidarity push could do more harm than good.

Gestures in support of the local LGBTQ community have unleashed a torrent of homophobia, activists and community members say, creating new risks for people who have long relied on discretion to survive.

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

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

LGBTQ rights in Qatar -- where homosexuality is illegal -- and concerns over the use of the rainbow flag during the World Cup have been a simmering issue ahead of the international tournament that kicked off on November 20.

Captains of seven European football teams had planned to wear rainbow-themed "OneLove" armbands as part of a campaign to embrace diversity, but backed down after a threat of disciplinary action from FIFA.

The well-meaning drive for LGBTQ rights has caused distress for some, the Bahraini entrepreneur said.

"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."

- 'Ruining a lot' -

The clash playing out in Qatar is the latest example of the unintended backlash generated by Western LGBTQ initiatives in the Muslim majority region.

Earlier this year, 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.

Western gestures in support of Qatar's LGBTQ community have unleashed a torrent of homophobia, activists and community members say

For the Bahraini entrepreneur, it triggered a scathing response in a region where queer people, citizens and expats alike, prefer to stay under the radar.

"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."

Over the summer, authorities across the Gulf zeroed-in on what they perceived as attempts to encourage homosexuality.

In Saudi Arabia, where same-sex relations are punishable by death, authorities cracked down on rainbow-coloured toys and clothing.

In Bahrain, posters went up showing silhouettes of a family under an umbrella, taking shelter as a rainbow flag spilled over them like a downpour.

Meanwhile, Hollywood productions including Disney's "Lightyear" were banned from theatres in several Gulf countries for supposedly promoting same-sex relations.

- 'From bad to worse' -

"Religion remains central in the Gulf, despite relaxing some laws and social restrictions," Saudi researcher Eman Alhussein told AFP.

And the LGBTQ cause "is probably not up for local debate anytime soon", she said.

Lebanese activist Tarek Zeidan lamented a 'missed opportunity' to bring positive change with the World Cup

Alhussein, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said growing 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".

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

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

"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".

Zeidan, who used to live in Qatar, noted a "hardening of positions" around the World Cup, which he said the LGBTQ community would ultimately pay for.

"It's going from bad to worse," said Zeidan.

"The backlash is probably going to be very, very harsh if not deadly," the activist said.

"The coming years are going to be extremely punishing for LGBTQ people in the region."