DOHA, Qatar – What does wearing an armband mean? In the World Cup, it could mean a clash of civilizations.
On the field, the tournament has thrilled the fans with chaotic games, upsets and a host of non-traditional football powers reaching the knockout stage. But off the pitch, the World Cup, the first to be staged in the Middle East, has been the site of a fiercer showdown between a moral West and increasingly angry Qatari hosts and their Arab brethren.
Western governments, especially those from a group of European nations that take part in the tournament, and the media have looked suspiciously at the event and the petro-rich kingdom organizing it. They presented objections over human rights and a lack of protections for workers, highlighting abuses that took place in the shadow of the emirate’s massive World Cup construction projects. And despite efforts by FIFA, soccer’s controversial governing body, to curb the tournament’s political overtures, they staged some acts of protest.
That included German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser in Qatar wearing the “One Love” armband in support of LGBTQ rights that US captains and several European teams eventually refused to wear for fear of FIFA sanction. Faeser’s gesture sparked eyebrows and scorn in Qatar and the region, with some prominent commentators interpreting the move less as a comment on the threats facing LGBTQ minorities and more an act of imperious majestydisconnected from the lived reality of these societies.
The German national team also staged their own protest, asking for a pre-match photo with their hands over their mouths, an apparent message to FIFA authorities that would spill them. But it then prompted the team’s early exit fierce mockery on social media and Arabic TV.
The families of migrant workers who died in Qatar are waiting for answers
The heated rhetoric exists on other fronts as well. Halfway through the tournament, social media is still abuzz with commentary about what has been described as the “modern slavery” that underpinned Qatar’s glitzy stadiums and new infrastructure. For several years, rights groups and labor advocacy organizations have chronicled the shortcomings and abuses prevalent not only in Qatar but also in the wider Gulf region, where millions of migrant workers make their living. , sometimes in deplorable conditions and vulnerable to exploitation by predatory employers and recruiters.
But screeds against the Qatar World Cup almost seem to cast the emirate’s authorities as vainglorious pharaohs, driving chattel to build their glittering pyramids. Death tolls circulated pinning multiple thousand worker deaths on Qatari preparations – figures roundly dismissed by Qatari officials as wildly inaccurate and misleading, and not confirmed by the United Nations International Labor Organization.
“Qatar has argued against the death toll, in part by insisting that work on infrastructure other than World Cup stadiums was unrelated to the tournament,” my colleagues reported last month, in a piece coming to’ the face of the story of an Indian man who died after working. on Qatar construction sites. “He has also maintained measures that labor and human rights groups say are significant and will better protect workers if fully implemented.”
Those reforms include a new central electronic system to oversee payments between private companies and their migrant workers, wage increases and other measures to give greater mobility to laborers whose status in the country is bound by the whims of their employers . There are signs of progress.
“Tangible changes include raising the requirements for workers to obtain exit permits to leave Qatar and obtain no-objection certificates before changing employers,” The Post’s Monkey Cage blog explained. “According to ILO data, more than 300,000 foreign workers changed jobs between September 2020 and March 2022. In addition, 13 percent of Qatar’s workforce saw their basic wages rise after the non-discriminatory minimum wage was introduced work in 2021. New legislation in 2021 reduced the number of hours where employers could set aside outdoor work during the summer months, a further step to protect the health and safety of workers.”
Set the World Cup in little Qatar
Rights groups argue that much more needs to be done to protect workers from exploitation and ensure that new policies are adequately implemented in the country’s largely privatized labor sector.. But for Zahra Babar, associate director of the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University’s Qatar campus and a long-time researcher on migration issues in the Gulf, the polarized conversation surrounding the World Cup has done little to promote a genuine understanding of the complexities of what migrants in the region face and the lives they lead. (You can get a glimpse of this complexity in a series of podcasts produced by the Babar program, featuring migrant voices in Qatar.)
“The heroes and villains narrative has not really helped,” Babar said, adding that the tone of Western criticism could even harden local Qatari attitudes towards the many migrants in their midst.
Talk of Western hypocrisy and double standards is rife in Doha. In conversations I have had with Qatari officials and other Arab commentators, I have heard reference to how Europe looked away as thousands of would-be migrants drowned in the Mediterranean Sea; to the documented abuses in the US program to bring low-skilled agricultural workers to work on American farms; to the indifference of the West when faced with its own legacy of imperial exploitation and later support for various authoritarian regimes in the developing world; to disrespect European officials who publicly denounce Qatari society and more, and privately pursue their economic interests with Doha – including major gas deals.
When I suggested that some of these arguments could be interpreted as “whataboutism,” an official pushed back, insisting that this was the relevant context to see Qatar’s place in the world and its own struggles to consider the pace of change. The small country’s population has more than quadrupled in less than two decades, much of which includes a large influx of new migrant workers.
In Babar’s view, systems in place everywhere in the world – not just Qatar – for low-skilled migrant labor “are aimed at using and abusing a devalued core of workers, whose lives are plagued constant by uncertainty.” Despite all the special focus on Qatar during the World Cup, the conditions for migrants here are not that unique, he argued.
Beyond its efforts to reform its labor sector, Qatar also sees this World Cup as an opportunity to charm a different type of tourist. While nearby Dubai has made itself a playground for jet-set Westerners, Doha can be an appealing destination for visitors from the Middle East, Asia and Africa. As many as 1.5 million people are expected to visit Qatar during the World Cup. After the tournament, Qatar will offer visa-free entry to people from over 95 countries. It is a much more generous system than what the United States or countries in Europe’s Schengen zone provide.
“Qatar has long been a hub for global travel bridging East and West, which has made the tournament accessible to many fans who have never had the opportunity to attend the World Cup from the front,” said Ali Al-Ansari, Qatar’s media attache in the United States .
The ease of entry and access – flights to the Gulf, a major air travel hub, are quite affordable from parts of Asia and Africa – came up in my conversations with a group of Ghanaian fans before they went to watch their nation crumble from. the tournament against Uruguay on Friday.
“It’s very easy to come here. Qatar is the perfect place to host the World Cup,” said Joe Mensah, an electrical engineer from the city of Kumasi.
Mensah’s colleague, John Appiah from Accra, said he arrived in Qatar with “certain perceptions” about Arab racism and mistreatment of foreigners. “But my treatment here has been fantastic.”
Appiah added that he would love to visit the United States for the 2026 World Cup, but said he believes getting a visa could be difficult. “I don’t know if they would want me to come,” he said.