In December of 2010, FIFA stunned the world when it granted Qatar the opportunity to host the 2022 World Cup. This added to the state’s persistent craving to use international sporting forms to achieve wider socio-political objectives. Since winning the bid for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, all eyes have turned toward Qatar. Many continue to question the legitimacy of this ‘small’ country in hosting this global event. Suspicions are being raised about lobbying methods in sports, business, politics, Qatar’s intolerance of other cultures (including the consumption of alcohol), and of course, the hostile summer heat.
Some of these concerns are legitimate, but I hope I can clearly show why Qatar is interested and why it should host the World Cup — as opposed to the lazy narrative of Qatar trying to make profit out of the tournament. This will be the first ever Middle Eastern World Cup and a chance for the world, especially those in the West, to see a different picture of the Middle East. Perhaps, before I address the question of human rights violations and geopolitical issues, we should ask why bribery and not human rights abuses — like the deaths of 1,200 World Cup migrant workers, as reported by The Washington Post — got us talking about FIFA.
There is doubt Qatar has a questionable human rights record and its Kafala labour law should be criticized. The Kafala labor system could lead to exploitation of some migrant workers and essentially slavery. However, BBC journalist, Wesley Stephenson, questioned whether 1,200 World Cup workers really died in Qatar. Where does that figure come from, and how was it calculated?
It turns out that the numbers were obtained from Indian and Nepalese embassies by the International Trades Union Confederation in a report, “Case Against Qatar.” This was not an internal commission in Qatar looking at how many migrant workers had died because of stadium construction, but just crude mortality rates of migrant workers. The Washington Post later made a correction to the report, pointing out that an earlier version of that post, and accompanying graphic, created the impression that more than 1,000 migrant workers in Qatar had died working on the 2022 World Cup infrastructure. The post should have made clearer that the figures involved all migrant deaths in Qatar.
It’s difficult to argue that if there was not to be a World Cup in Qatar, there would have been no construction. Qatar’s economy tripled in size between 2005 and 2009, and a construction boom was already under way before the country was awarded the 2022 World Cup. To blame a sport for all the construction deaths in the country is surely stretching it.
Some people also argue that the region’s sweltering heat is a cause for concern. During the months of June and July, Qatar’s temperature drifts around 95 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the issue of Qatar’s summer heat has been resolved, as well.
Qatar will officially be hosting the World Cup in the winter per FIFA officials’ recommendations. The rescheduling will help avoid discomfort and potential medical risks associated with the July temperatures.
For many living in the Middle East, Qatar’s victory in the bid for the FIFA World Cup in 2022 was a regional triumph. The depiction of Muslims and Arabs within Western media has often been disparaging to say the least. Muslims and Arabs have been slandered, and the opportunity to show the world the reality of life in much of the Middle East is a primary goal of the 2022 World Cup. A vital goal for hosting the World Cup is to also deconstruct the negative and disgraceful stigma that has often been attached to Muslims.
There is no doubt that there is a lot of corruption inside FIFA. Bribes and behind-the-scene deals have been going on for decades. The sport federation is responsible for the most watched and popular sport in the world and is part of a lucrative business venture that has a lot of soft power and prestige attached to it. FIFA has become another arena for the realpolitik with 2018 really involving U.S. and Russia. The energy and currency wars are now being augmented by a behind the scenes war at FIFA.
In 2005, FIFA refused to get entangled in Washington’s geopolitical game. FIFA refused to surrender to the U.S. Department of State’s demands that Iran’s team be blocked from participating in the 2006 World Cup or demands that Palestine not be admitted into FIFA. FIFA’s geopolitical offenses; however, may have reached a tipping point. Politicization of FIFA and soccer will divide the world.
The contours of geopolitical rivalries which are manifesting themselves in FIFA must not be taken for granted. For many people around the world, football is more than just a game — it’s life and part of identity. It has power, and it has been used to stop civil wars or ignite them. The El Salvador and Honduras war in 1969 was ignited by the sport. If the decision to have Russia host the World Cup in 2018 is somehow miraculously changed, then geopolitics would be behind this decision.
This would worsen the already cold relationship between Washington and the Kremlin. Given that sports act as a form of soft power, it is fair to look at the possible geopolitical implications as well. What is happening with the FIFA and World Cup allocations to Russia and Qatar is not just about bringing down corruption or fighting for dignity in the most beautiful game on earth. It’s also about geopolitics, hegemonies and use of soft power.
Qatar has already sealed its bid with the estimated $200 billion it has sunk into infrastructure, including the city erected specifically for the games — it would be very unfair to just let that go to waste.
However, Qatar must reform its labor laws to meet international standards —abolish Kafala, allow migrant workers to organise unions and ensure effective grievance mechanisms. If they fail then FIFA should re-run the vote. These are fundamental conditions for awarding the World Cup hosting rights. Going after FIFA in this case is like beating a dead horse. There are issues in Qatar and Qatari officials are responsible — not FIFA.
The selective outrage is baffling. Perhaps the money which some countries pocket in the name of national interests blinds them from reality. The primary responsibility for the rights of workers in Qatar rests with the Qatari authorities, but FIFA has a clear responsibility to act in the face of the evidence of labor exploitation. The organization must demonstrate a real commitment to ensuring reform in Qatar and that the 2022 World Cup isn’t built on slavery and abuse.
Image Credit: Telegraph