Qatar’s bid to be the home of the 2022 World Cup came as a shock to the international community. Not only will the country be one of the smallest host nations, with just 2.6 million inhabitants, it will also be the first Arab state in history to host the tournament. From soaring summer temperatures to a distinct lack of infrastructure, the bid posed a number of logistical problems from the beginning.
Undaunted, Qatar has embarked upon an ambitious construction programme to prepare for the World Cup, including building state-of-the-art stadiums, improving the country’s transport network and even constructing a brand new coastal city that will eventually be capable of housing more than 250,000 people. But the programme has been marred by a growing number of human rights abuse allegations against exploitative constructors, calling into question the legality of many of the projects.
The proposal, put forward by Qatar in 2010, was embroiled in controversy from the start: the Arab state has strict laws that forbid the public consumption of alcohol and do not recognise LGBT rights, which were seen as incompatible with occidental fans’ expected liberties when watching games. Furthermore, the World Cup is typically held in June or July to avoid clashing with any other major tournaments; given that summer temperatures in Qatar can easily surpass 40 degrees, there were concerns as to whether players and fans would be able to cope with the heat.
Given that summer temperatures in Qatar can easily surpass 40 degrees, there are concerns as to whether players and fans will be able to cope with the heat
Nevertheless, Qatar presented solutions to some of these fears, promising to legalise the sale of alcohol for the duration of the tournament and proposing the construction of air-conditioned stadiums. Following a committee vote, FIFA announced on December 2, 2010 that Qatar would host the 2022 World Cup.
Allegations of bribery and corruption surrounding the vote immediately began to surface: these included testimony from two British journalists that FIFA representatives from Cameroon and the Ivory Coast were each paid $1.5m to support Qatar’s bid. Lord Triesman, who oversaw the British Football Association at the time, alleged that Trinidad and Tobago’s Jack Warner demanded $2.5m for an education centre and Paraguay’s Nicolás Leoz requested an honorary knighthood in exchange for voting for Qatar. Both Warner and Leoz denied the claims, with Warner saying the allegations made against him were “a piece of nonsense”.
In late July this year, allegations also began to emerge about Qatar’s suspected role in sabotaging other countries’ bids. On July 29, The Times revealed that the country is suspected to have hired a PR firm and ex-CIA operatives to spread negative propaganda about rival bidders. While Qatar denies all wrongdoing, a debate has been raging since the allegations emerged as to whether the country should be stripped of its right to host the tournament.
As the investigations surrounding the bid continue, Qatar has embarked on a financially ambitious infrastructure programme. In a speech in February 2017, the country’s minister of finance revealed that the country is spending at least $500m a week on preparations for the World Cup. This figure includes the construction of eight new stadiums, a $36bn metro system to connect key cities, $20bn for a new road network and $4bn for a causeway connecting Qatar to Bahrain.
The final total, however, is estimated to be far greater than the $10bn originally forecasted. That figure doesn’t account for the construction of a host of new hotels with tens of thousands of additional rooms needed to accommodate players, staff and visitors. It also doesn’t include the cost of building an entirely new city, Lusail, which will house the 90,000-seat Iconic Stadium, where the World Cup final will be held. Development costs for the city alone are estimated to top $45bn.
The overall project cost is estimated to exceed $220bn, which far surpasses Russia’s $10.7bn total spend on the 2018 World Cup. Qatar is also expected to spend around 60 times more than the $3.5bn that South Africa did when it hosted the 2010 tournament.
The overall project cost is estimated to exceed $220bn, which far surpasses Russia’s $10.7bn total spend on the 2018 World Cup
Dr J Simon Rofe is a reader of diplomatic and international studies at SOAS University of London and author of the book Sport and Diplomacy: Games Within Games, which was published this year. He told Business Destinations: “Part of the reason that Qatar [is] investing so heavily is that the country has the resource capacity to build world-class infrastructure, and [is] prepared to start from the ground up… Furthermore, the scale of [its] investment is linked to the fact that [it] wants what it is building to be world leading, so it is prepared to rip up existing transport networks and build brand new, state-of-the-art systems to replace them.”
He continued: “The investment also feeds into [its] overarching public diplomacy effort – for Qatar, the spotlight will not dim the second that the final World Cup match is over in December 2022… [The country is] working towards a broader future plan and the investment in World Cup infrastructure is just one part of that.”
Being awarded the World Cup bid has also brought Qatar’s controversial labour regulations into the spotlight. According to 2017 population data, the Gulf state has around 2.6 million inhabitants, around 90 percent of whom are migrant workers from India, Nepal, Egypt and Pakistan. This is the highest ratio of migrant worker to domestic population in the world.
The majority of Qatar’s migrant population is made up of young male workers, typically aged between 20 and 40, many of whom have immigrated to the country under the notorious ‘kafala’ system. This system dictates that workers must obtain sponsorship from a company in order to enter the country; the sponsor then becomes responsible for a worker’s visa and legal status. However, the kafala practice opens up workers to exploitation, as many employers confiscate workers’ passports, effectively rendering them prisoners.
Stephen Cockburn, Deputy Director of Global Issues at Amnesty International, told Business Destinations:“Once a worker signs a contract for a job, they must ask for permission from their employer – known as a ‘no objection certificate’ – if they wish to change jobs, and in the case of indefinite contracts [workers] can be made to work at the same place for up to five years. If they leave without this, they can be charged with the criminal charge of ‘absconding’, and [can be] detained or deported. This makes it difficult for workers to escape or challenge exploitative working conditions.”
The system is often facilitated by recruiters who charge extortionate fees to workers in order to secure jobs for them. “Workers may also arrive in Qatar indebted, having taken out high-interest loans in order to pay recruitment agency [fees]… This puts them in a condition of debt bondage that means they are less able to escape or challenge exploitation,” Cockburn said.
Although the kafala system was supposedly abolished in December 2016, all of its hallmarks are still evident in Qatari workplaces. As part of a recent investigation, German broadcaster Deutsche Welle spoke to an electrician working on Qatar Rail’s metro site earlier this year. Mohammed (whose name had been changed to protect his identity) was reportedly confused when the journalist asked about his passport, saying: “The employer confiscated it the moment we arrived. I am hearing from you for the first time that I can keep my passport.”
Reports of human trafficking and abuse in the Gulf state also ramped up significantly after the World Cup announcement, in part due to increased media scrutiny surrounding the tournament. A 2014 report by the International Trade Union Confederation highlighted that at least 1,200 foreign workers had died in Qatar since 2010 – by far the highest death toll for a sporting event in history.
Although the kafala system was supposedly abolished in December 2016, all of its hallmarks are still evident in Qatari workplaces
Amnesty International auditors investigated 10 World Cup contractors as part of their annual report on human rights violationswithin the country, and identified abuse of migrant workers at every single one. These included cramped, dirty and unsafe conditions in workers’ accommodation, salaries unpaid for months at a time, and verbal abuse from employers. In response to these concerns, Nasser Al Khater, Qatar’s Assistant Secretary General for Tournament Affairs, told news.com.au:“We are fully committed to ensuring the health, safety and dignity of every worker who comes to Qatar to help us deliver the tournament.” He continued: “We have always wanted to use the tournament as a catalyst to drive positive change for working conditions throughout the Gulf.”
It is not solely workers that Qatar has been accused of exploiting, however. In September, one of the country’s largest tribes, Al Ghufran, revealed in a letter addressed to FIFA that Qatari authorities were building World Cup stadiums on ancient tribal land. The letter stated: “We would like to let you know that more than a few lands on which the state built sports facilities for the tournament were taken away by force from the tribe, and that the establishments were built illegally and illegitimately after the owners were kicked off the land and had their citizenship stripped.”
The tribe demanded that FIFA strip Qatar of the World Cup stewardship until it can comply with international human rights standards. FIFA has not yet offered any response to the letter.
Secrets and lies
It is extremely difficult to obtain any information regarding World Cup preparations in Qatar, and even more challenging to gain access to migrant workers or catch a glimpse of their living conditions. In 2015, the BBC attempted to send a reporting team on a state-organised tour of official accommodation for low-paid workers. The team of four journalists was accused of trespassing on private property by the Qatari Government and held in a prison for two nights.
Meanwhile, the country’s national newspapers continue to release a torrent of state-sponsored propaganda extolling the virtues of its multibillion-dollar investment programme, claiming that working conditions have dramatically improved. While the international community is well aware of the spuriousness of these claims, it is extremely challenging to prove them wrong from afar.
There will come a time, though, when global visitors will descend en masse to Qatar. However, by the start of the tournament in 2022, it may be too late: the International Trade Union Confederation’s report predicts that at least 4,000 workers will lose their lives between now and 2022 – a considerable price to pay for a sporting tournament.
Cockburn believes that the World Cup provides an opportunity for Qatar to reform its labour policies, but it cannot do it alone. “We will continue focusing our efforts on pressuring the Qatari authorities, the Qatar 2022 organisers, FIFA and corporate actors, to address – as a matter of urgency – the exploitation and abuse taking place.”
Force for change
In some ways, it could be argued that awarding the World Cup to Qatar may be a positive force for change. The country’s investment in facilities for the tournament will diversify its tourism industry, which is currently heavily dominated by visitors from other Gulf states and business travellers. By providing more places to stay and a better transportation network, the country will open itself up to new visitors from across the globe. Qatar has also revealed plans to offer visa-free entry to visitors from 80 countries including most of Europe, the US and Australia.
However, any efforts to attract tourists will be undermined if the country does not act now to improve conditions for migrant workers. Qatar must ensure that the legacy of infrastructure investment is not tainted with unsavoury allegations of abuse by introducing more transparent, protective labour policies. This will not only improve labour conditions in the lead-up to the tournament, but will create lasting change that persists long after the final goal has been scored.