Qatar’s Gamble in Hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup: An Ambitious Attempt at Agenda Setting in the Middle East?

Qatar is the first country in West Asia to host the world’s biggest football event, the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Despite having no prevalent football culture, unfavorable climatic conditions, and limited football infrastructure, the tiny Gulf country won the 2022 World Cup bid back in 2010, defeating favorites like USA and Australia. It attracted a whirlwind of controversies and several FIFA’s executive committee members getting suspended, the ones who took bribes to vote in favor of Qatar. Former FIFA president Sepp Blatter also stated that picking Qatar in 2010 to host the World Cup was a mistake. Despite being mired in these concerns, Qatar is hosting the event.

The Human Cost of the World Cup

Transforming the country’s infrastructure in preparation for the tournament was herculean. The country’s budget was a whopping $220 billion, more than the previous host countries’ budget combined. Over the span of the next decade (2011 – 2021) following the bidding, it built over seven new stadiums, a new airport, around a hundred hotels, new highways, and a metro system. And this came at a significant cost.

Foreign migrant workers constitute 90 percent of Qatar’s nearly 3 million population. Like the other Arab Gulf countries (except Iraq), Qatar follows the kafala or sponsorship system to hire migrant workers. Under this system, the state gives local individuals or companies sponsorship permits to employ foreign laborers. Workers need the permission of their respective sponsors to terminate or transfer jobs and even to enter or exit the host country. Even if the worker is fleeing abused and exploitation, leaving the workplace without permission of the sponsor can result in the termination of the worker’s legal status and potential imprisonment or deportation. 

The migrant workers played a vital role in allowing Qatar to host the World Cup. Before the bidding, the country just had one FIFA-regulated stadium out of the required 8. Official figures state that Qatar hired around 30,000 workers worldwide to build the new stadiums. According to The Guardian, the findings compiled from government sources show more than 6,500 migrant workers from South Asian countries have died, including 2711 from India. A 2021 report from Amnesty International states 15,021 deaths, however, it is the number of foreigners, not just migrant workers. DW claims both reports are misleading or even false, as there is no way to claim if the deaths were caused on stadium construction sites or are anything World Cup related. However, it is difficult to reach a concrete conclusion as there is no reliable information from the Qatari authorities. When we look for other sources to verify the data, including that of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the ILO reports that they cannot find a definite figure on the number of occupational deaths of workers due to a lack of transparency in data collection. The causes of deaths revolve around working conditions such as falls from heights, long hours in hot weather, respiratory failure, and road accidents. 

Though the Qatar government took significant steps to reform the kafala system in 2017 and even passed a law to end the kafala system in 2019, the laborers still face issues of delayed or unpaid wages, cramped accommodation, forced labor, etc.

Why is the World Cup important to Qatar?

When more than half of the world is watching the world cup, and its entire attention is on one event, it evolves into one of the best platforms to promote, be it a beverage, a brand, or even a country. And it becomes less about the game and more about the money, i.e., endless expenditure to capture the world’s attention. Hosting the world cup is one way Qatar tries to showcase itself on the world stage. It diversifies Qatar’s oil-based economic portfolio to tourism, trade, and international collaboration. 

Sportswashing Qatar’s Global Image

The FIFA World Cup is Qatar’s most blatant attempt at sportswashing yet. The roots of the word sportswashing can be traced back to the word “whitewashing,” which means to gloss over or cover up an uneven surface with paint to make it uniform. Sportswashing describes the practice of a state using international sports to clean its tarnished global image. It is subtle propaganda pushed through sponsoring, purchasing teams, and hosting major sporting events. Countries are eager to use sports as a distraction to brush over their dodgy human rights record. Hosting the world cup is the crowning jewel of Qatar’s increasing portfolio of investments in sporting establishments. Qatar owns the biggest football club in France, Paris Saint-Germain, and a minority stake in Portuguese SC Braga. The investments were made by Qatar Sports Investments (QIS), a subsidiary of Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), the state-run sovereign-wealth fund in Qatar. 

Sports is not just a match between two opposing teams. It involves the emotion, passion, and dedication of millions of fans worldwide. The fans cultivate loyalties to the team, to the jerseys, to the logos, and also, most importantly, to the sponsors. It’s how one recalls the 2011 Indian Cricket World Cup team and is reminded of the blue jersey and Sahara logo. The name “Qatar Airways” is plastered over the jerseys and kits of many popular football teams like Argentina, FC Bayern München, AS Roma, etc.

While sports has the power to unite and inspire people, for the autocratic Qatari regime, its blatant sportwashing is merely a veil to cover the poor human rights record, repressive policies against women and the LQBTQIA+ community, and the country’s exploitation of migrant workers. According to David Wearing from the Guardian, “It is soft power as the currency that buys hard power, with the entire global football community recruited into the transaction.”

In 2017, Saudi Arabia and its allies, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt, imposed a blockade on Qatar, severing diplomatic and trade ties. The blockade ended in 2020, with Qatar emerging economically more independent. But it made Qatar realize one thing; the country is on its own. Hosting an event of this magnitude sets the agenda to distinguish it from its Gulf neighbors. With Qatar looking to establish itself on the world stage, a corrupt football association like FIFA acts as icing on the cake. From bending its rules to ban alcohol to giving Indian fugitive Zakir Naik a platform to deliver lectures on Islam, FIFA has only made the process easier for Qatar. The complex crossover of geopolitics, scandal-ridden football associations, and dependence of major football clubs on money from oil-rich giants enables Qatar to earn the right to host an event of this magnitude while sweeping the myriad issues associated with it under the rug. Still, whether the world cup gamble will pay off for Qatar, the answer lies in the future.

[Photo by the US Department of State, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

Abhilipsa Jena is a postgraduate scholar in the Department of Politics and International Studies at Pondicherry University. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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