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Due Diligence or Demonization? World Cup 2022 and Western Criticism of Qatar

Association football, or “soccer” to Americans, dominates the world of sports. More fans flock to its quadrennial championships, the World Cup, than to the Olympic Games. Millions of children around the world aspire to be the next Beckham, Pele, or Maradona. This year’s tournament in Qatar has special significance for millions, as it marks the first time that it takes place in a Muslim, Arab state located outside the exclusive circle of countries that have long monopolized the game. Qatar’s hosting of the games has set a precedent for many other countries that have, until now, only dreamed of doing the same. Now Egypt and Saudi Arabia—in conjunction with Greece—have decided to launch a bid to host the 2030 World Cup. Before the Doha games, such an endeavor would have been unthinkable.

Rather than be a cause for celebration, however, Qatar’s role as World Cup host, journalists, entertainers, and non-governmental organizations have exploited the event to attack Doha’s human rights record. Let’s be clear: Qatar’s historical treatment of marginalized groups deserves criticism. But the critics have uniformly devalued the efforts Qatar has undertaken to protect persons living within its borders and shape the human rights discourse across the Gulf region. In fact, Qatar has become the regional leader on the same issues that its detractors claim to support. In doing so, Doha has often set a bar for reform that even some Western nations have failed to meet.

Key to the anti-Qatar vitriol is the notion that the small peninsular country’s human rights conditions are uniquely lacking compared to other World Cup holders. Yet compared to the anger directed at Qatar, the criticism of Russia, the host of the 2018 World Cup, amounted to a mere slap on the wrist. Despite Russia’s gruesome human right records, anti-LGBT laws, war crimes committed in Syria, occupation and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, its brutal treatment of political dissidents, and the widespread corruption at all levels of its government, I and many observers do not remember the same level of outrage and boycotts of the 2018 tournament. Nor would one expect human rights organizations to launch a similarly critical media campaign against the United States, Mexico, and Canada ahead of the 2026 World Cup, despite ongoing human rights violations against migrants on the United States’ southern borders. The critics have ignored other sports events held in Qatar’s neighborhood. No impartial observer would argue that Doha is infallible. Like every other country in the Gulf region, Qatar has grappled with human rights issues; it criminalizes homosexuality and marginalizes guest workers.

The Qatari leadership and the country’s citizens listened to the criticism and, after a brief bout of obstinacy, evaluated their deficiencies and addressed them to a degree that no one thought possible ten years ago. To be sure, some of these changes were prompted by regional political events. At the onset of the 2017 Gulf diplomatic crisis, Qatar came under a massive public relations assault from its neighbors; to preserve its reputation in the West, Doha undertook a comprehensive overhaul of the country’s human rights situation, depriving its regional rivals of ammunition to assail the regime. Ironically, Qatar’s international critics apparently had no compunction joining forces with countries whose own practices were far worse than those of Qatar; nor, according to some reports, accepting financial assistance to do so. While all countries in the region have committed similar human rights abuses, Qatar’s relative openness to the foreign press and foreign observers made it an easier target for international condemnation. If anything, these criticisms became harsher as Qatar’s reforms were instituted; instead of noting the country’s progress, foreign observers doubled down on their criticism as the World Cup drew closer.

Much of the negative discourse around Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup appears to be rooted in racist skepticism that an Arab Muslim nation could compete with the West on fair terms. Rather than contesting Qatar’s World Cup sponsorship on the facts, the country’s worst detractors have turned to worn tropes asserting that Doha only secured its hosting rights through blatant bribery. To properly assess Qatar’s shortcomings and evaluate its progress without resorting to whataboutism, it is vital to respond to these accusations directly.

First: Qatar Bribed FIFA Officials to Host the World Cup

In 2010, then-FIFA President Sepp Blatter declared that the Arab world “deserved” a chance to host the World Cup, which had only been held in Europe, South America, Africa, and East Asia. When Qatar was awarded the tournament later that year, the football world cried foul. Many critics never understood that Qatar was a “stealth” bidder for the Games. Ignored by its larger and better-known competitors, Qatar’s bid committee put together an application that not only met all of FIFA’s typical requirements but included unprecedented benefits for poor countries whose people lacked the resources to participate. Qatar offered football training classes for 50,000 young people in developing nations. It also promised to disassemble several of the World Cup stadiums after the games and ship them to some of the world’s poorest countries. The critics largely ignored the substance of the Qatari bid and fell back on predictable and unproven accusations of bribery.

FIFA was indeed embroiled in a corruption scandal just before the decision, which only helped lend credence to the allegations. In 2010, the year Qatar was announced as the host of the tournament, two members of FIFA’s executive committee were caught on camera agreeing to sell their votes for cash. Other suspicions led to several investigations against high-level FIFA officials. In the aftermath of the initial scandal, FIFA’s internal investigator and former U.S. prosecutor Michael Garcia launched a thorough probe of FIFA’s activities: it ultimately failed to find any evidence that Qatari officials had engaged in bribery. The U.S. Department of Justice later indicted several FIFA officials on racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering charges for conspiring to sell broadcasting rights, and Swiss authorities also launched a concurrent investigation targeted at alleged corruption in the bidding processes for the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2022 tournament in Qatar. However, both U.S. and Swiss investigations ended without accusing Qatar of bribing FIFA to host the World Cup. Unfortunately, Qatar’s critics continue to ignore the facts presented in FIFA’s internal investigation and repeat unfounded accusations against Qatar. How else, the critics encourage readers to infer, could an Arab country receive such an international honor, except through bribery?

Second: Qatar Abuses Expatriate Workers

Expatriate workers are subject to abusive labor practices and laws throughout the GCC states, and they often lack adequate mechanisms to launch complaints about their employer or terminate their contracts. Qatar is no exception to this unscrupulous trend. Initially, Qatar responded indignantly to international accusations of labor exploitation. In the GCC countries, labor dynamics are often aggravated by the fact that foreign workers greatly outnumber the citizen population. Throughout the Gulf, the expatriate population makes up the vast majority of the workforce, and the overwhelming majority of expatriates come from poor countries without reliable employment. Because these workers are readily available, businesses throughout the GCC paid them poorly and subjected them to difficult working conditions throughout much of their history. For decades, the world was largely content to overlook abuses such as the kafala (guarantor) system, which prevented foreign workers from changing employers or leaving the country without their employer’s permission.

Unlike its neighbors, however, Qatar’s leaders realized that they could burnish their international reputation and head off human rights criticisms by resolving controversial labor practices well ahead of the World Cup. Consequently, Qatar took steps to become the regional leader in labor reforms. These reforms included improving wage payment systems, strengthening workplace safety and occupational health inspection systems, curbing workforce recruitment abuse, and enhancing legal protections for workers.

Much of the region’s labor rights abuses were rooted in the kafala labor sponsorship system, which gave an employer near-total legal control over foreign workers. Under the kafala system, passport confiscations were a regular practice, employers were given great discretion in whether and how much to pay their employees, and workers had few mechanisms to report poor working conditions. In response to criticism of its labor laws, Qatar officially abolished the kafala system in late 2019. The only other GCC state to effectively end kafala, the UAE, did so in late 2020. After the abolition of kafala, Qatar instituted the Wages Protection System (WPS), a program that is unique among regional states, as a concrete example of its efforts to end the abuses associated with the recruitment of foreign labor. Under the WPS, recruiters must give potential workers a contract signed by their future employer stipulating the wage rate. The Ministry of Labor must approve the contract before a Qatari consulate will issue a visa. Upon the worker’s arrival in Qatar, the employer must establish a bank account in the worker’s name in a Qatari bank and arrange to deposit the contracted wages. The Central Bank monitors the accounts and will notify the Labor Ministry if an employer fails to deposit the wages. After a warning, the Ministry may penalize a non-compliant employer and take the wages in arrears from the employer’s account. In late 2019, the International Labor Organization (ILO) recognized Qatar’s efforts to advance social justice, promote decent work conditions, and abolish the kafala system.

Third: Qatar Killed Thousands of Workers to Build its World Cup Stadiums

In February 2021, the Guardian newspaper reported that 6,500 workers had died working on World Cup projects in Qatar. Amnesty International later claimed that 15,021 migrant workers had died in Qatar from 2010-2019. However, Qatar responded that these numbers included all deaths among all expatriate workers, including many outside the country’s construction industry. Although deaths among working-age men are relatively uncommon, the seemingly high number was a very small percentage of the total number of expatriate workers employed in Qatar. Qatar’s critics also ignored reports from the sending countries, such as India and Nepal, that suggested that the death rate among their workers in Qatar was lower than death rates in similar demographics at home.

Like the kafala system, Qatar’s labor protection laws required—and received—a significant overhaul after the country was chosen to host the 2022 World Cup. The Qatari leadership responded to international human rights concerns by establishing a minimum wage, alleviating overcrowding in worker camps, and eliminating restrictions that prevented workers from changing employers. Though much remains to be done to ensure that expatriate workers receive the same treatment as their Qatari counterparts, little international attention has been paid to the advancements in worker protections that have taken place since 2010.

Fourth: Doha’s Record on LGBT+ Rights Renders it Unfit to Host the World Cup

The LGBT+ community in Qatar faces institutional and societal oppression. Article 296 of Qatari law explicitly criminalizes homosexuality. Human Rights Watch reported in October that LGBT+ people in Qatar were subject to arbitrary arrest, detention, and ill-treatment. The Qatari police have even gone as far as to prevent the display of gay pride symbols by World Cup fans.

Qatar is not alone among Gulf states in criminalizing the LGBT+ community and should be admonished for its poor record in this area. However, the opprobrium generated during the lead-up to the 2022 World Cup over LGBT+ rights is particularly striking, given the lack of similar criticism toward Russia during the 2018 tournament. In addition to its illegal invasion and seizure of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and its sponsorship of two anti-government rebel groups in the country’s east (groups that the Kremlin later used as an excuse to invade Ukraine in February 2022), the Russian government has instituted increasingly draconian anti-LGBT+ laws that muzzle nearly all public discussion of gay and trans rights in the country. Although Western media outlets offered limited criticism of Russia during that time, the criticisms against Qatar for comparatively lesser offenses today have been far louder, diminishing critics’ effectiveness.

Fifth: Qatar’s Alcohol Ban Runs Counter to Football Culture

In spite of its other controversies, the 2018 World Cup in Russia had one thing that the current iteration in Qatar does not: an abundant supply of beer. Last Friday, the Qatari government backtracked on an earlier commitment to allow the sale of alcohol in World Cup venues, declaring that beer could be sold before and after the games but not during them. The last-minute decision—apparently in violation of a sponsorship agreement with Budweiser—came as a shock to organizers, sponsors, and fans alike. The backlash was typically vitriolic. It appears that the decision was not made by religious zealots objecting to the sale of alcohol in an Islamic country, but rather by the police, who may have had concerns about their ability to control drunken fans in front of the media. Indeed, Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the brother of the emir, stated that the measure was necessary to ensure security during the matches.

Indeed, football matches, especially high-stakes affairs like those associated with the World Cup, have turned violent. Alcohol almost invariably worsens the violent impulses of fans. Just last year, fan violence marred the Hungary vs. England and Poland vs. Albania World Cup qualifying matches. Hooliganism can just as easily turn deadly. During the 1985 European Cup final between Juventus and Liverpool, drunken Liverpool fans—having been hit by rocks and other missiles thrown by Juventus supporters—crossed a pair of fences separating the two sides. The resulting melee and crush killed 39 fans and injured hundreds. Violence between opposing sets of supporters can occur at any time, and the banning of alcohol at World Cup venues may diminish its likelihood, even if it offends the sensibilities of international fans for whom a halftime beer is a hallmark of attending a football game.

The real story of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, generally ignored by the critics, is the expansion of the greatest event in worldwide sports to a part of the globe that has never fully participated. Dr. Abdullah Al-Arian, a professor and historian at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service branch campus in Qatar, put it best when he said that this 2022 World Cup was “a triumph for Arab fans of the beautiful game, whose passion and fandom have been so often sidelined and diminished. It’s a fascinating and provocative argument, informed by the history of colonialism, the geopolitics of today and a proud love of the world’s most popular sport. I hope you enjoy it.”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Ambassador Patrick Theros is a Strategic Adviser for Gulf International Forum. Previously he held positions as Political Advisor to the Commander in Chief, Central Command; Deputy Chief of Mission and Political officer in Amman; Charge D’affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission in Abu Dhabi; Economic Counselor in Damascus; and U.S. Ambassador to the State of Qatar. In a career spanning almost 36 years, he also has served in diplomatic positions in Beirut, Managua, Dharan and Abu Dhabi, as well as in the Department of State. During that period, he earned four Superior Honor Awards. After retirement Ambassador Theros served as President of the U.S. Qatar Business Council in 2000-2017.

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