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Qatar's Gamble on Sportswashing: Will It Pay Off?

Featured image courtesy of Robert Wilson via Flickr. Image license found here. No edits were made to this image.

By Louie Miller

In 2018, Vladimir Putin and Russia placed a bet on the FIFA World Cup to ‘sportswash’ their image and reputation. It was a gamble that largely paid off: initial scepticism and criticism subsided once the tournament itself began and fan trouble was minimised. Everything went fairly smoothly. It was a major success for Putin in terms of legitimising his regime, normalising relations with other countries and global businesses, and generally portraying Russia in a good light. This is all despite the fact that there had been mass protests between 2011 and 2013, Russia had invaded Crimea in 2014, and Sergei and Yulia Skripal had been poisoned in the UK just months prior to the World Cup.

At the end of the Russia World Cup, Gianni Infantino, the President of world football’s governing

body, hailed Russia’s change, stating that “myths and prejudices had collapsed”. Admittedly, those claims have aged rather poorly, given that Russia has become an outcast among most of the Western world in the past year. That being said, the World Cup in 2018 achieved its primary goal, albeit briefly, to sanitise the Putin regime abroad and at home in Russia.

The Qatari regime has placed the same bet. While the coming months and years will provide

certain evidence as to whether the gamble has paid off, the writing may already be on the wall for the Gulf nation. Qatar is no stranger to using sports to launder their image, purchasing French powerhouse Paris Saint-Germain Football Club and hosting MotoGP and Formula 1 Grands Prix. With an expected 5 billion viewers, the FIFA World Cup presents Qatar with an opportunity like no other to sportswash its image. It also means that more people than ever have been and will be exposed to the raft of controversies surrounding the World Cup.

A World Cup Steeped in Controversy

When the desert autocracy was awarded the World Cup in 2010, which since-disgraced former

FIFA president and alleged fraudster Sepp Blatter recently admitted was a mistake, suspicions


The legitimacy of Qatar’s World Cup bid has always been in question. 15 of the 22 FIFA

Committee members which had voted in favour of Qatar have since faced criminal charges or have been banned by FIFA, and the Sunday Times uncovered that almost £750 million was offered to FIFA by al-Jazeera and the Qatari government. The Qatari authorities put a lot of faith into their bid. Although Qatar has formally been cleared of corruption by FIFA, many people have already made their minds up, believing that the country effectively bought the World Cup.

But perhaps most harmful to the event’s reputation has been the mounting concerns over the

human toll of building of World Cup related infrastructure in gruelling conditions, as well as

discriminatory laws forbidding homosexuality, restricting women’s freedoms and prohibiting


The ‘Abolishment’ of the Kafala System

The Kafala system refers to the sponsorship of migrant workers by their employers, who in turn

become responsible for their visa and legal status. The Qatari government announced that it

would abolish the deeply exploitative Kafala system in 2017, establishing a minimum wage for all workers irrespective of nationality and allowing migrant workers to change jobs without employerpermission.

Human Rights Watch has revealed that, despite the reforms, employers across Qatar frequently

continue to violate workers’ rights to wages paid in full and on time. Wage abuses often go

unpunished. Other abusive elements of the kafala system persist, namely that a migrant worker’s legal status is tied to a specific employer, who can arbitrarily cancel a worker’s residency permit. Leaving an employer without permission, or ‘absconding’, still remains a crime. Workers’ passports continue to be confiscated upon arrival in Qatar and they are still charged extortionate recruitment fees in their home countries. These practices go largely unpunished.

As recently as August 2022, over 60 migrant workers were arrested and deported for protesting

the non-payment of wages by their employer, Al Bandary International Group. According to the

labour rights group Equidem, the demonstrators, some of which had not been paid for 7 months, were sent home.

One could argue that the reforms came about thanks largely to the World Cup and the greater

international scrutiny which accompanies it. However, employers’ unwillingness to implement the labour reforms, and the Qatari authorities’ unwillingness to deter or punish exploitative treatment of workers undoes this argument.

The work itself undertaken by migrant workers is gruelling manual labour, in intolerable desert

heat with virtually no time off, and often underfed. Despite the fact that in 2021 Qatar prohibited

outdoor work between 10am and 3:30pm from June to September, a period significantly longer

than any other country in the region, the Independent revealed 276 violations of this law in July

2022. Migrant workers tend to live in a state of squalor alongside up to 15 men in an unimaginably small room with practically no safety precautions. This is despite the fact that Qatari welfare standards allow a maximum of 4 beds per room and prohibit bunk beds and bed sharing.

The Guardian revealed in 2021 that more than 6500 migrant workers had died since Qatar was

awarded the World Cup in 2010. It is important to note that this figure only refers to 5 South

Asian nations and that the figure was obtained from the respective embassies of those nations and not from Qatari authorities. The total death toll is likely significantly higher, as these figures do not include the deaths of migrants from other countries such as the Philippines or Kenya, which send large numbers of workers to Qatar.

Amnesty has criticised Qatari authorities’ absolute indifference in investigating the deaths of

migrant workers, making it so much harder to obtain accurate figures. Most common among the causes of death listed by foreign embassies is ‘natural deaths, attributed to acute heart failure, acute respiratory failure, or even sudden death syndrome. Such classifications are often made without an autopsy and fail to provide an actual medical explanation for the underlying cause of death. In reality, when relatively young and healthy men die suddenly after working long hours in extreme heat, the cause of death is very likely exactly that. Human Rights Watch has said that Qatar continues to drag its feet in apparent disregard for workers’ lives.

If Qatar were to concede the atrocious living and working conditions subjected to migrant

workers, they would perhaps be pressured into addressing some of those issues by setting up a

Migrant Worker Centre and a compensation fund for the families of those who died in order to

bring the World Cup to life.

A World Cup ‘for All’?

Organisers maintain that all visitors are welcome at the Qatar World Cup irrespective of race,

religion, gender or sexuality, while asserting that their laws and cultures are to be respected. As

many as 16 LGBTQ+ organisations feel that they have not received the assurances over safety

that they require from the tournament organisers. Fears were exacerbated when a Qatari official

almost threateningly suggested that any unfurled rainbow flags could be confiscated in order to

protect those waving them from being physically attacked. Since then, another tournament

ambassador has labelled homosexuality as “damage in the mind”. Fears were not assuaged when British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly urged gay fans to show some “flex and compromise” in Qatar.

In Qatar, homosexuality carries a sentence of up to 3 years in prison, as well as a fine, with a

possibility of the death penalty for muslims. In practice, there are no known examples of the death penalty being enforced for homosexuality and capital punishment is very rarely exercised at all. Nonetheless, by awarding Qatar the World Cup, FIFA is tacitly accepting Qatar’s anti-LGBTQ laws as legitimate.

Human Rights Watch found that, as recently as September 2022, LGBT people had been arrested arbitrarily and mistreated in detention by Qatar’s Preventive Security Department forces. Between 2019 and 2022, 6 cases of severe and repeated beatings and 5 cases of sexual

harassment in police custody were documented. Upon their release, transgender women

detainees were mandated to attend conversion therapy at a state-sponsored ‘behavioural

healthcare’ centre.

Another issue of grave concern is male guardianship, which is incorporated into Qatari law,

regulations and practices. This denies women the right to make many key decisions about their

lives. Women require a male guardian’s permission to get married, study abroad, work in the

public sector, travel abroad, and receive some forms of reproductive health care. Women cannot

act as their children’s primary guardian either, without regard to the child’s best interests.

As for female migrant workers, there are countless cases, as reported by Amnesty International, of female migrant workers being raped and then being sentenced to between 1-7 years in prison for having sex outside of marriage, which is illegal in Qatar, simply because a judge does not believe them when they say they have been raped. El País reported that an economist working for the World Cup Organising Committee fled Qatar to avoid a possible jail sentence for extramarital sex after reporting being assaulted to authorities. The case was dropped months after she left the country. Amnesty International calls for this charge of ‘illicit relations’ to be removed from Qatar’s laws urgently.

Why Should We Care?

In the months leading up to the World Cup, there have been calls for travelling fans and competing national teams to respect Qatari culture without pushing their own set of Western values on the Middle Eastern state. Qatari authorities have even suggested that their critics are motivated by racism. This cultural relativist approach may be convenient with the World Cup fast approaching, but in rejecting the universality of certain human rights, FIFA are seriously letting LGBT people, migrant workers and women down. It suggests that the rights of oppressed groups in Qatar do not matter and is extraordinarily insulting to those who are powerless to the laws that govern them.

Gianni Infantino has discouraged fans from “allowing football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists”, and stated that “one of the strengths of the world is its diversity …no one people or culture is better than any other”. FIFA have attempted to tie up perfectly justifiable criticism with xenophobia and bigotry, using handwashing and deception. Infantino is correct in that no one people are indeed inherently better than any other, but certain

governments and regimes are undeniably worse than others.

Qatar World Cup’s Legacy

In 2010, Qatar’s hope would have been that the positive associations that people have with the

World Cup would transfer over to the host nation and that the world will begin to see Qatar more

positively. The regime would also have initially planned to keep its head down and weather the

storm surrounding its human rights record. Invariably, people are more well-informed and

inquisitive than ever before, and the torrent of controversies surrounding the Qatar World Cup

have been impossible to overlook thus far. Prior to the start of the World Cup, some national

teams - most notably Australia - have spoken out against the abuses perpetrated by Qatar. It is

widely reported that further gestures are planned once the tournament begins.

Since being awarded the right to host the World Cup in 2010, Qatar has had ample opportunity to address human rights concerns in the country, but it has shown a reluctance to do so in a

meaningful way until now. Of course, only time will tell whether or not Qatar will succeed in its

attempt to launder its reputation, but the signs are not promising. Because the human rights

abuses in Qatar and the World Cup itself are so closely interlinked, the world will not be easily

distracted by the spectacle of the event itself. As for this World Cup’s legacy, it will likely always be attached to Qatar’s human

rights record.

Louie Miller is a member of the UN House Scotland Human Rights Team. Read more about the work of the team here.

Sources used within this piece can be found here:

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