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Why Qatar’s World Cup was controversial a decade before the first game

Global sports put Qatar’s human rights record in the spotlight. That’s likely to continue — and may have prompted changes in the country.

- November 14, 2022

The World Cup is set to begin Sunday, marking the first time one of the planet’s most popular sporting events will be held in a Middle Eastern country. Qatar’s World Cup, however, has been beset by an exceptional degree of controversy and criticism over alleged corruption in the selection process, Qatar’s harsh views on LGBTQ rights and its treatment of migrant workers, among other problems.

Our recent book on the politics and controversies surrounding the 2022 World Cup reveals that some of these controversies have had surprising effects in Qatar — and on the World Cup’s governing body, FIFA.

Qatar was a controversial choice

In 2010, FIFA awarded Qatar the rights to stage the 2022 World Cup. The Qatari bid was accompanied with accusations of bribery and corruption. In response, FIFA changed the selection process and gave each of its 211 member states a vote, ending the practice of just 24 executive committee members making the selection. The new system, which resulted in awarding the 2026 World Cup in the United States, Canada and Mexico, offers fewer opportunities for corruption. FIFA expects this will lead to fairer outcomes in bidding processes.

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When Qatar was awarded the World Cup, the desert summer heat was a big concern. In 2015, FIFA agreed to shift the schedule and hold the World Cup in November and December 2022. Major European soccer leagues complained about the disruption of their league schedules, which usually run from August to May. However, U.S. Major League Soccer and other leagues traditionally play from the beginning until toward the end of the calendar year and will thus compete for the first time in a World Cup that doesn’t interrupt their domestic seasons.

Qatar’s small size — just 4,473 square miles — and estimated population of 2.94 million (by 2022) also raised concerns about whether the country could safely and practically accommodate World Cup crowds. Qatar has engaged in a decade-long infrastructure overhaul, building roads, hotels and stadiums to accommodate the global event. As teams and spectators arrive, it remains to be seen whether this new infrastructure will be fully functional in time.

The World Cup has also intersected with regional politics. Starting in June 2017, Qatar was blockaded by a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE over accusations that Qatar funded what the coalition labeled as “terrorist groups” and engaged in disruptive behavior across the region.

Qatar refused to meet any of the coalition’s 13 demands, and the blockade ended in January 2021. The World Cup, in fact, may have been a key motive in the coalition’s desire to restore relations with Qatar. Saudi Arabia shares the only land border with Qatar, and tens of thousands of Saudi fans are expected to attend the World Cup. And the UAE and other neighbors are scrambling to offer hotel accommodations and transportation options to fans.

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Qatar’s human rights record is in the spotlight

Human rights advocates point out that Qatar criminalizes homosexuality and accords women limited sociopolitical rights. These issues have led to both athlete– and fan-led protests in recent months.

During the tournament itself, on-field protests by players — the wearing of armbands to support LGBTQ rights, for instance — aren’t likely to trouble Qatari authorities to the extent they feel they need to act. Off-field protests, however, may be a different matter. Some activists have already defied Qatari laws by staging public protests; Qatar’s response to date has been to stop protesters. With the media spotlight now trained on Qatar, the public arrest of peaceful demonstrators, including workers who protested going months without pay, seems likely to further tarnish Qatar’s global image.

Have worker conditions improved?

The harshest global scrutiny in recent years has been over working conditions for expatriate laborers, most of whom come from some of the poorest countries in South Asia. It’s not just Qatar — the controversial “kafala system” in place in countries in the region effectively denies foreign workers many social, political and legal rights. Foreign workers in Qatar are forbidden from unionizing, for example.

The global outcry against what some called “modern-day slavery” prompted a surprising number of policy changes in Qatar. In 2018, the government allowed the International Labor Organization to establish a Doha office to support workers’ rights. In 2020 and again in 2021, Qatar implemented substantial policy changes, resulting in what the ILO called the “dismantling” of the kafala system in the country.

Tangible changes include lifting the requirements for workers to obtain exit permits to leave Qatar and obtain no-objection certificates before changing employers. According to ILO data, more than 300,000 foreign workers changed jobs between September 2020 and March 2022. In addition, 13 percent of Qatar’s workforce saw their basic wages rise after the nondiscriminatory minimum wage was implemented in 2021. New legislation in 2021 reduced the number of hours in which employers could assign outdoor work during the summer months, a further move to protect workers’ health and safety.

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Will these policy changes last?

To some critics, Qatar’s efforts to protect workers came too late, as World Cup construction projects were wrapping up. Implementing changes to work conditions in 2021 was far easier than would have been the case in December 2010, when Qatar was awarded the World Cup and public criticism of the living and working conditions of expatriate workers first broke. In many ways, therefore, Qatar missed the boat when it came to meaningfully improving the conditions for expatriate workers.

It remains to be seen whether Qatar continues with its domestic social changes on workers’ rights in the post-World Cup phase and becomes more active in other areas such as women’s rights, by dismantling its discriminatory guardianship system or by decriminalizing homosexuality, as Singapore recently did.

With most global sporting events, once the tournament has come and gone, the media and other international onlookers usually turn their attention to the next host. However, Qatar will host the 2030 Asian Games, along with a series of Formula One races over the next 10 years. These events may ensure that sport-related global pressure on Qatar continues.

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Danyel Reiche is a visiting research fellow and visiting associate professor at Georgetown University in Qatar.

Paul Michael Brannagan is a senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. He and Reiche are co-authors of “Qatar and the 2022 FIFA World Cup: Politics, Controversy, Change” (Palgrave MacMillan, 2022) and co-editors of the “Routledge Handbook of Sport in the Middle East” (Routledge 2022).