By Marco Túlio Lara
The FIFA World Cup is set to kick off in Qatar on 20 November and millions of football fans around the world are looking forward to the event that will certainly deliver in terms of strong emotions and athletic achievement on the field. However, multiple issues continue to bedevil host country Qatar, the most prominent being accusations of “sportswashing” and human rights abuses as well as its still tenuous diplomatic standing with its neighbours.
With less than a month left before players showcase their abilities, a growing number of people appear to be paying less attention to the football spectacle itself and taking into account more important matters as international criticism has mounted.
Qatar is considered an authoritarian regime according to the 2021 Democracy Index, with highly regulated civil liberties and a weak Consultative Assembly that acts as a rubber stamp for the monarchy. Such states often try to soften the perception of repression through the projection of soft power, especially in an ever-more globalised world, and in that, sports play an important role.
“Sportswashing” attempts to shift focus from a lack of domestic freedoms to more attractive and socially accepted activities to improve a country’s international reputation through sports. It is a strategy that Qatar and its neighbours are very familiar with. United Kingdom (UK) football clubs Manchester City and Newcastle United are de facto owned by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabian governments, respectively. In 2011, Qatar joined the trend by purchasing the French club Paris Saint-Germain while the national flag carrier Qatar Airways sponsors multiple European and South American clubs.
The previous year, the emirate was awarded the right to host the 2022 World Cup, marking the first time one of the most watched events on the planet will be held in the Middle East and an Arab-majority country. These two huge Qatari moves into the world of sports attempt to advance foreign policy through soft power and win hearts and minds worldwide.
The Gulf rift
The Qatari attempt to stand out in the region with an independent foreign policy has been strongly condemned by its neighbours, and in June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt launched a blockade of the emirate. The four countries cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, prohibited it from using their airspace and sea routes, and Saudi Arabia blocked access to Qatar’s sole overland border crossing.
The coalition then put out a list of 13 demands Qatar should abide by in order to end the blockade, which targeted several issues, including its relations with Iran and Turkey, support for political Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the broadcasting of Al Jazeera and other media outlets. Had the diplomatic crisis lasted longer, the hosting of the World Cup would have been extremely difficult given the logistical difficulties.
However, in January 2021, the rift came to a close despite Qatar complying with none of the measures established by the blockading countries. The perception that the blockade was not working – Qatar’s economy performed well despite the crisis – and Saudi Arabia’s wish to improve relations with incoming United States (US) President Joe Biden led to the end of the crisis. This represented a big geopolitical win for Qatar, but also that the tensions that triggered the rift in the first place were not resolved, making a renewed fracture possible down the road.
Accusations of human rights abuses
Hosting the World Cup has been a lot of work. Several new stadiums, transport facilities and multiple hotels are being built and authorities brought in thousands of foreign workers, mainly from South and Southeast Asia. Numerous credible reports of human rights abuses against migrant workers in the lead-up to the event have stood out and generated international criticism.
Reports indicate that migrant workers have faced dire situations such as unpaid wages, prohibition from joining or forming trade unions, difficulties in changing jobs without the authorisation of their employers, protracted access to justice, payment of expensive recruitment fees, confiscation of passports, deportation following protests, excessive working hours and even forced labour. What is worse, at least 6,750 migrant workers, likely an underestimate, are believed to have died in Qatar since preparations for the World Cup began.
Amid strong international backlash, in 2017 the Qatari government signed a deal with the International Labour Organization (ILO) aiming to address work exploitation and since then, the country has introduced new laws to improve the conditions of migrant workers. Nevertheless, the situation is still worrying, especially after reports indicated that the Qatari government is imposing several restrictions on the journalistic accreditation system that will effectively limit the press to talk strictly about football.
Unsurprisingly, the issue remains front and centre for human rights campaigners. The Danish national team announced that its players will be wearing protest jerseys during the matches, a symbolic but significant gesture that could generate further protests in light of Qatar’s human rights record. The question remains to how studiously these labour reforms will be upheld once the fans and the world’s attention move on after the World Cup.
Despite excited football fans all over the world with less than a month to go before the World Cup kickoff in Qatar, the event seems to have been drawing more attention due to geopolitical and human rights issues than its sporting aspect.
Marco Túlio Lara is a Brazil-based political and security risk analyst covering Latin America.