Western anger was already evident in 2010, after FIFA, football’s governing body, chose Qatar’s bid to host the World Cup in 2022. 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 small desert state,” Bild noted. “There is no other explanation.”
There was also an element of disbelief and intolerance. “How can such a small country with no sporting tradition organize such an important event?” the leftist French daily Liberation observed at the time. “On many points, demographic, economic, environmental, sporting and touristic, the choice makes you wonder.”
Twelve years later, much of that feeling remains. Pop star Dua Lipa deny she was performing at the opening ceremony, saying she was looking forward to visiting Qatar when it fulfills its human rights promises. Philipp Lahm, who lifted the World Cup trophy as Germany’s victorious captain in 2014, cited human rights concerns as the reason he would not be present in Doha. Even as the World Cup is days away from starting, talk of a boycott is only getting louder.
Football fan protesters showed their displeasure over the weekend, particularly in Germany, where tens of thousands of supporters raised banners against the tournament at local club league matches in Hamburg, Berlin, the Ruhr valley and elsewhere. These listed a laundry list of complaints about the host nation’s authoritarian monarchy, including its alleged human rights abuses, suppression of dissent, persecution of LGBTQ people and abuse 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 laborer deaths during Qatar’s ambitious construction projects since it won the tournament bid 12 years ago.
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Even the executive committee that presided over Qatar that won the bid is now saying it was a “mistake.” Qatar “is too small of a country,” Sepp Blatter, former FIFA president, told Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeiger. “Football and the World Cup are too big for him.”
To be sure, Blatter’s comments carry a strong note of sour grapes. He left his post in 2015 amid a growing corruption scandal which also affected some of his colleagues. In previous years, he vehemently defended taking the tournament to Qatar, whose vast natural gas reserves would finance the first ever World Cup in the Middle East, regardless of the country’s own lack of participation in any previous tournaments.
While Blatter is still locked in legal disputes over accusations of fraud, Qatari officials resent the accusations they made. In a speech last month, the emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, said that his nation was the target of “unprecedented” external attacks that “included fabrications and double standards that were so fierce that it unfortunately prompted many people to question the real reasons. and the motivations behind the campaign.”
There is no clear chain of evidence linking the Qatari authorities to any act of impropriety or graft that secured their bid for the World Cup. Indeed, far from the smoky back rooms of Zurich, where FIFA is based, Qatar has splashed its sovereign wealth money outdoors since winning the bid, expanding its influence by buying French club Paris Saint-Germain . PSG’s squad is now a veritable Harlem Globetrotters of the global game, including some of its most famous stars in Brazil’s Neymar, Argentina’s Lionel Messi and French talisman Kylian Mbappe.
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Critics suspect PSG’s ownership is an exercise in “sports washing” to burnish the image of a troubled regime. They would extend that argument to the World Cup itself, which has seen Qatar plow in around $220 billion to rebuild the massive infrastructure needed to host a tournament of this magnitude. That includes new roads, a metro system, dozens of hotels and seven new stadiums.
This massive construction project invariably drew attention to the country’s labor rights record. Eighty-five percent of Qatar’s 3 million population are foreign workers, and a significant chunk of that cohort are migrant laborers from poor communities in East Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia. Long before Qatar won its World Cup bid, rights groups documented the abuse and harsh conditions visited on these migrants, who comprise a permanent underclass in Gulf kingdoms such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Last year, the Guardian revealed that around 6,5000 South Asian workers have died since Qatar won the World Cup. But these deaths indicated a general figure for all the laborers and were not related to the World Cup projects. Qatari authorities have suggested that the worker death toll specific to the construction sites was around 38 people – although Amnesty International has called out Qatar’s failure to investigate the underlying cause of death for the majority of workers.
External scrutiny has revealed a host of problems in the labor sector, from housing issues to heat illness, to lost wages and other abuses by employers. Since winning the World Cup, Qatar has overhauled its labor laws, introduced a minimum wage higher than much of the region and claimed to be scrapping the notorious “kafala” system, a policy of servitude facto governs the rights of migrants. workers in some Arab countries.
In a report this month, the United Nations International Labor Organization said Qatar had implemented “significant” reforms that “improved the working and living conditions of hundreds of thousands of workers,” but acknowledged that “more needs to be done to qualify full and enforce the labor reforms.”
A recent report by Eqidem, a human rights organization, documented a number of cases of abuse of workers involved in FIFA-related projects in the past two years. The prevalence of these alleged abuses “in workplaces so heavily regulated by Qatar, Fifa and their partners,” the group noted, “suggests that the reforms made over the past five years have acted as insurance on for powerful businesses that seek to exploit migrant workers with impunity.”
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Qatari and FIFA officials are both urging the million-plus fans expected to arrive in the country to tone down their political criticism and to respect the tournament for its historic uniqueness.. For many Qataris, misrepresenting fans, celebrities and politicians elsewhere is hypocritical. In 2018, when Russia hosted the tournament, there was arguably not this level of condemnation from sports authorities and other fans. Scrutiny of Russia’s wider human rights record also did not seem as intense as the glare on Qatar now – even though President Vladimir Putin’s regime was fueling a separatist war in Ukraine and committing war crimes in Syria at the time.
In response to criticism from Germany, Qatar’s foreign minister questioned the agendas. “On the one hand, the German population is being misinformed by government politicians; on the other hand, the government has no problem with us in terms of energy partnerships or investments,” Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper in an interview this month.