Qatar is currently hosting the 2022 FIFA (Fédération internationale de Football Association, meaning International Association Football Federation) World Cup, after successfully securing the bid in 2010. They are the first Middle Eastern (and Muslim) host of the tournament following FIFA’s appeal to take the World Cup to a region where football is both popular, and beginning to emerge as a player on the global scene1. The choice of Qatar as host, however, has been the source of controversy, with a heavy focus on Qatar’s human rights records and treatment of migrant workers.
Criticisms of Qatar’s World Cup
Qatar’s use of the Kafala system has been particularly critised :t is the legal framework to recruit migrant workers in Jordan, Lebanon, and the Arab Gulf (with the exception of Iraq)2. It operates with the state permission granted to companies and individuals to employ foreign laborers. Yet, lack of regulations and protections of migrants ’ rights result in low wages, poor working conditions and employee abuse 3. Critics have called the system a form of “modern slavery”, stating mistreatment arises from the sponsor-worker power imbalance and sponsor’s legal impunity4. At the time of the bid for the World Cup, Qatar was lacking the infrastructure to host (including eight stadiums, hotels, an airport expansion, and metro), which led to the influx of approximately two million migrant workers5. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have critized the FIFA for failing to impose conditions to protect workers6: reportedly more than 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died during the constructions 7. Other workers have lived in “appalling living conditions”, “ were lied to about their salary”, “received delayed payments”, “ have been threatened”, and have “been unable to leave the stadium or workers camp”8. Amnesty International consequently labelled the 2022 World Cup the “Qatar World Cup of Shame”9.
It is worth noting tha in 2020, Qatar passed laws which, according to the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO), “effectively dismantle the ‘kafala’ sponsorship”10. The reform established a minimum monthly wage for all workers including domestic ones.
Other criticisms of the Qatar World Cup concerns Qatar’s deficit in the protection of human rights and civil liberties:
- Freedom of expression and Freedom of press : Qatar’s penal code criminalises critique of the emir, insulting the Qatar flag, defaming religion and inciting to “overthrow the regime”.
- LGBTQ+ Rights: Qatar’s penal code punishes consensual same-sex relations, with a penalty of up to 10 years.
- Women’s Rights: according to a 2021 report of Human Rights Watch women are victims of discriminatory guardianship rules, which means that they must obtain permission of their male guardians to marry, study abroad, work in government jobs, travel and receive certain reproductive health care11.
Responses to criticisms
Despite these criticisms, more positive opinions have also been expressed. Larbi Sadiki (A Senior Fellow at the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, Qatar) has argued that it is important to pay attention to the “construction of otherness” in global encounters like football. He emphasized :“the systematic, relentless and racially prejudiced campaign in the West against Qatar in the years leading up to this World Cup”12 where they have been subjected to criticism like no previous host country. For example the 2014 Brazil World Cup, people living in favelas were evicted as the country attempted to hide poverty from traveling fans, and the 1994 US World Cup was held after race riots13. According to Sadiki these host countries were seen as legitimate “no matter what they did – because, somehow, football was and is seen as belonging to them”14. Similarly to Sadiki, Mira Al Hussein (postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oxford) has questioned the intent behind criticisms towards Qatar. In her view, the scrutiny is overdue and it makes no sense to tie global events where virtue signalling becomes deeply problematic”15.
For Maryam AlHajri (a Qatari researcher at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies) the criticism of Qatar shows that some Western critics are more concerned with feeding into the “orientalist discourse” than human rights16. She writes:
“This should not be read as a justification to cease criticising the migrant worker condition in Qatar. Rather, it should be interpreted as an argument for the necessity to contextualise the migrant workers situation as part of a globalised economic order built on colonialism and racial capitalism”17.
The Qatar World Cup is also seen as an opportunity to change misconceptions on the Arab world and Islam. The Qatar Guest Center, which supervises the Blue Mosque (in Doha), has brought dozens of Muslim preachers from around the world to Qatar. Outside the mosque there are booklets in an array of languages with introductory information on Islam18. Qatar has also made an effort to feature Islam throughout the first week of the tournament with sayings and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad posted around Doha and translated into multiple languages. Hotels in Qatar have provided visitors with QR codes to learn about Islam, with Muslim volunteers teaching tourists about Islamic fashion19.
The FIFA World Cup inaugural ceremony (20th November 2022) began with a female vocalist wearing the niqab – a face covering outlawed in several European countries. During the ceremony, a verse from the Qur’an (49, 13) was read, which calls for acceptance of diversity and difference amongst humans20.
On the other hand, some western media have been accused of peddling stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims. For example, a post by The Times of London stated that “Qataris are unaccustomed to seeing women in Western dress in their country” 20. Similarly, an on-air joke about the presence of “a lot of mosques” by a French journalist caused outrage among Muslims on social media. The French satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine published cartoons of the Qatar World Cup that sparked criticism on social media for its “racist and Islamophobic” depiction of the Qatar national football players21: Long-bearded, angry, carrying guns and wearing suicide vests. BBC Broadcast journalist Anish Saikh, tweeted: “It just shows French media and government are inherently racist and islamophobic. They just can’t digest that a Muslim country is hosting a FIFA World Cup”22.
Saad Abedine, news editor at Al Jazeera English also tweeted: “another day, another instance of French racism & xenophobia against Arabs as the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 is just round the corner”23. The cartoons were also condemned by the spokesperson of Qatar’s Defense ministry and by Qatar’s foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammad bin Abdulrahman al Thani. The latter called critics of the World Cup “arrogant” when coming from countries that turn a blind eye to their domestic problems and he described the negative media reactions as “misinformation24. Further, the Union of Arab Football Associations came out in support of Qatar by saying that it rejected “all suspicions and baseless propaganda which aims only to distort Arab capabilities and competencies”25.
Despite all the criticisms, the FIFA released statistics showing that the World Cup continue to draw TV audiences around the world with record-breaking numbers, including in Europe26.