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The 2022 World Cup: Qatar's Make-or-Break Moment

James M. Dorsey

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The final run-up to the 2022 World Cup and the tournament's management is make-it-or-break-it time for Qatar.

Both will determine Qatar’s ultimate soft power benefit from the World Cup. How Qatar manages the tournament, and potential flare and hick-ups will shape how the 2022 World Cup is perceived and remembered.

The jury is still out in contrast to Qatar’s success in meeting geopolitical challenges it faced in the 12 years since world soccer body FIFA awarded the Gulf state its hosting rights in late 2010.

Reproducing its geopolitical success, achieved as much on its own steam as with the unintended help of its erstwhile detractors, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, may prove easier said than done.

Ultimately, the primary litmus test will be how Qatar handles issues such as activists seeking to capitalize on the opportunity to make a point, potential fan rowdiness, and culturally sensitive issues such as intoxication, public expressions of affection, and sexual diversity.

Asked in an interview barely a month before kickoff whether gay couples would be allowed to hold hands in public, Nasser al-Khater, the CEO of the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, the tournament’s organizer, replied unambiguously, “yes,” the first such acknowledgement in 12 years of controversy.

Mr. Al-Khater went on to tell Sky News reporter Rob Harris, ‘if I held your hand, Rob, and walked outside on the street for hours and hours and hours, nobody would say anything to us.”

Moreover, Qatar has suggested that World Cup fans committing minor offences such as public drunkenness or going shirtless in stadiums would escape prosecution under plans being developed by authorities.

Following the example of several British cities, Qatar reportedly also intends to set up ‘sobering tents,' a facility where intoxicated fans can sober up before being sent on their way with a warning but no fine or punishment.

Nevertheless, Qatar is sparing no effort to prepare for potential on the ground as well online disruptions. Qatar has invited security forces from Turkey, Pakistan, Morocco, and Britain as well as advisors from the FBI and France to bolster its capabilities. It has also invested heavily in cybersecurity.

To enhance fans' experience and attempt to turn around the battle for hearts and minds that Qatar appears to be losing in the United States, Europe, and Latin America, but only in parts of Africa and Asia, the Gulf state is hoping to turn the World Cup into an extravaganza.

Qatar has rented, for example, the Glastonbury Festival’s giant animatronic spider to form the centrepiece of its Arcadia Spectacular fan festival, a month-long dance music show. The 15 metre high structure belches plumes of fire from its mechanical arachnid thorax.

Glastonbury Festival’s giant animatronic spider Photo: Charlie Raven

That hasn’t stopped the US embassy in Doha from producing a video warning fans that public drunkenness in Qatar is punishable with up to six months in prison, while public displays of affection or wearing revealing clothes can be grounds for arrest.

"Arguing with or insulting others in public could lead to arrest. Activities like protests, religious proselytising, advocacy of atheism, and criticism of the government of Qatar or the religion of Islam may be criminally prosecuted here. That applies to your social media posts, too," the video warned.

Detained in Dubai, a London-based law firm representing expatriates with legal difficulties in the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere in the Gulf, launched an emergency help app in the belief that there will be “an increase in the number of arrests throughout the Gulf region.”

The law firm’s founder, Radha Stirling, asserted that “with this sporting event come the confusing and arbitrarily enforced laws that have seen thousands of visitors end up behind bars.”

The suggestion of leniency reflected Qatar's effort to balance between the mores of a conservative Muslim culture and the need to accommodate the sometimes-raucous exuberance of soccer fans.

"Increased leniency pleases the international community but comes with the risk that it might upset conservatives inside the country," said a Western diplomat.

Most recently, remarks by former Qatari race car driver Hamad Al-Suwaidi that Israeli fans would be welcome as “brothers” in Qatar that is “also their country” sparked outrage on social media and questions about what kind of reception Israelis could expect.

In an interview with Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, Mr. Al-Suwaidi advocated normalization of relations between Qatar and Israel.

Mr. Al-Suwaidi made his remarks shortly after becoming a media sensation in Qatar because he had installed a gigantic stone replica of the World Cup soccer trophy outside his home in Doha.

Doha, Qatar - October 9, 2022. Hamad Al Suwaidi, stands next to his large soccer world cup trophy which he commissioned Turkish artists to build for him. Photo: REUTERSPIX

“Recently, there have been some lone voices calling for normalisation with the Zionist entity, and welcoming settlers to visit Doha! Since when was Qatar their country? Since when were they our brothers and friends? We neither welcome nor will be friends with those who kill the people and children of Palestine,” tweeted Ahmed Al Binali, a Qatari national.

Impact on reputational capital

In the final analysis, how Qatar manages labour, social, ethical, and political issues that have cast a shadow over Qatar’s World Cup, despite Qatari efforts to work with its critics and significant changes introduced over the past decade, will determine the soft power cost/benefit analysis of the tournament’s impact on the Gulf state’s reputational capital.

If mega sporting events often leave a legacy of white elephants and debt, the Qatar World Cup already suggests that it will have a different legacy.

That is true even though Qatar's bid for the World Cup was simultaneously successful and a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Gulf state won its hosting rights when FIFA witnessed its worst corruption scandal.

Qatar never erased suspicion of wrongdoing despite its consistent denials, the lack of evidence, and a two-year-long FIFA ethics committee investigation that found no significant reason for concern.

Several suspicious dealings; internal FIFA politics involving Mohammed bin Hammam, a former head of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and member of the world soccer body’s executive committee who was banned from football for life; the rivalry between Gulf states; and sour grapes on the part of Qatar's competitors, who had allocated a pittance to their bids compared to what the Gulf state invested, fuelled suspicion of Qatari bribery in its bid to win World Cup hosting rights.

At the same time, Qatar has been dogged by its links to Islamists as well as jihadists. Most recently, a US court case and a federal investigation put Qatar's alleged ties back in the spotlight.

The family of Steven Sotloff, an American Israeli journalist beheaded in 2014 in Syria by the Islamic State, asserted in its petition to the court that prominent Qatari institutions had wired US$800,000 to an Islamic State judge who ordered the murder of Mr. Sotloff and another American journalist, James Foley.

Separately, US federal prosecutors have been investigating potential ties between militants and Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Thani, a half-brother of Qatar's emir. The investigation focused on whether Mr. Al Thani provided money and supplies to Jabhat al-Nusra or the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's erstwhile branch in Syria.

Similar allegations have been made in two ongoing lawsuits filed in London on behalf of Syrian refugees.

Qatar has consistently denied supporting political violence but like other Gulf states, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia, aided militants in Syria fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Asad. "Look, in Syria, everybody did mistakes, including your country," said Hamad bin Jasim Al Thani, Qatar's former prime minister and foreign minister, in a 2017 interview with American journalist Charlie Rose.

Qatar's former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani. Photo: This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Mr. Al Thani insisted that Qatar had never intentionally funded extremists in Syria and had cut off funding to any group it learned had another "agenda."

Accelerating social change

Irrespective of whether one believes that reforms have gone far enough, the Qatari World Cup has accelerated, if not sparked, social change, particularly regarding the rights and labour conditions of migrant workers, a primary focus over the past decade.

Hosting the World Cup has also, at times, sparked brief debates on taboo subjects like citizenship and LGBT rights.

Moreover, in engaging with its critics and countering criticism, Qatar faced unique odds. These included a debate over genuine issues was blurred by a layer of prejudice, bias, misconceptions, sour grapes, and geopolitical infighting involving massive disinformation campaigns by its geopolitical distractors.

Bias and prejudice were evident in arguments early on that Qatar was too small and too hot to host a mega event and had no soccer legacy even though it had won in several international tournaments, including the Gulf Cup, the Asian Games, a West Asian Football Federation tournament, and the Asian Cup.

Critics have not answered the question of who decides and what criteria would determine whether a country should be disbarred, including a definition of minimal size and legacy.

Similarly, the discussion evaded that the argument of ‘too hot’ camouflaged European soccer’s reluctance to adjust its schedules to a tournament in the winter rather than the traditional summer months even though it had 12 years to prepare.

Some critics asserted that the Qatari investment in the World Cup was a waste of money because Qatar post-tournament would be unable to fill the custom-built stadiums.

Although these critics ignored Qatar’s right to do with its money what it wants, they did acknowledge the distinction between what was best for enhancing the Gulf state’s reputation and soft power, and what economically made the most sense.

Media reports asserted that Qatar was turning a sport that traced its roots to the working class and has since become a middle-class passion into a playground for the wealthy and super-rich.

With hotel rooms in Doha costing up to US$4,000 a night during the World Cup, cheaper options included a steel bed in a shared room in the desert at US$84 a night, or accommodation on two docked cruise ships from US$179 to $800. Barely a month before kickoff, Qatar hired a third ship from Geneva-based MSC Cruises, the 1,075-cabin MSC Opera. on which cabins started at $470.

Prices on the cruise ships were likely to drop when half the teams go home after the quarterfinals.

"It's clear that there's a focus on a type of premium tourism, but the vast majority that go to a World Cup are middle-class," said Ronan Evain, executive director of Football Supporters Europe.

For Qatar, the choice was between catering to a demography that was important in shaping its reputation and the kind of investment in hospitality that made the most economic sense.

In the final analysis, Qatar appears to have decided that most World Cup fans would not be frequenting its hotels once the World Cup final was played.

That translated into an emphasis on accommodation geared toward premium travelers with those on more restricted budgets constituting an afterthought.

Planners could not have anticipated the Ukraine war, but Qatar’s misfortune was that the World Cup was about to take place at a moment that middle and working-class households across the globe were struggling with significantly higher energy and food prices and spiralling inflation as a result of the conflict.

It’s not slavery

Meanwhile, scholar Omar Al-Ubaydli questioned whether the onerous labour recruitment system in labour-supplying countries and labour-importing countries in the Gulf amounted to slavery.

“Migrant workers in the GCC —unlike Ottoman Janissaries— do not satisfy any definition of slavery since, for the most part, they come of their own volition and are free to quit their jobs at any time,” Mr. Al-Ubaydli said. He was referring to the Gulf Cooperation Council that groups Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman.

Add to this that the debate about Qatar is as much a discussion about human rights as it is about the oversized international influence of wealthy resource-rich Gulf states.

In a seething commentary that reflected much of the Western-centric bias and prejudice, Guardian sportswriter Jonathan Liew asserted that “in a way, we’re not really angry at some tiny distant enclave in the Gulf, but at ourselves. At the way we allowed this malign, cannibalistic tyranny to embed itself in our institutions, our cities and towns, our politics and our monarchy, our favourite sport… (The Qatar World Cup’s) very existence is an indictment of every single person involved in its conception and every single person who could have stopped it happening.”

Mr. Liew's comment, to some degree, explains the tone of much of the often-justified criticism that keeps Qatar in the firing line of criticism by human rights groups and European national soccer teams and associations.

The criticism is likely to be a fixture on the pitch of World Cup matches.

Double standards

The Danish national team, for example, opted to make a statement during its World Cup matches. Its kit, designed by Danish sportswear company Hummel, chose black as one of the colours of the team’s jerseys to commemorate workers who lost their lives building World Cup infrastructure.

“We support the Danish national team all the way, but that isn't the same as supporting Qatar as a host nation,” Hummel said in a tweet.

The Danes are not the only ones amid accusations of hypocrisy.

Denmark National Football Team Photo before kick off, at the Russia 2018 World Cup Group C football match between Denmark and Australia, at the Samara Arena in Samara. Photo: Manan VATSYAYANA / Getty Images

Critics note that the Danish football association and its various European counterparts had no qualms about playing in the 2018 World Cup in Russia, four years after the annexation of Crimea and as the Kremlin cracked down on gender minorities and militarily supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“When the 2018 FIFA World Cup was held, there was no concerted performance in support of LGBTQ issues, despite Russia’s clear and obvious stance on the matter,” said Qatari artist Ghada Al Khater.

Ms. Al Khater further noted that the Danes and other were being allowed to carry their anti-Qatari protest on to the World Cup pitch even though FIFA bans political expressions during matches.

Pointing to restrictive European policies to curb migration and the frequent deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean, Ms. Al Khater asked: “What migrant rights do you speak of when vulnerable men, women and children are either caged in inhumane refugee camps or sent back to the very lands they fled from?”

Other critics also drew attention to Denmark’s adoption of a harsh policy against asylum seekers that, at times, put their lives at risk by returning them to Mr Al-Assad's Syria.

For its part, European soccer body UEFA has established a working group to support demands for a compensation fund for World Cup workers who suffered injuries or died. US Soccer, America’s soccer authority, said it would join the group.

US Soccer said it also planned to have rainbow flags at its fan events and was exploring ways to incorporate it into the team’s presence throughout the country.

In addition to supporting the establishment of a compensation fund, the French Football Federation said it wanted to see the creation of a migrant workers centre in Qatar that would cater to labourers’ needs.

At the same time, Paris and other French cities said they would not broadcast World Cup matches on giant screens in public fan zones out of concern about the plight of migrant workers and the environmental impact of air conditioning in Qatari stadia.

Paris took its decision, although Qatar Sports Investments owns the city’s premier football club, Paris Saint-Germain (PSG).

Strasbourg mayor Jeanne Barseghian echoed long-standing, seemingly Eurocentric arguments that Qatar should have been automatically disqualified because of its climate to justify her decision not to broadcast matches.

"While climate change is a palpable reality, with fires and droughts and other disasters, organizing a soccer tournament in the desert defies common sense and amounts to an ecological disaster," Ms. Barseghian said.

Moreover, the captains of eight European teams, including England’s Harry Kane, said they would wear rainbow "One Love" armbands during matches that symbolise opposition to discrimination in a country where homosexuality is banned.

In response, Mr. Al-Khater, the CEO of the Qatar World Cup organiser, advised the English and Welsh football associations to focus on their teams and leave to experts the discussion about conditions for migrant workers and Qatari law.

Qatar 2022 CEO Nasser Al-Khater at a news conference in Doha. Photo: AFP-JIJI

Mr. Al-Khater said “it’s a FIFA matter” to decide whether Mr. Kane and his Welsh counterpart, Gareth Bale, would be allowed to wear the One Love band during matches.

Adding fuel to the fire

Adding fuel to the fire, Al Sulaiteen Agricultural and Industrial Complex (SAIC) employees, a Qatari company, told The Guardian in September that the reforms had not been implemented, including abolishing the requirement that workers secure their employer’s permission to change jobs.

“The company won’t give [permission to leave]. You can only change if you go home, cancel your visa, and apply again,” one worker said. Another laughed at the suggestion that he was free to change jobs, saying: “If we could change jobs, everyone would leave!”

Moreover, Pete Pattisson, The Guardian reporter, described the living conditions of SAIC employees on a farm on the edge of the desert as violating the Supreme Committee’s workers’ welfare standards.

“Some house three or four workers in single beds, others five or six in bunks, but all those viewed by the Guardian were windowless, cramped, and dirty. Towels draped between the upper and lower bunks provide what little privacy there is. Water bottles, cooking utensils, and personal belongings are crammed under the beds. Clothes hang on lines strung across the walls. The camp is as squalid as any this journalist has seen in nine years of reporting from Qatar,” Mr. Pattison said.

In the same vein, a recent French television and radio documentary showed substandard accommodation for employees of a private security firm sub-contracted by a hotel where the France team will be staying, and another company hired by French hotel chain Accor.

Bunkbeds were infested with insects; bathrooms were filthy; and the wall had damp stains. Cooking facilities were a sink and two gas rings, the documentary reported.

Like the SAIC employees, workers said they barely had a day off and had not been paid overtime.

Making things worse, conditions for media accreditation for the World Cup ban international television crews from interviewing people in their own homes or filming at accommodation sites, like those housing migrant workers.

Also forbidden is capturing footage “near or within” government buildings, universities, places of worship and hospitals is also prohibited, along with recording on “any privately owned property,” even with the owner’s consent.

Crews will only be allowed to film public places in three public places in only three locations in Doha, including the Corniche waterfront promenade, and the upscale West Bay area.

The sweeping restrictions extend to accredited crews agreeing not to produce reports that may be “inappropriate or offensive to the Qatari culture, Islamic principles” or “may arouse ethnic or religious disturbances.”

The conditions include a warning that news organisations will be “held responsible for criminal and civil liability for any breach of the above-mentioned provisions when filming”.

Qatar's response to workers asserting their rights in an environment of lax implementation has done little to strengthen its argument.

On the contrary, critics noted that authorities quickly punished workers standing up for adherence to the law but were far more lenient towards companies that violated the law.

In the month before Mr. Pattison published his revelations, Qatar deported dozens of workers for participating in a rare illegal protest for unpaid and delayed wages owed to them by another Qatar company that has won multi-million-dollar World Cup-related contracts, Bandary International Group.

The workers were deported as Qatar’s government-sponsored Rule of Law and Anti-Corruption Centre (ROLACC) promoted its annual Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani International Excellence Award in advertisements on Al Jazeera.

While Qatar has been willing to introduce social and economic reform and promote principles of good governance, it has rejected demands for workers-related political change, including the endorsement of the right to strike, collective bargaining, and the legalization of trade unions.

The furthest Qatar has been willing to go was to allow employees in companies with a labour force of at least 30 employees to elect representatives to joint committees that would discuss workplace issues with management.

The reports abouts workers’ living and working conditions also coincided with media reports asserting that Qatari influence stemming from the Gulf state’s ownership of PSG and global sport and entertainment network beIN's European football broadcasting contracts, including for the UEFA Champions League and various European national leagues, had shielded Nasser al-Khelaifi from assertions of conflict of interest.

Paris Saint-Germain president Nasser al-Khelaifi. Photo: Sebastien Muylaert / Getty Images

Besides presiding over PSG and chairing beIN and Qatar Sports Investments, the Qatari government’s sports investment vehicle, Mr. Al-Khelaifi, a former tennis professional, is a member of UEFA’s executive and chairman of the influential European Club Association.

The association is an umbrella group for more than 200 top clubs that is UEFA's joint venture partner for selling rights to the Champions League and two other club competitions.

Activists’ challenge

All in all, Qatar’s patchy implementation of its reforms is likely to ensure that human rights groups will continue to target the Gulf state in the post-World Cup era.

The critics may have a platform with Qatar winning hosting rights for the 2023 Asian Cup. Saudi Arabia may be next in line after it was shortlisted for the 2027 tournament.

To counter the criticism, Qatar will have to maintain engagement with its critics.

President of Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, president of Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) Gianni Infantino and president of Qatar Football Association (QFA) Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani during an announcement ceremony of 2023 Asian Cup at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia October 17, 2022. Photo: Asian Football Confederation/Kamarul Akhir/Handout via REUTERS

Even so, the challenge for human rights groups and trade unions will be to reframe their efforts so as not to single out Qatar.

To do so, activists would have to reposition their campaign as targeting the region if not a global effort that includes, for example, conditions for migrant labour in Southeast Asia; Britain, particularly in the health and care sectors; and the US military in various parts of the world.

Nicholas McGeehan, a militant human and workers’ rights advocate and one of Qatar’s harshest critics, acknowledged as much in a tweet.

”Journalists/commentators writing about worker abuses Qatar 2022 can be real allies to the migrant worker cause by noting that the same system and same abuses are found in Saudi Arabia (bidding for 2030 WC), the UAE (own Man City), Bahrain (host F1) and other Gulf states,” Mr. McGeehan tweeted.

Osman Jawed, an associate of Mr. McGeehan’s, went further by suggesting that “there should be an attempt…not to essentialise Qatar and Qataris as some kind of brutal authoritarians (or) scapegoat a country as brutal and barbaric. That’s not helpful.”

Similarly, The Guardian, another of Qatar’s harshest critics, expanded its coverage in September with a report on the alleged