On November 20th, 2022, the Federation Internationale de Football Association World Cup began. This year, Qatar, a small country of only 11,500 square kilometers (4,440 square miles), roughly the size of Connecticut, is hosting the event throughout five cities. Qatar will be accomplishing a lot of firsts this season, including but not limited to the following:
- Smallest nation to ever host
- First Arab nation to ever host
- First Muslim-majority country to host
As expected, Qatar has much to gain from hosting the World Cup. Primarily, the tourism industry is expected to grow by about 15% within the next four years as Qatar showcases itself as a marquee destination during the two-month tournament. Since most of the world anticipates a cold and brutal winter, Qatar has become the perfect place to travel for a seasonal winter getaway. This is consistent with the Qatari government’s desire to diversify its revenue sources as fossil fuels gradually become less economically sustainable over the next few decades. Moreover, Qatar has become a prospective investment destination for foreign companies and officials.
However, Qatar’s rise to fame has cast light upon a calamity of in-state issues. A common practice in the Gulf states, Qatar has been criticized for its poor working conditions for migrant workers. Due to strict laws, migrant workers are forced to rely on their employers to stay in the country, work, get healthcare, and more. Some workers have had their passports confiscated, and wages are stolen, but as the government gives employers authority to do what they please, it is difficult for migrants to fight for their human rights. This state of affairs became magnified as Qatar increased the number of workers brought in to help prepare for the highly anticipated World Cup.
Other human rights abuses within Qatari society include a lack of freedom of expression, fair trials, and discrimination on the basis of gender and sexual orientation. Citizens and the press are not allowed to criticize the government or politically organize. Non-citizens often have less chance than citizens for a free trial; citizens are usually allowed to bail out of their crimes, luxury non-citizens do not have. Women are often dependent on male family members for legal protection. A report by the US government says although Qatar’s constitution does not discriminate based on “sex, race, language, and religion,” Qatar is allowed to persecute people based on sexual orientation, national origin, or more. For example, it is illegal to be queer in Qatar, and racial discrimination is allowed in the name of “national origin.”
All of these issues were already public knowledge when FIFA announced Qatar would host the 2022 World Cup in 2010. Moreover, Qatar did not have the infrastructure to host any soccer tournament, let alone the sport’s most prestigious tournament. The country’s small land area was expected to contribute to extreme traffic congestion, which is dangerous in Qatar’s infamous hot summers. Of the list of candidates at the time, Qatar seemed to be the least suited to host the 2022 World Cup. Yet the tiny Persian Gulf nation managed to win the final bid. If FIFA knew about these abuses and of Qatar’s unsuitability to host a massive football tournament, why did they not reverse their decision? The answer: FIFA officials were bribed into choosing Qatar (and Russia) as host countries.
FIFA and its bureaucracy have a long history of corruption. Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA who oversaw the awarding of World Cup hosting rights to Qatar, allegedly promised those who voted for him to become president $50,000 each (with some claiming they were given more) if he won. Further research reveals that FIFA has been operating as a “global business” since the late 1960s, monetizing off the commercialization of soccer. FIFA began to enter advertising contracts with large brands such as Coca-Cola and Adidas. Additionally, FIFA began admitting multiple countries into the federation while turning a blind eye to their human rights violations. For example, FIFA allowed Chile to continue to participate in the 1974 World Cup, although it was using a former World Cup stadium as a concentration camp the previous year.
This phenomenon is becoming increasingly common in a trend experts call ‘sportwashing.’ Regarding sportwashing, Bim-Ray Yau writes, “Governments with extra money in their budget splurge, as they see sponsoring sports teams and hosting prestigious events as a golden marketing opportunity.” Countries like Qatar want to deflect attention from their corrupt policies and attract tourists that might have been afraid to come otherwise. It says a lot that China, Russia, Brazil, and more have all hosted some form of an international sports competition amidst human rights violations. Though concerns were raised each time, ultimately, each country continued to host and reap the benefits of prestige and publicity.
Saudi Arabia is hosting the 2029 Asian Winter Games, a nation understood as having a desert climate and autocratic political system. Consequently, they are currently under consideration to co-host the 2030 World Cup with Egypt and Greece– despite their widely known human rights abuses. Saudi Arabia is notoriously much more dangerous than Qatar, and Egypt has been arresting multiple protestors while hosting the COP27 Climate Summit. Furthermore, Greece has been criticized for its harassment of migrants and asylum-seekers.
Moreover, Qatar has worked to change some of its laws regarding migrant workers. In 2020, Qatar dismantled most of the “kafala system,” a policy that tied workers’ personal decisions to their employers’ preferences. Qatar has also worked to raise the minimum wage for all workers regardless of nationality and made it easier for workers to report their employers for labor misconduct. In response to LGBTQ+ protests, Qatar said they would treat all visitors equally but that visitors should respect Qatar’s conservative cultural norms. Clearly, Qatar has shown a willingness to improve some of its laws, but as activists push for more, officials are growing weary.
Media bias within the Middle East has long been a mode of discussion, most recently noted when journalists began to compare Ukrainian refugees to ‘uncivilized’ Arab refugees. Qatar claims that the criticism it has been receiving is because they do not abide by Western state’s norms. Qatari officials have noted that the critique they have received, including considerations of FIFA revoking their host privileges, was much stronger than their predecessors. For instance, Brazil faced criticism for displacing poor citizens to build stadiums that damaged natural environments for the 2014 World Cup. Yet Olympic authorities had no qualms about giving Brazil hosting privileges for a global sports event again for the 2016 Olympics.
Arguably, allowing countries to host large events is beneficial, as the spotlight shown on their political and socio-economic situations forces them to change inhumane policies for hosting privileges. China spent seven years improving working conditions for laborers to host the 2008 Olympics and improve their international standings. Russia accepted monitoring by international worker unions in the years leading up to the 2018 World Cup. Similarly, Qatar improved laws concerning migrant workers to continue hosting the 2022 World Cup.
Altogether, the prospect of change is up to football fans across the globe. FIFA’s history shows that the federation does not care about corruption claims or human rights abuses in various countries. Yet, criticism from millions of fans has caused Qatar to rethink some of its policies and methods. But as Qatar grows impatient from ongoing criticism from football fans, perhaps it is time to give Qatar credit where it is due. Qatar’s ability to host one of the largest events in the world despite their circumstances shows that a country does not have to be a dominant superpower to achieve greatness. Instead, fans should criticize the football federation for continuing to allow corrupt countries to host and compete in this prestigious event. All eyes are on FIFA as the World Cup 2022 begins this winter.
Featured Image: Hull Live