Qatar 2022: glory at what price?
The 2022 World Cup, shortly kicking off in Qatar, is bloodstained and tainted, hosted by a country with an appalling record for abusing the rights of migrant workers, LGBTQI+ people, women and civil society. It’s the latest in a long line of attempts by repressive states to launder their reputations by hosting high-profile sporting events. But the spotlight Qatar willingly sought has also been turned against it. Multiple campaigns have worked to use the high-profile event to embarrass the government over its human rights record, extract concessions and achieve improvements. The main challenge will be to ensure the pressure doesn’t wane once the tournament ends.
The 2022 World Cup is about to begin – remarkably, in Qatar. Football’s peak event, a global festival of sport celebrated every four years, will take place in a Middle Eastern country for the first time. Qatar isn’t only the smallest nation to host a World Cup – it’s also the hottest, which forced a rescheduling of the event and restructuring of the global football calendar so it would fall in the northern hemisphere winter rather than the usual summer.
FIFA – The International Federation of Association Football, the sport’s global governing body – awarded hosting rights to Qatar in 2010. The reasons for this decision remain unclear, but credible allegations say it involved sizeable amounts of cash.
What isn’t new is holding a major sporting event in a repressive state characterised by very limited space for civil society and rampant human rights violations. The last World Cup was held in Russia. The latest Winter Olympics were hosted by China.
A migrant workers’ graveyard
FIFA knew the human rights situation when it awarded hosting rights to Qatar. It also knew Qatar lacked the necessary infrastructure to host such a huge event, which would entail construction on an enormous scale. FIFA knew that Qatar’s economy is entirely dependent on migrant workers, imported by the millions from Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Nepal, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, among other countries, and treated as disposable. It knew how infrastructure construction would proceed, and who would pay the consequences. But it went ahead regardless.
As soon as it was announced as the host, Qatar started building dedicated infrastructure, including not only eight new top-of-the-range stadiums but also an airport expansion, a new transit system, several hotels and miles of new roads. The cost of finalising them on time and within budget was paid for in tens of thousands of migrant workers’ lives.
For many migrant workers, abuses start even before they set foot in Qatar: they may be charged exorbitant illegal recruitment fees, as a result of which they arrive heavily in debt and remain in bondage, at the mercy of their employers, until they can pay them back.
Once in Qatar, they are subjected to subhuman living and working conditions and often experience wage theft. Despite recent reforms they still struggle to switch jobs.
Worst of all, thousands have died in the process of building World Cup-related infrastructure – more than in all the World Cups and Olympic Games of the past 30 years combined. While deaths have usually been caused by exhaustion, the effects of working in incredibly high temperatures and accidents, they have rarely been investigated and instead have almost always been ascribed to ‘natural causes’, allowing employers to evade responsibility.
Large-scale infrastructure projects are going to continue. If those who shone the spotlight on Qatar really care about migrant workers, they should continue promoting reforms and monitoring their effective implementation after the World Cup is over.
Even if there were no other issues, these deaths would make this a tainted World Cup. Both FIFA and the government of Qatar have blood on their hands.
LGBTQI+ people in the shadows
Migrant workers have paid the heaviest price, but they’re far from the only ones experiencing egregious rights violations. Discrimination is hardwired into the Qatari system.
Qatar still has a male guardianship system that deprives women of the power to make basic decisions about their lives: decisions on marriage, access to sexual and reproductive healthcare, even on travel.
The very existence of LGBTQI+ people is criminalised. Qatar’s Criminal Code severely punishes extramarital sex and consensual sexual relations between men. Recent cases have been documented of Qatari LGBTQI+ people being arbitrarily arrested, detained, subjected to beatings and sexually harassed. LGBTQI+ people are forced into government so-called ‘conversion programmes’. They have reported being recruited as government agents to help track down other LGBTQI+ people in exchange for avoiding torture. Qatar’s LGBTQI+ people are forced to live in the shadows.
This has implications for visiting supporters too. A week before the opening ceremony, a growing list of politicians urged the UK government to change its travel advice to warn LGBTQI+ football fans about the risks of travelling to Qatar. The UK’s foreign minister, James Cleverly, didn’t seem to get the memo when he instead suggested LGBTQI+ fans travelling to Qatar should ‘make some compromises’ about how they behave to avoid getting into trouble.
For months on end, the Qatari government has sought to placate international concerns by suggesting visitors won’t be subjected to the same restrictive laws as locals. The English Football Association claims to have received reassurance that same-sex couples won’t be prosecuted for the crime of holding hands.
But it hasn’t taken much for the mask to slip. At a news conference in Berlin in May 2022, the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, warned that, while welcoming ‘everybody’ to the global event, the authorities also expected people to ‘respect our culture’. Just days after Qatar’s foreign minister insisted that all people would be welcome to attend, Qatar World Cup ambassador Khalid Salman couldn’t help speaking his mind when he described homosexuality as ‘damage in the mind’ and ‘spiritual harm’.
In any case, promises that visitors won’t be mistreated don’t go far enough. LGBTQI+ campaigners don’t want double standards: they demand non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity for all people in Qatar, and not just for World Cup spectators spending little time but plenty of money in the country.
In response, multiple campaigns have been launched to demand changes to Qatar’s restrictive laws. Prominent among them is the ‘Qatar: Love is not a crime’ petition, started by Nas Mohamed, the first LGBTQI+ Qatari to publicly come out, currently seeking asylum in the USA.
Many actions have been largely symbolic: for instance, the US football team redesigned its logo to incorporate the Pride flag in its badge and a group of European football federations announced that their captains would wear armbands with a rainbow heart design. Even these small gestures created friction with FIFA, which has strict rules against what it characterises as political and social issues being raised on the playing field.
Some of the challenges around campaigning were laid bare in October, when veteran activist Peter Tatchell staged a one-man protest outside the National Museum of Qatar in the capital, Doha, wearing a T-shirt with the hashtag #QatarAntiGay and holding a sign that read ‘Qatar arrests and subjects LGBTs to conversion’. Some saw this as a brave act, while others questioned whether outsiders could claim to speak on behalf of local LGBTQI+ people. It shed light on a difficult question: how best to support Qatari LGBTQI+ people without making it likelier they’ll face a backlash once the spotlight stops shining on their country?
No space for civil society
Dilemmas about the role of international civil society are particularly acute because Qatar’s heavily restricted civic space precludes action by home-grown civil society. The denial of the freedom of association results in the absence of independent domestic civil society organisations dedicated to exposing human rights violations and advocating for change. Human rights defenders are under constant threat of arbitrary detention and are subject to travel bans to prevent them engaging with international human rights bodies.
Workers aren’t allowed to unionise. Strikes and demonstrations are banned, and when they proceed regardless, they are swiftly suppressed, with participants arrested and detained. If migrant workers dare protest, they can be immediately deported.
Protest leaders can be jailed for life. In May 2022, the Criminal Court sentenced three people to life and another to 15 years in prison as punishment for participating in peaceful protests in August 2021.
Peaceful protest by Qatari citizens abroad is also repressed. In July 2022, a group of human rights advocates, including Qatari human rights defender Abdullah Al-Maliki, protested in Munich, Germany to demand respect for human rights, the immediate and unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience and the abolition of arbitrary travel bans. They were attacked by groups of Qatari citizens seemingly sent to Germany by Qatari state security services to sabotage the gathering.
In April 2022, a sham trial began against Al-Maliki in absentia, with the prosecution demanding the application of article 130 of the Penal Code, which includes the death penalty.
Freedom of expression and media freedom are particularly restricted, since the Qatari government doesn’t like the media spreading unpleasant truths about the kingdom. In the run-up to the tournament there have been cases of visiting journalists being threatened and having their broadcasts interrupted or being forced to delete photos from their phones by stadium security.
Measures have been taken to stop international journalists reporting on anything not strictly related to the games: rules have been imposed limiting journalistic work to a specific list of locations.
The official position echoed that adopted by FIFA’s leaders, who in early November sent a letter to all participating countries telling them to cease any further discussion of Qatar’s poor human rights record, respect differences and ‘focus on the football’.
To boycott or not?
That’s FIFA’s hope – that once the first ball is kicked, a global audience of over 3.5 billion will once more get wrapped up in the cut and thrust of competition.
They may be right. Attempts to promote boycotts, including calls for national teams to withdraw from the competition, have come to little. Having gone through the lengthy and difficult qualification process, no country was going to decline their seat at the top table and players weren’t going to turn down a rare opportunity to test themselves on the highest stage. Too much was at stake, emotionally and financially. Although well into 2022 high numbers of French and German survey respondents – 39 per cent in France and 48 per cent in Germany – supported withdrawal from the competition, they were never a majority.
But even the conversation around this may have had an impact: an alarmed UEFA – the Union of European Football Associations, the governing body of European football, encompassing 55 national associations – responded to the pressure by establishing a working group to conduct country visits, assess the situation, provide recommendations and advocate for workers’ rights in the run-up to the World Cup. UEFA Working Group reports confirmed that some progress had been achieved – but not nearly enough.
Hopes of a diplomatic boycott seem to have come to little too. Some global leaders stayed away from China’s Winter Olympics but plan to travel to Qatar, which perhaps not coincidentally could be an alternative source of gas for European states that normally rely on Russia.
One notable exception seems to be the government of Canada, whose team have qualified for the first time since 1986. Following the precedent it set at the Winter Olympics, it announced it wouldn’t designate a federal representative to attend. But others haven’t followed suit.
In the absence of moral leadership from governments and delegations, it falls to international civil society to try to keep up the pressure.
International civil society has for years been working to raise awareness of what Amnesty International has called ‘the ugly side of the beautiful game’.
To push for change, several global unions, labour groups and human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch led the #PayUpFIFA campaign, calling on FIFA and the state of Qatar to establish, in collaboration with workers and trade unions, a comprehensive programme to provide remedy to migrant workers and their families, including easily accessible financial compensation. Campaigners have urged FIFA to reserve an amount at least equivalent to the US$440 million prize money provided to the 32 qualifying teams, to be invested in funds to provide compensation to workers or their families and in initiatives to improve worker protections.
Civil society campaigners are also advocating towards diplomats planning to attend the World Cup, calling on them to use their platform and protected status to speak up against human rights abuses in Qatar.
There have also been a variety of symbolic actions to focus attention on rights abuses. In September, circumventing FIFA rules against explicit political statements, Denmark unveiled its deliberately subdued kit designs, including an all-black kit as a symbol of mourning for the lost lives of migrant workers.
In Argentina, the Centre for the Opening and Development of Latin America, a human rights organisation, campaigned to ask the national football association to request FIFA’s authorisation to add to the shirt the symbol of human rights in black as a sign of mourning, and demand that human rights standards be part of the selection process of future World Cup hosts.
Local authorities in several cities in France – current holders of the World Cup – have announced they will refrain from their usual practice of organising fan zones and publicly screening games. Similar actions are being taken in other European cities.
Qatar seems to have wanted the international prestige without the exposure. Sheikh Tamim complained that since being named host, his country ‘has been subjected to an unprecedented campaign that no host country has ever faced’.
He entirely missed the point – no country putting itself in the international spotlight in this way gets to decide where the public gaze will focus. The main difference is that Qatar has more things it wants to hide than most. Nor is this about the west criticising the east, as it’s sometimes been claimed: this is about global campaigning to demand universal human rights.
What matters is that in response to pressure, some limited but essential labour reforms have been introduced. Since 2018 workers have been allowed to leave Qatar without an exit permit and since 2020 they are allowed to change jobs at any time without seeking their employers’ permission. A minimum wage was also introduced in 2021. Regulations were introduced to ban outdoor work in the hottest hours of the day during the summer.
It’s safe to say none of these changes would have resulted without growing international awareness of migrant worker deaths and other abuses, and the pressure that resulted. But it remains the case that reforms have only been introduced recently, while construction work started in 2010 – making this a World Cup built on misery and oppression.
Many key issues remain unaddressed and some reforms haven’t been fully implemented, while others have brought backlash from employers. For instance, many cases have been documented of employers retaliating against workers who apply to change jobs. As a result, migrant workers remain in a vulnerable position and abuses persist. Further, the minimum wage, while a welcome step, is low for a country with one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, and issues of underpayment and delayed payment remain rife.
Advances in rights are always limited if they are gifts from on high. Abuses aren’t going to end unless workers gain access to the main tools available to demand labour rights: unionisation and strikes, both of which are currently illegal in Qatar.
Its stadiums may well be the most futuristic in the world, but when it comes to labour rights, Qatar still has a long way to go.
Voices from the frontline
Vani Saraswathi is editor-at-large and director of projects at Migrant-Rights.org, a Gulf-based civil society organisation that works to advance the rights of migrant workers in Gulf countries.
The economy of Qatar is heavily dependent on migrant workers, who make up over 93 per cent of the labour market. The construction sector is even more heavily dependent on migrant labour, and due to the nature of the work exploitation and rights violations are much more visible than in other sectors.
Rights violations have shifted over the years from poor accommodation to crowded accommodation to rampant wage theft. As the scale of construction operations grew, corporations resorted to subcontracting, with worker recruitment, safety and welfare left in the hands of subcontractors and no effective legal mechanism for oversight, which enabled corruption.
One of the main recent reforms has been the removal of the requirement for foreign workers to apply for an exit permit to leave Qatar.
Another important change has been the removal of the requirement of a no objection certificate. This means that all workers, including domestic workers, are allowed to change jobs at any point in their labour contract. This measure triggered a lot of pushback and a new requirement was introduced: to go through the online process to change jobs, workers must submit a resignation letter stamped by their employer. This became a de facto no objection certificate.
A non-discriminatory minimum wage has also been introduced. Although pretty low, it is still a minimum wage.
Additionally, across Gulf countries there is a system in place for all workers to be paid electronically. It’s aimed at preventing non-payment but has repeatedly failed to do so. The system should spot non-payment cases early on, rectify them and hold the employer accountable, but it does not. Non-payment cases typically arise when workers who haven’t been paid for several months file a complaint.
Management-worker joint committees have been allowed within companies. This was presented as either a step towards allowing unionisation, or a substitute for it. But the power dynamics are so skewed that there is very little scope for collective bargaining, and they do not remotely resemble unions, even if the joint committees have elected representatives.
The problem in Qatar is that laws have been enforced and reforms have been implemented only in response to criticism. This time around, it was in response to the attention brought by international organisations under the spotlight of the World Cup. The problem with this kind of response is that it tends to stay on paper because it is not the result of dialogue with the key stakeholders, namely employers and workers, and an understanding of the system on the ground.
Enforcement is difficult because local employers are pushing back: they feel that workers’ rights come at a cost that is being paid from their pockets. The government has made no attempt to talk to stakeholders on the ground, and it won’t be able to implement any reform without them.
Qatar needs to ensure workers get their wages and fair compensation and that nobody leaves the country in distress. Otherwise rights violations will continue to happen, and it’s not right. I hope the government at least realises that even when the World Cup is over, it doesn’t need that kind of bad publicity.
This is an edited extract from our conversation with Vani. Read the full interview here.
Football has long been used by the powerful for their own political purposes. The 1978 World Cup in Argentina is an infamous example: it took place during the bloodiest dictatorship in the country’s history and was used by the military junta to distract from torture, murder and disappearances and shore up its power.
With less damaging consequences, democratic governments often seek to take political advantage of big sporting events – both the prestige of hosting them and the kudos that comes from success on the pitch. Many governments are doubtless hoping for a good run in the tournament in the hope of triggering a surge of national pride to distract people from economic hardship.
But as easily as it can be politically manipulated, a global sport like football can be turned around as a source of resistance and a spur to collective action. Consider, for example, the role played by football fans in the 2011 Egyptian revolution: drawing on already well-established routines of solidarity and organisation, they were the ones who made the sustained occupation of Tahrir Square possible.
Whitewashing efforts can be turned upside down. Having put itself in the spotlight, now Qatar can’t stop campaigners using that same glare to shine a light on its human rights abuses, extract concessions and push for further change. The logic of this was laid bare by a Danish journalist who was recently ‘mistakenly interrupted’ by Qatari officials while reporting live from the streets of Doha: ‘You invited the whole world to come here, why can’t we film?’ The challenge will lie in sustaining that pressure once the last TV camera has been turned off after the final on 18 December.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The government of Qatar must uphold the basic civic freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.
The government of Qatar must further reform its labour laws to enable unionisation and recognise the right of all workers, including migrant workers, to strike without government approval.
FIFA must implement a mandatory human rights assessment, in consultation with civil society, before awarding future World Cup hosting rights.
Cover illustration by CIVICUS