By Ben Chlarson
The 2022 World Cup started with a spectacular ceremony Sunday. As one of the largest and most watched sporting events across the globe–sports, nationalism, commerce, and diplomacy remain inextricably linked to the tournament.
The biggest controversy in the run-up to the world cup has been the criticism against Qatar for its restriction of personal liberties and its shoddy track record of human rights. The exploitation of migrant workers in Qatar has been widespread since the mid-20th century when the Kafala labor sponsorship system first emerged, but the World Cup coming to Qatar has only further highlighted this exploitative system.
So while Qatar had originally viewed the World Cup as an opportunity to increase its international stature and gain influence with powerful partners, they are now facing various struggles to actualize its soft power goals. As the tournament draws near, it is apparent that these lofty ambitions may have backfired for them.
So how and why did Qatar get selected as the host country in the first place?
The answer comes down to two simple facts. First, on the side of FIFA, the Middle East presents itself as a lucrative investment opportunity to reach new audiences and increase revenues, with Qatar’s deep pockets making it a desirable partner in these efforts. FIFA officials thus stand to make a lot of money by serving their own interests rather than the interests of fans.
The second fact is that Qatar, in return, is willing to open its wallet and spend whatever it takes for an opportunity to procure international influence. Massive oil and gas export revenues have made Qatar the fourth richest country in the world and these revenues allow them to make massive investments in return.
Despite the country’s incredible wealth, Qatar is very limited in the hard power it wields.
So in order to become a bigger player in the international community, they’ve pursued what’s known as “sports diplomacy” to boost their country’s influence and visibility. In fact, sports diplomacy has been deliberately and strategically employed throughout history as a means of subverting traditional diplomatic channels and creating a favorable international image.
Historical examples of sports diplomacy include the Cold War Ping Pong diplomacy between the United States and China, India-Pakistan cricket diplomacy, and North and South Korea sending a joint women’s hockey team to the 2018 Olympics. In the Middle East, Dubai’s royal family buying Manchester City has been the biggest sports diplomacy success for oil-rich Gulf states. Further, Saudi Arabia’s creation of the LIV golf tour in the wake of the Khashoggi Scandal is the most recent high-profile example in the Middle East, though the success of that attempt is not yet determined.
Qatar hopes to dispel these criticisms by hosting a successful World Cup, cementing its status as a top-tier sporting country, and gaining influence internationally. The games will allow Qatar to distinguish itself from its more prominent neighbors, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
However, the country’s problematic history of labor exploitation is the biggest threat to Qatar’s capabilities as a sporting country and undermines its international reputation. Qatar’s population sits at just under 3 million, however, only 380,000 of that total are Qatari nationals. Migrant workers, primarily from South Asian countries, comprise the majority of their population.
Qatar relies on the Kafala system of labor, sponsorship-based employment that legally binds foreign workers to their employers and restricts their ability to change jobs. Employers also routinely confiscate the passports of workers and are required to sign an exit permit for the worker, restricting their freedom to leave the country. These repressive practices make it difficult to leave exploitative work environments.
The construction of the new stadiums and infrastructure–including $20 billion in roads, the longest bridge in the world to neighboring Bahrain, a new airport, and more–for the tournament in Qatar was largely carried out by migrant workers.
The egregious, repeated mistreatment of migrant workers has led to a chorus of voices and organizations leveling criticism against Qatar and FIFA and calling for boycotts of the tournament. Beyond just the mistreatment of vulnerable workers, Qatar’s human rights record is shoddy, to say the least. Additionally, morality measures such as modest dressing and the prohibition of behavior deemed offensive are also restrictions on the civil liberties that are generally accepted in liberal democracies of the West.
As a result, several French cities including Paris have announced that they will be boycotting this World Cup. They will not be setting up the fan zones where spectators gather to watch the matches together, despite France being the reigning World Cup champions. These boycotts in protest of Qatar’s human rights record have also spilled over into cities in Germany and Belgium. Denmark’s Football Association has revealed their alternate uniforms for the tournament will be all black in mourning for the thousands of migrant workers that have died constructing World Cup venues.
The emirate’s defenders point to the landmark labor reforms that have been introduced in recent years. The country still did not abolish the Kafala system which many claims to be at the center of the abuse, however, they did reform it, removing the requirement to obtain an exit permit from an employer.
As a result of the controversies and tragedies that have shrouded the 2022 World Cup, excitement is muted. Many observers wonder whether Qatar’s “sportwashing” stunt has backfired. Instead of coming off as progressive and modern, Qatar has been lambasted with negative publicity surrounding its cruelty to migrant workers and its restrictions on personal liberties.
However, it may be too soon to write Qatar’s publicity stunt off as a failure.
International scrutiny will be heightened throughout the event, however, if Qatar lives up to its promises of being welcoming and accepting of all backgrounds throughout the entirety of the tournament, it may be able to present itself as more open and free than they have been portrayed recently. An uneventful tournament would be favorable for Qatar and would allow them to reframe their image more positively, as was intended from the beginning.
Qatar’s bountiful oil and gas reserves provide an opportunity to win influence and develop formidable friendships with global hegemons such as the United States who are seeking to lower energy costs and combat inflation. Despite the controversies surrounding the World Cup, Qatar still has the ability to increase its international prestige but the beer ban in stadiums and the presence of Zakir Naik, the extremist Muslim preacher as a guest has undone everything.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are not necessarily those of The South Asian Times