The Qatar Quandary: Human Rights Abuses and the World Cup
Updated: Dec 7, 2022
On November 20 of this year, the FIFA World Cup opened to fireworks and fanfare in Qatar’s Al Bayt Stadium, beginning a 29 day soccer extravaganza to determine which nation will have international bragging rights for the next four years. While Qatar has hoped to capitalize on this attention, it has been in the news for all the wrong reasons since being selected to host the event in 2010.
By all accounts, Qatar was not expected to win its bid. Summers in the nation were considered unsuitable for playing conditions, seven new stadiums with supporting infrastructure would need to be built, and human rights abuses were a known problem. Qatar obtained a 25/100 ranking on the Freedom Index, only two points better than Nicaragua, a nation whose ruling party is known to torture and kill opposition leaders. It is believed that Qatar was able to use bribes and ‘soft power’ to convince FIFA’s executives to select them, leading to international outcry and an investigation by the United States Department of Justice. However, no actions were taken, and Qatar began building the stadiums necessary for the event.
While the nation had enough money to fund these massive infrastructure projects, it lacked a population that could perform the required work. As a result, the government looked to South Asia for a cheap labor source. Once in the country, these migrant workers became ensnared in a system known as kafala, a sponsorship program seen by many as a form of modern-day slavery. Under this arrangement, workers are not allowed to leave without asking their employers for permission and have virtually no rights. In several incidents, passports were even taken from workers. In addition, laborers were routinely underpaid, lived in cramped and unsanitary conditions, and had to work in 125 degree heat in the summers. It is currently believed that 6,500 people died while building the infrastructure needed for the tournament.
While these scandals have painted a negative picture of the Qatar World Cup over the last few years, several more have emerged in recent weeks. Press freedom in Qatar recently caught the public’s attention, as a Danish reporter was harassed on air by Qatari officials who tried to break their camera equipment. While the Qatari World Cup organizers later apologized to the news crew, there is still a sense that free and comprehensive media coverage is being restricted. Incidents like these are nothing new in Qatar, as their media services are not independent of the state and as they must continually censor their own material to maintain funding.
A much more considerable controversy has also occurred on the pitch itself. Coming into the tournament, several European teams, such as Germany, England, and Denmark, said they would wear a ‘One Love’ armband in support of the LGBTQI+ community. Qatar currently has laws in place making homosexual acts a criminal offense, with stoning set as the maximum punishment. Qatari officials have stated that ‘One Love’ armbands are disrespectful to their culture and have asked for them not to be worn. FIFA officials went as far as to threaten players with yellow cards if they wore the band on the field. While teams decided against wearing the armband in fear of retaliation, the message of support for the LGBTQI+ community has continued, much to the frustration of the host nation. Politicians from Germany and Denmark have worn the ‘One Love’ armband while attending their nation’s matches, and the German national team covered their mouths in protest before their game against Japan to show that FIFA was silencing them. Unfortunately, spectators and fans were not so lucky; any clothing or other items depicting the Pride Flag were confiscated by stadium security. FIFA allegedly told Qatari organizers to allow such items into World Cup venues after these incidents, but whether or not they will listen is yet to be determined.
Unfortunately, holding international sporting events in controversial locations is not unusual. Russia, which also discriminated against LGBTQI+ peoples and annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, was allowed to hold the 2018 World Cup. Similarly, China, despite controversies over their treatment of Uyghur Muslims and repression in Tibet, held the 2022 Winter Olympics. In the future, the international sporting community must take a stronger stance on supporting human rights instead of rewarding those who violate them.