Qatar’s tainted World Cup
In a year’s time, the most controversial World Cup tournament in recent history will kick off in the Gulf state
Why is it so controversial?
In December 2010, Fifa’s president, Sepp Blatter, announced the shock decision to award the world’s biggest sporting tournament to Qatar. Selected over the US, South Korea, Japan and Australia, it will be the smallest nation ever to host the event, with a population of 2.8 million (and just over 330,000 citizens). Qatar’s team had never qualified for a World Cup, and the country had no discernible footballing tradition. It had no suitable stadiums either, which meant that eight venues had to be upgraded or built from scratch.
The tournament could not reasonably be played in the summer, when temperatures average around 40°C. So instead it will take place in the cooler months of November and December, disrupting most of the world’s domestic competitions. Qatar is also an absolute monarchy, with a poor human rights record; and it has often been criticised for exploitative labour practices and dangerous working conditions.
So how did it win?
Ever since 2010, accusations of corruption have swirled around the 2022 bidding process. It was alleged that the disgraced Fifa vice president Jack Warner and his family were paid $2m by a company linked to Qatar’s campaign. In 2014, The Sunday Times published a cache of documents it said were proof of Qatar’s plot to “buy the World Cup” – allegedly orchestrated by Mohamed bin Hammam, a former Fifa vice president and the country’s top football official. It is said that $5m (£3m) was paid to Fifa officials in return for their support. Bin Hammam and those accused of accepting bribes deny the charges, but broader anti-corruption investigations against Fifa followed; nearly 30 people have been convicted as a result of a US department of justice probe. Blatter and his former colleague Michel Platini were forced out of their jobs, and last month were indicted on fraud charges.
What criticisms are made over working conditions?
Qatar relies heavily on migrant labourers, who make up 95% of its workers. Over the past decade, tens of thousands of workers, mostly from the Indian subcontinent, have built World Cup infrastructure ranging from stadiums to new hotels to transport systems. They were largely employed using the kafala or sponsorship system, under which visas are obtained by specific Qatari employers – meaning that, until recently, if workers wanted to change jobs, or even leave the country, they needed their employer’s permission. This system was ripe for abuse; at its worst, it has been described as akin to slavery. Amnesty International has detailed extensive maltreatment of foreign workers, including forced labour; salaries being underpaid; cramped and dirty accommodation; and workers being threatened if they complain. Working conditions are also reportedly often unsafe.
Unsafe in what ways?
Earlier this year, The Guardian compiled figures from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and found that more than 6,500 migrants from those countries had died in Qatar since 2010. In particular, there have been reports of labourers who worked for World Cup projects dying and suffering serious injury because of heatstroke after working in sweltering conditions. Studies have found increased rates of chronic kidney disease among Nepali migrant workers returned from Qatar, linked to working long hours in summer with insufficient drinking water. Some of these workers will now require dialysis several times a week for the rest of their lives.
How has the sport responded?
Several countries have registered concerns over Qatar’s human rights record. The most vocal opposition has been in Norway, whose Football Federation held a vote on whether to boycott the event after a campaign by some of the country’s leading clubs and fan groups. It ultimately decided against the move; but Norway’s players have worn T-shirts bearing slogans such as “Human rights, on and off the pitch” ahead of qualifying games. Countries including Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands have taken similar steps. England’s players have said they are discussing how to respond. Yet the condemnation has been by no means universal, and many appear ready to cash in on the tournament; David Beckham recently signed a £150m deal to be an ambassador for the tournament.
What is Qatar’s position?
It denies that bribes were paid to secure votes for the right to host the tournament. Qatar also contests the high number of migrant labourer deaths; it says that there have been only 37 deaths among workers directly linked to construction of World Cup stadiums. Under pressure, in 2019 it reformed the kafala system, so that legally migrants can change jobs or leave the country without their employer’s permission; and it has introduced a minimum wage. The UN’s International Labour Organisation declared that these reforms mark “the beginning of a new era for the Qatari labour market”.
What will the event’s legacy be?
Sepp Blatter has since described the decision to give Qatar the World Cup as a “mistake” – but it will go ahead even so; some $10bn has been spent on stadiums and nearly $300bn on related infrastructure. Fifa and Qatar insist that the tournament will leave a lasting social legacy. Critics argue this will be skin deep: that many employers ignore the new laws; and point out that though LGBT fans are in theory welcome, homosexuality remains illegal. Despite all the controversy, Qatar still stands to benefit, says Nicholas McGeehan of the human rights group FairSquare. “For every fan who is concerned about migrant workers and LGBT issues, there are probably another 40 or 50 people who are uncritically consuming PR content that presents Qatar as a luxurious destination with five-star hotels and camel rides.”
The transformation of Qatar
A former British protectorate which gained independence in 1971, Qatar has been dominated by the Al Thani family since the mid 19th century. Like much of the region, it was changed profoundly by the discovery of oil, in 1939. Today it is the world’s largest producer of liquefied natural gas, and one of the richest countries per capita on Earth – home to an ever increasing number of gleaming skyscrapers, cultural attractions and global university outposts. It has sought to cultivate a reputation for openness: the TV network Al Jazeera, founded in Doha in 1996, has shaken up the Arab world by taking its leaders to task. The station, though, seldom criticises Qatar; in fact, criticism of the Qatari government is illegal.
The emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, holds all executive power. In October, however, Qataris elected 30 members of a consultative council for the first time. Only those whose families lived in Qatar before 1930 were allowed to vote. Qatari relations with other Gulf states have often been strained in recent years: the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have accused it of supporting terrorism, notably the Muslim Brotherhood, and imposed a damaging trade embargo for three years. Diplomatic ties were restored this year.