Foreign Policy is the Real Reason Qatar is Hosting FIFA’s World Cup
Many migrant workers used in the construction of the new World Cup soccer stadiums have not been paid, even as Qatar uses one of the world’s largest global sporting events to advance its international relations
The World Cup is one of the world’s largest global sporting events, but for the government of Qatar, the decision to host its 2022 edition is more about advancing foreign policy.
This is the opinion of Danyel Reiche, a specialist in sports policy and politics who leads the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 research initiative at Georgetown University-Qatar Center for International and Regional Studies.
“What Qataris think of the World Cup is not the major issue because the elite mainly care about foreign policy objectives: reputation, soft power, branding and national security,” the visiting professor told The Media Line.
Qatar, as well as the other Arab Gulf countries, have tarnished reputations when it comes to human rights, particularly those of migrant laborers. For example, the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as other countries in the Middle East, use the kefala system to monitor migrant workers. This is a system for international workers in which the employee’s legal status and visa is dependent on an in-country sponsor, usually an employer.
Going unpaid for completed work is common among migrant workers in Qatar. The Media Line spoke to a 21-year-old man from Nepal who came to Qatar two years ago and had not been paid since April. He declined to be named for fear of losing his job as a construction worker.
“I normally send the money home to my family [near Kathmandu]. My mom is sick, she needs heart surgery. She has not been to the doctor in months because we can’t afford it. I’m worried she is going to die,” he told The Media Line. “There’s nothing I can do. I’m powerless.”
While it is now legal in Qatar to switch employers due to a recent reform of the kefala system, he has not been able to find a new job.
Migrant workers are being used for construction of a new World Cup soccer stadium, which recently was inaugurated.
While Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, the fourth of eight arenas being built or renovated for the World Cup, was unveiled with great fanfare, the abuse of the workers who constructed the facility remains hidden.
Amnesty International has documented that at least 100 workers who built the third stadium, Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, were not paid for seven months.
Philippe Nassif, advocacy director for the Middle East North Africa region at Amnesty International USA, says that today most of those workers still have not been paid their salaries.
“There were some minor ‘wins’ where some people were able to get some of their wages, but generally speaking, the vast majority of people are still waiting,” he told The Media Line, explaining that there is no legal recourse for laborers to get paid what they are due.
He says that this has had an impact on hundreds of workers who currently are working on the remaining World Cup-related construction.
Nassif attributes blame to both the Qatari leaders and FIFA, the organization that puts on the World Cup.
“It’s a shared blame, both by the Qataris, who have a history of exploitation of labor, period, even for other projects … and for FIFA as well … who said they wanted the tournament to leave a positive lasting legacy for all migrant workers,” he said.
“There is still serious abuse and exploitation happening, and that’s concerning. Yes, there have been some improvements, but you still have this issue of unpaid wages and excessive working hours that have plagued the entire process, so that needs to be fixed,” Nassif added.
An investment in sports … serves the purpose of putting the country on the map and gives them opportunities to build relations with many individuals and countries throughout the world
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Georgetown’s Reiche says it is important that Qatar’s labor violations be corrected, but that the small Gulf country has made strides to improve migrant workers’ rights overall, such as instituting a minimum wage for migrant workers.
“The World Cup is a driver for political change in Qatar because Qatar wants the recognition by the global community, and this human rights issue with the migrant workers overshadowed all other debates,” he said. “It took some time for the Qatari elite to realize that they cannot achieve soft-power reputation gain when they don’t address the human rights issue.”
“They are not changing the labor laws because the local population wants them to change, they are changing the labor laws because the western public has critically discussed over many years the treatment of the migrant workers,” he added.
Reiche says that the Qataris have invested heavily in sports in general, such as hosting the World Athletics Championship in Doha recently, to boost its soft power – the ability to influence world public opinion using culture, political values and foreign policies.
“An investment in sports … serves the purpose of putting the country on the map and gives them opportunities to build relations with many individuals and countries throughout the world,” he said.
This is also part of Qatar’s branding efforts, along with migrant worker reforms, Reiche says, because it wants to “be associated with the modern Arab state, like a Singapore of the Middle East.”
The head of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 research initiative says that the World Cup has sped up domestic improvements, although this is not Doha’s main purpose in hosting the games.
“Qatar is a wealthy country but it still is in the process of developing and the World Cup, like other mega sporting events, is used as a development tool,” he said. “The metro isn’t being built because of the World Cup, but it does set a timeline for when it has to be completed. There are many infrastructure projects associated with the timing of an event such as a World Cup.”
“Of course, it’s about branding and differentiating itself from other Gulf countries, but it’s also a tool for national security,” Reiche said.
Qatar is a wealthy country but it still is in the process of developing and the World Cup, like other mega sporting events, is used as a development tool
“I think I would go so far as to think that without the World Cup and all its other sporting investments, maybe Qatar would have been invaded by Saudi Arabia” after the Saudi-led coalition instituted a blockade on Qatar in 2017, Reiche said. Other reasons that there was no invasion could be the fact that Qatar is home to a US military base and that its population consists mostly of expats.
Reiche has been making this argument since 2014, even before the Qatar-GCC rift.
In 2017, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, instituted a blockade against Qatar, over its alleged backing of radical Islamic groups. Qatar denies the allegations.
“I think Qatar won the blockade and the Saudis failed with all objectives, as none of their list of demands [to end the blockade] were met by Qatar,” Reiche said. “It cost Qatar a lot of money, but they have the resources and the World Cup helped with it all.”