With the 2022 FIFA World Cup in full flow, criticism of the Quatari state is now taking a back seat in parts of the media as they try to get on with the football. Kiran Emrich takes aim at the ugly reality of FIFA’s decision to host the world cup there.
The decision to have Qatar host the 2022 FIFA World Cup has generated a lot of discussion and debate about the countries suitability to host a major sporting event. Much of the discussion has focused on the awful treatment of construction workers involved in building the stadia and infrastructure for the event, while Qatar’s harsh laws against LGBT+ people have also come under huge criticism, but there are a number of reasons why Qatar should not have been selected to host the world cup.
The FIFA men’s football world cup is the world’s largest sporting event, with more countries entering, more fans attending and more viewers around the world than any other sporting event, even the Olympics. Held every four yours, the tournament itself is the culmination of a three year long qualification process involving 206 countries, with 32 countries qualifying for the final tournament to be held in Qatar.
Qatar was chosen in 2010 to host the 2022 tournament at the same time that Russia was chosen to host in 2018. Qatar beat bids from the USA, South Korea, Japan and Australia to win the right to host the tournament, but their bid was linked to allegations of corruption from the beginning. Two members of the FIFA Executive Committee responsible for selecting the hosts, were suspended from voting due to allegations of corruption.
The Qatar bid was graded as having ‘high operational risk’, with a number of potential problems, compared to safer bids from the other potential hosts. The USA, South Korea and Japan had all hosted the tournament before, and Qatar played up its status as somewhere new and different, emphasising that it would be the first country in the Middle East and the first ever Arab country to host such a large event. Qatar won the bidding process comfortably in the end with 14 out of the 22 votes cast.
It wasn’t long before more substantial allegations of corruption in the bidding process emerged though. In May 2011, David Triesman, Labour peer and former chairperson of the English FA (Football Association) testified to a UK parliamentary inquiry, allegations that FIFA Executive members Jack Warner and Nicolas Loez had made financial demands in return for their votes. The Sunday Times further alleged that Jacques Anouma and Issa Hayatou had also received bribes before the vote. Qatari state television Al-Jazeera was further accused of secretly offering $400m to FIFA for broadcasting rights for the tournament just before the vote, with a further $100m to be paid into a FIFA account. Qatari official Mohammed Bin Hammam was also accused of bribing a further 25 FIFA officials to secure their votes. In April 2020 the US Department of Justice alleged that three committee members received payments in return for supporting Qatar’s bid. Bin Hammam and Warner were suspended by FIFA with Warner alleging that FIFA president Sepp Blatter and general secretary Jerome Valcke were also compromised. All of these named officials have since been forced out of FIFA with wide-ranging corruption allegations against them going much wider than just over the Qatar bid.
Sepp Blatter has since blamed the vote result on Michel Platini who was then head of UEFA, the European confederation. Blatter alleges he voted for the USA while Platini swung the vote in Qatar’s favour by pushing the Europeans to vote for Qatar.
Despite the evidence of Qatar having bribed FIFA officials to win the world cup bid, Qatar continued as host nation. Investigations by police and the courts in Switzerland, where FIFA is based, are still ongoing.
Allegations of corruption surrounding FIFA and the world cup are nothing new of course. Allegations regarding the awarding of the 2006 world cup to Germany eventually lead to the downfall of Germany’s greatest footballer and long-time administrator, Franz Beckenbauer. The seemingly blatant and widespread nature of the allegations against Qatar represent a watershed moment, however, and FIFA has since promised to clean up its act. Whether that is actually happening in a concrete way remains to be seen.
The issues with the Qatar World Cup go far beyond just the way it won the right to host the tournament, however. One of the problems highlighted in the bid process was the country’s lack of suitable stadiums and infrastructure for a major tournament.
This has meant that a huge amount of construction has had to happen and a short space of time. This has been carried out by migrant labour mostly from south Asia and East Africa. The workers have been subjected to awful and dangerous conditions including working outdoors in extreme temperatures and a lack of even basic health and safety measures. One in three workers were found to have become hypothermic at some point. Amnesty International compiled a 56-page report alleging that Qatar has failed to investigate, remedy or prevent deaths of workers during construction, subjected them to inhumane and dangerous conditions, underpaid them, and in some cases prevented the workers from leaving3. The Guardian first reported in 2020 that as many as 6,500 workers from five South Asian countries are alleged to have died as a result of dangerous and inhumane working conditions. This doesn’t even include workers from East Africa or Southeast Asia. The true figure is considered to be much higher as many deaths were not explicitly linked to construction as Qatar failed to carry out post mortems or investigations. As many as 70% of deaths of migrant workers are ‘unexplained deaths’ and, outrageously, Qatar’s official figure for number of workers who have died in construction is 3.
While the focus has understandably been on Qatar, this situation reflects a broader issue across the wealthy Gulf states where much of the work is done by poor South Asian migrant labour working in horrendous conditions with no workers’ protections. Many workers are brought to the Gulf region under stringent restrictions, forced to pay significant costs for visas, have their passports taken away and are denied right to leave or change jobs.
Bangladeshi men alone are estimated to have paid £1.14 billion in fees to be allowed to work in Qatar between 2011 and 2020. Since many workers struggle to pay these fees, many are forced into debt which ties them to the job and places a further barrier against any attempt to leave. Qatari authorities have said these recruitment fees are outside their jurisdiction but have done nothing to prevent Qatari businesses from passing these costs onto recruitment companies and thus onto workers. Workers also describe being denied days off and being forced to work 12 hours a day, every day and without sick days. This breaches the ILO convention on forced labour and has been compared to historical slavery by the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism. There are two million workers in Qatar in this situation, which makes up 95% of the work force. Under international pressure related to the World Cup Qatar has introduced reforms to improve conditions for workers involved in stadium construction, but conditions for other workers have remained unchanged, creating a two-tier system for migrant workers.
Much of this stems from the notorious Kafala system which was abolished in law in 2017 but is still effectively in practice. The irony is that originally in Islamic practice, this was supposed to be about religious responsibility to protect the vulnerable, but it changed under British colonial rule.
There has been widespread international public outcry and outrage over the treatment of migrant workers involved in stadium construction. A poll conducted by Amnesty International of 17,000 football fans across 15 countries found that 73% support FIFA compensating workers for human rights violations. So far, FIFA has ignored this idea. There has also been pushback against the idea that FIFA should fund this, as opposed to the wealthy Qatari state.
Instead of investing in improving conditions for workers, Qatar has invested heavily in PR to soften their image. A reported £150m deal with David Beckham is a particularly egregious example, but other football figures such as Gary Neville and Xavi Hernández have also been criticised for effectively taking money to talk up Qatar.
The construction of the stadiums also represents an environmental disaster. Seven new stadiums have been built for the tournament ranging in capacity from 40-80,000 people, with one existing stadium expanded. Eight stadiums of over 40,000 capacity in a country with a population of under 3 million are not needed and all of the stadiums will have their capacities reduced or even be removed completely after the tournament. To combat the high temperatures in Qatar, the stadiums will all be equipped with cooling systems. Fans have even been advised to bring a scarf and hat to games.
In addition to the stadiums, huge amounts of construction work has gone into building suitable accommodation for teams and fans during the tournament. Much of this includes temporary structures in the desert. While Qatar is claiming that the constructions have all been built to high environmental standards using reusable or recycled materials and use renewable energy sources, the construction is a waste of finite resources that could have been better used for more sustainable purposes.
Qatar is a country made rich by the extraction of fossil fuels. The estimated £220 billion expenditure on tournament infrastructure has been funded by fossil fuels, so it is no surprise that Qatar’s supposed commitment to a sustainable tournament is paper thin. Greenly, the French company that measures carbon footprint has estimated that the tournament will produce six million tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions, nearly double FIFA’s own claimed estimate and belies the idea that this would be the first carbon neutral world cup.
Climate change is a real and ongoing crisis and the use and management of resources must take that into account. The only upside is that in a country as small as Qatar, there will be no need for flights for teams and fans to move between venues. This will be a significant issue at the 2026 world cup which will be hosted across North America, covering huge distances with little suitable ground transportation.
A tournament for all?
One issue that has received significant media and public attention and has been highlighted by many players and others involved in the game is the rights of LGBT+ people in Qatar. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar and often severely punished with long prison sentences. The death penalty is possible although there is no record of it being enforced for homosexuality. A recent investigation by Human Rights Watch documented violence and sexual harassment against LGBT+ people kept in prison in the Qatari capital Doha.
FIFA and Qatari authorities have attempted to reassure teams and fans that they will not be targeted by Qatar’s strict laws although these reassurances seem to be premised on LGBT+ people hiding themselves while in Qatar. And the last week has seen disgraceful comments by tournament ambassador Khalid Salman, who described homosexuality as ‘damage of the mind’. Thomas Beattie, a former professional footballer who came out in 2020, spoke well when he said, “Awarding the privilege of hosting a global foreign event to nations which embody this mindset is really damaging to my community, especially because you kind of send this message that we’re a secondary thought and we don’t really matter.”
Despite FIFA’s appeals to keep politics out of football, a number of teams, particularly Europeans initially decided that their captains will wear a symbolic rainbow armband in solidarity with LGBT+ people. Even this token gesture was challeneged by FIFA, who threatened to sanction any team who wore the rainbow. In a joint statement, the Football Associations of England, Wales, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands and Switzerland buckled to the pressure:
“FIFA has been very clear that it will impose sporting sanctions if our captains wear the armbands on the field of play. As national federations, we can’t put our players in a position where they could face sporting sanctions including bookings, so we have asked the captains not to wear the armbands in FIFA World Cup games”
Solidarity is important, then – but not worth a yellow card.
When it comes to FIFA itself, there has been little action from the organisation in support of LGBT+ people despite having regular meetings with one Middle East based LGBT+ group Ahwaa. Ahwaa have accused FIFA of using these meetings as a band aid to cover for the lack of real action or even engagement with LGBT+ people in Qatar and the wider football community.
The treatment of women is also a serious issue, despite receiving less coverage. In Qatar, women still require the approval of a male guardian for so many aspects of their lives, from studying abroad to getting a driving license. Abortion is illegal in most cases, women can face prosecution if they report assault and there are no women’s rights organisations allowed.
One barrier to people’s attempts to campaign for change is the invasive surveillance in place in Qatar which has one of the highest numbers of CCTV cameras of any country in the world. Phones are frequently being listened to by the state authorities. Concerns have been raised about the security of the Hayya app that all visiting fans will be forced to use while in Qatar. Those who have spoken out have faced harsh recriminations or been forced to flee. This has helped prevent the development of civil society organisations who can fight for change.
Change in Qatar’s abhorrent laws against LGBT+ people and women will not come from FIFA or Western powers demanding or attempting to impose change. It will come from the people in Qatar. In the meantime, the obvious question is, should countries like Qatar (or indeed Russia in 2018) be allowed to host a major tournament like the world cup when they will not welcome everyone to it, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity?
War and Double Standards
One of the most glaring issues surrounding Qatar and the World Cup is their active role in war and imperialism. This aspect has received little to no media or public attention. Qatar has played an active role in the war in Yemen which has been ongoing since 2014. Qatar joined in the Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign in Yemen in March 2015 before sending in 1000 troops in September 2015. Much of the weapons and military resources being used by Qatar and its allies have been supplied by the USA and Britain.
In addition to the corruption surrounding Qatar’s initial world cup bid, in 2009-10, France secured a deal to sell war planes to Qatar in negotiations with French president Nicolas Sarkozy. Around the same time, the Qatari state bought out football club Paris Saint Germain and pumped in hundreds of millions to turn them into one of the biggest clubs in Europe. Coincidentally, Sarkozy is a fan of PSG. And as previously noted, French football legend, Michel Platini was instrumental in securing European support for the Qatar world cup bid. Qatar’s attempts to sportswash its reputation and prestige on the world stage are closely intertwined with imperialist war games from Europe to the Middle East.
Qatar’s ongoing involvement in the horrific war in Yemen raises questions over its right to host the world cup especially given events of this year. When Russia invaded Ukraine in March 2022, football was quick to act. When Polish, Czech and Swedish players and officials said they would refuse to play Russia in upcoming world cup play-offs, FIFA took the unprecedented decision to ban Russia from the tournament. This is the first time since Yugoslavia in 1992 that a country has been barred from a major tournament because it was at war. There are clear double standards at play when no other country is barred, including the five countries who qualified who are directly involved in the Yemen conflict. We can add to this all of the countries involved in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and countless other conflicts.
Banning Russia in 2022 also begs the question, why was it allowed to host the World Cup in 2018, given it was already occupying part of Ukraine, and also heavily involved at the time in the conflict in Syria?
Need for Real Change
Not since the World Cup was hosted by the brutal Argentinian military junta in 1978 has there been so much controversy surrounding a World Cup host nation. But issues surrounding human rights and authoritarian governments have always been around sporting tournaments, from the infamous Berlin Olympics in 1936 or Mussolini hosting the 1934 World Cup in Italy, to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and 1988 in Seoul, both of which were preceded by harsh crackdowns on protests and the deaths of hundred of people.
It is clear that the criteria for hosting major tournaments must change to take into account support for human rights and equality for all involved, and must include environmental concerns in the equation.
The next world cup in 2026 will bring environmental concerns to the fore given the huge distances between venues across three huge countries, although at least the tournament will make use of existing stadia which will continue to be used afterwards.
FIFA has always said it is not political and that football must remain separate from political concerns, but this is belied by the decision to ban Russia from the world cup. Countries actively involved in war should be ostracised and banned from participation. There is a long list of countries this would apply to, but would ensure that countries cannot use the game to sportswash their reputation.
FIFA has the power to instigate change if it wishes and football fans and all those involved in football should be demanding change. The sport should be run for the benefit of its participants and stakeholders. Hosting a tournament must bring about a positive impact to the people. Construction should not mean people being forced out of their homes without compensation as was seen in Brazil and South Africa. A tournament should be accompanied by a commitment to funding grassroots football and building sustainable infrastructure for local people.
And ultimately a tournament must be open to all regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, age or disability. Any country that cannot or will not agree to these commitments should not be eligible to host the world cup in future.