Home Opinion and Features The political debate swirling around the World Cup in Qatar

The political debate swirling around the World Cup in Qatar


Few previous World Cup tournaments have been shrouded in this much geopolitical intrigue, writes Ishaan Tharoor.

View of a Fifa World Cup 2022 sign in Doha, Qatar. File picture: Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed

By Ishaan Tharoor

WESTERN outrage was already palpable in 2010, after Fifa, soccer’s governing body, selected Qatar’s bid to host the World Cup in 2022. The German tabloid Bild responded to the move by printing the headline “Qatarstrophe,” claiming that only petro-wealth and corruption could have influenced the Persian Gulf kingdom’s selection. “The only explanation for this decision is that Fifa sold the World Cup to the sheiks of the mini-state in the desert,” noted Bild. “There is no other explanation.”

There was an element of disbelief and condescension, too. “How can such a small country with no sporting tradition organise such an important event?” observed the left-leaning French daily Liberation at the time. “On several points, demographic, economic, environmental, sporting and touristic, the choice makes you wonder.”

Twelve years later, much of that sentiment endures. Pop star Dua Lipa denied she was performing at the opening ceremony, saying she looks forward to visiting Qatar when it fulfils its human rights pledges. Philipp Lahm, who lifted the World Cup trophy as Germany’s triumphant captain in 2014, cited human rights concerns as the reason he would not be in attendance in Doha. Even as the World Cup is days away from starting, talk of boycotts is only getting louder.

Soccer fan protesters showed their displeasure over the weekend, especially in Germany, where tens of thousands of fans lofted banners against the tournament at local club league matches in Hamburg, Berlin, the Ruhr valley and elsewhere. These itemised a laundry list of complaints about the host nation’s autocratic monarchy, including its alleged human rights abuses, suppression of dissent, persecution of LGBTQ people and mistreatment of migrant workers.

“5,000 dead for 5,760 minutes of football. Shame on you!” read a message repeated across Germany, a reference to varying estimates of labourer fatalities during the course of Qatar’s ambitious construction projects since it won the tournament bid 12 years ago.

Even the executive who presided over Qatar winning the bid now says it was a “mistake”. Qatar “is too small of a country,” Sepp Blatter, former Fifa president, recently told Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeiger. “Football and the World Cup are too big for it.”

To be sure, Blatter’s remarks carry a strong note of sour grapes. He left his post in 2015 amid a spiralling corruption scandal that also implicated some of his colleagues. In the years prior, he strenuously defended taking the tournament to Qatar, whose vast natural gas reserves would fund the first-ever World Cup in the Middle East, no matter the country’s own lack of participation in any previous tournaments.

While Blatter is still locked in legal wrangles over charges of fraud, Qatari officials resent the accusations levelled at them. In a speech last month, Qatar’s emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani said his nation was the target of “unprecedented” outside attacks that “include fabrications and double standards that were so ferocious that it has unfortunately prompted many people to question the real reasons and motives behind the campaign”.

There is no clear chain of evidence that links Qatari authorities to any act of impropriety or graft that secured their World Cup bid. Indeed, far from smoky back rooms in Zurich, where Fifa is based, Qatar has splashed its sovereign wealth cash out in the open since winning the bid, expanding its influence through the purchase of French club Paris Saint-Germain. PSG’s squad is now a veritable Harlem Globetrotters of the global game, including some of its most famous superstars in Brazil’s Neymar, Argentina’s Lionel Messi and French talisman Kylian Mbappe.

Critics dub the ownership of PSG as an exercise in “sportswashing” to burnish the image of a problematic regime. They would extend that argument to the World Cup itself, which has seen Qatar plow some $220 billion to build from scratch the vast infrastructure needed to host a tournament of this scale. That includes new roads, a metro system, dozens of hotels and seven new stadiums.

This mammoth project of construction invariably brought attention to country’s labour rights record. Eighty-five percent of Qatar’s three million population are foreign workers, and a considerable chunk of that cohort are migrant labourers from poor communities in East Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia. Well before Qatar won the World Cup bid, rights groups documented the abuses and harsh conditions visited upon these migrants, who comprise a permanent underclass in gulf monarchies like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Last year, the Guardian revealed that about 6,5000 workers from South Asia had died since Qatar was awarded the World Cup. But these deaths marked a blanket figure for all labourers and were not tied to World Cup projects. Qatari authorities have suggested that the worker deaths figure specific to the construction sites was about 38 people – though Amnesty International has called out Qatar’s failure to investigate most workers’ underlying cause of death.

Outside scrutiny has exposed a raft of problems in the labour sector, from issues in housing conditions to heat-related illness, to missed pay and other abuses by employers. Since it was awarded the World Cup, Qatar has overhauled its labour laws, introduced a minimum wage that’s higher than much of the region and claimed to abolish the notorious “kafala” system, a policy of de facto indentured servitude that governs the rights of migrant workers in some Arab countries.

In a report this month, the UN International Labor Organization commented that Qatar had carried out “significant” reforms that “improved the working and living conditions for hundreds of thousands of workers,” but it acknowledged that “more needs to be done to fully apply and enforce the labour reforms”.

A recent report from Eqidem, a human rights organisation, documented numerous abuses of workers involved in Fifa-related projects in the past two years. The prevalence of these alleged abuses “on work sites so heavily regulated by Qatar, Fifa and their partners,” the group noted, “suggests that the reforms undertaken over the last five years have acted as cover for powerful businesses that seek to exploit migrant workers with impunity.”

Both Qatari and Fifa officials are urging the million-plus fans set to arrive in the country to tone down their political criticisms and to respect the tournament for its historic uniqueness. To many Qataris, the posturing of fans, celebrities and politicians elsewhere stings of hypocrisy. In 2018, when Russia hosted the tournament, there was arguably not this level of condemnation from other sporting authorities and fans. Scrutiny of Russia’s wider human rights record also didn’t seem as intense as the glare now on Qatar – even though the regime of President Vladimir Putin was fuelling a separatist war in Ukraine and carrying out war crimes in Syria at the time.

In reaction to criticism from Germany, Qatar’s foreign minister questioned the agendas. “On the one side, the German population is misinformed by government politicians; on the other, the government has no problem with us when it comes to energy partnerships or investments,” Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper in an interview this month.

* Ishaan Tharoor is a columnist on the foreign desk of The Washington Post, where he authors the Today’s WorldView newsletter and column. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.


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