3. Won’t this World Cup lead to improvements in Qatar?

This is one of the most important questions surrounding the upcoming World Cup. The big chiefs at FIFA and other federations, as well as several former players, have made claims about the tournament’s potential for bringing about wonderful improvements. A few examples:

“It’s good to make it clear that something needs to be done about it. If you put your head in the sand, they are not going to learn. I have met the Qatari royal family when I was there, as ambassador for the World Cup bid. Those people are very ambitious. Otherwise, they would’t get the World Cup. Some things are going wrong in Qatar, that’s true. That’s why we are there to say: that’s not going well.” – Ronald de Boer[i].

“I made it very clear it is essential for the Qatari authorities to ensure the country complies to international standards on the treatment of the workforce and to continue at full pace with the implementation of the promised measures. The hosting of the World Cup is an opportunity to set a benchmark in terms of sustainable and fair conditions for all workers in Qatar.” – Gianni Infantino[ii].

“We are of the opinion that we can achieve a great deal more by way of a dialogue than by a permanently critical attitude. If you look at the developments in Qatar since they’ve been involved in football, the country is developing. Everybody who deals with the Gulf States will confirm to you that, in terms of developments regarding human rights and workers’ rights, Qatar has made steps in the right direction.” – Karl-Heinz Rummenigge[iii].

Reassuring words from some football heavyweights. And De Boer, Infantino and Rummenigge are not alone in their maintaining of this sentiment. The idea of the World Cup leading to positive change in Qatar is widespread: even Zahir Belounis, the French footballer who was stuck in the country, still believed in it after he was finally set free. But is this view correct? I did some researched and here’s what I found.

Improvements didn’t happen

The first thing that meets the eye, is that those who hold this view don’t seem to fully believe it themselves. In the same conversation between De Boer and Dutch writer Özcan Akyol, the former international says: “If you suddenly go from camels to Ferraris, you’re going to have accidents.” Quite a generalizing thing to say about a country where a lot of people probably own multiple Ferrari’s, but the point is clear: progress will not happen quickly. In other words, we’re going to have to accept a certain degree ofhuman right’s abuse, because ‘that’s how things work there’. The idea of the World Cup heralding improvements needs to be at least slightly altered: it heralds slow, tiny improvements.

The idea of football being a progressive force in this way, also gets called into question by Rummenigge in his interview with German broadcaster ZDF. “It’s all too easy to say: here comes the great Bayern Munich, pointing the finger and saying you need to adapt your human rights and workers’ rights to conform to European norms overnight. I think it’s being oversimplified. I think football is being forced into a situation where it’s expected to improve the whole world.” So which is it? Is football going to turn Qatar into the promised land? Or should we not expect too much?

Apart from these apparent contradictions, the numbers paint a clear picture. At the time of The Guardian’s first revelations in 2013, nearly 2 million people lived in Qatar[iv], of whom an impressive 90 per cent were migrant workers: about 1,8 million people. Experts predicted at that time that some 2 million more migrant workers would come to Qatar, and about 4,000 deaths would occur at World Cup-related construction projects[v]: 4,000 dead on a total of 3,8 million people.

Then in 2020, after all Qatar’s so-called improvements, The Guardian crunched the numbers again. There were ‘only’ 2 million migrant workers in the country, but an estimated 6,500 had died. It’s simply not true that Mohammed Bin Al-Thani’s promised reforms have led to increased life expectancy for workers. On the contrary, it panned out even worse than feared. To put it in De Boer’s terms: the Qatari got off their camels and started walking backwards.

Only symbolic changes

So what happened with the reforms to the Qatari system? Amnesty International’s report from late 2021[vi] is clear on this: it’s mainly symbolic, and in reality almost everything has stayed the same.

A good example is the law that prohibits the common practice of retaining employee passports so that they cannot leave the country. First, every employer can still force 5 per cent of their workers to stay in the country. Second, employees who want to leave need to inform their bosses 72 hours in advance. Amnesty has records of many employees who are quickly accused of theft or refusal to work (a crime in Qatar) shortly after giving notice, which makes it impossible for them to leave the country after all. Third, the law prohibiting the detention of workers is enforced only very sparingly. To add to the trouble, taking worker’s passports has been illegal since 2015, but, when Amnesty surveyed 105 workers, 83 per cent of their passports turned out to have been confiscated.

Another ‘nice’ apparent improvement is the possibility to change jobs. The government developed an online system through which workers can do this, but the platform is in Arabic, which makes it indecipherable for most workers. Also, the system requires you to enter a phone number registered to your name and to submit a copy of your passport. But many migrants only have a phone provided to them by their employer, and oftentimes they don’t have access to their passports either. The possibilities to leave the country or change jobs are only theoretical options. In practice, they barely exist.

Another big issue that persists is migrants not getting paid for their forced labor. In 2015, the government started inspecting companies to see if they paid wages in time. Still, thousands of workers continue to wait months or even years for their unpaid wages, like Adi Gurung from Nepal mentioned in Chapter 1[vii]. The government knows this and says it wants to fight these malpractices but can’t keep the situation under control. Why not? Probably because the repercussions for these companies are too mild. Companies late on payment face restricted access to government services and will be ‘named and shamed’, but don’t have to worry about any legal reperscussions.

One thing that can happen, is that companies are sued by employees through a ‘workers’ committee’, another one of the recent novelties. Unfortunately, these processes are slow, and the overwhelming majority of cases is won by employers. Employees that did win, often still didn’t get their wages paid. To get their money, workers then have to sue for a second time, this time at a civil court, which often takes even longer and has just as small of a chance for success.

The most successful case Amnesty could find was one in which workers finally got their money after two years of legal battles. Weirdly, some of those workers were then paid in full, while others were paid only partially. Nobody knows why, because Qatari authorities offer no transparency. The country proudly presented a raise in minimum wage, but what good is this if your wages don’t get paid?

Qatar and FIFA learned nothing

 Also, we shouldn’t be so naive to think that (minor) international pressure on the Al-Thani regime has led to a significant change of heart concerning human rights. First, because these so-called measures are largely symbolic, but also because even this bare minimum of change has been controversial inside of Qatar. In August 2020 the hashtag #employersrights started trending in Qatar because many employers didn’t agree with the government’s reforms, which they claimed would restrict their freedom. Subsequently, the Shura Council, a kind of legislative council, proposed drastic new restrictions on workers’ rights[viii]. Coincidentally, the very next day The Guardian published their story about the 6,500 worker deaths, after which the restrictions were called off (for now). But it’s painfully clear how little the workers’ rights are safeguarded.

And whoever speaks up only slightly can end up in prison. Abdullah Ibhais was on the World Cup’s PR team when he advocated internally not to obscure the plight of workers, but to first improve that situation and do the PR part later. He was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison in April 2021. According to Human Rights Watch he didn’t receive a fair trial[ix].

In August 2022, when a group of workers protested outside their employer’s Doha headquarters, 60 of them were arrested and put into cells without air conditioning, while temperatures reached 41 C°. The detainees were allegedly told by police that if they can strike in hot weather, they can sleep without air conditioning[x].

Then there’s the role of football in this story. According to Infantino, De Boer and Rummenigge, sport is a catalyst of change in the world. Amnesty International, however, sees a lack of commitment from FIFA to guarantee that migrant workers’ human rights are protected[xi].

They point to the problems concerning the construction of the Al Bayt Stadium (mentioned in Chapter 1). Workers reported to FIFA in July 2019 that they were still owed seven months of wages, but FIFA only took action in May 2020 – after the story became public. Amnesty writes in its report from 2020: “The fact that FIFA was unaware of the plight of workers at a World Cup site for so long shows it is still failing to take human rights abuses linked to the World Cup seriously enough.”

The cause of FIFA’s passivity might point to an entirely different view of the relationship between football and politics, which is prevalent at its Zürich headquarters. In 2018 for example, when diplomatic tensions caused Saudi clubs to refuse to play international matches in Iran, Infantino said: “It’s very clear that politics should stay out of football and football should stay out of politics.”[xii]

Such an attitude does not compute with the idea of FIFA forcing Qatari authorities to improve working conditions for migrants. They can’t claim football causes political changes on the one hand, and say football and politics are entirely separate on the other hand. The actual relationship between FIFA and politics is much more complicated than either ‘we’re improving the world’ or ‘we don’t interfere in anything’. More on this in Chapter 5.

The remarks of Ronald de Boer, Gianni Infantino, and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge are wishful thinking at best, with no basis in reality. At worst, they are an attempt at whitewashing football’s role in the human rights abuses, making morally dubious practices appear like a kind of missionary work, done by open-minded Westerners correcting outdated beliefs held by sheikhs on camels.

Anyway, whatever positive influence the Qatar World Cup might have, it pales in comparison to all the suffering caused by Qatar’s hosting of this tournament. The hope for this World Cup to bring about much needed change in the Gulf state has turned out to be false.         

It is still possible, however, for this World Cup to have positive consequences after all. Maybe all the negative attention brought upon Qatar because of the World Cup would make the country look bad on the international stage. Maybe all the investments to boost Qatar’s image turn out to be wasted, or they even backfire.

I feel that I somewhat like this idea. The bully becomes the bullied. But does it really work like that? In the next chapter, I’ll take a closer look at this scenario. First, we’ll travel back to Germany in 2006.

[i] Den Blanken, M. (2019, July, 21). Ronald de Boer neemt het op voor Qatar: ‘In Nederland gaan ook dingen fout’. [Article]. From Algemeen Dagblad: https://www.ad.nl/show/ronald-de-boer-neemt-het-op-voor-qatar-in-nederland-gaan-ook-dingen-fout~a130b897/

[ii] Gibson, O. (2016, April 22). Fifa promises panel to ensure decent conditions for 2022 World Cup workers. [Article]. From The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/apr/22/fifa-2022-qatar-world-cup-workers-conditions-gianni-infantino

[iii] Ford, M. (2021, February 22). Bayern Munich CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge defends club’s involvement with Qatar – but not all are convinced. [Article]. From Deutsche Welle: https://www.dw.com/en/bayern-munich-ceo-karl-heinz-rummenigge-defends-clubs-involvement-with-qatar-but-not-all-are-convinced/a-56653621

[iv] Qatar Statistics Authority (2013, May 18). Population structure. [Article]. From: https://web.archive.org/web/20130518121404/http://www.qsa.gov.qa/eng/population_census/2013/PopulationStructure_jan.htm

[v] Pattison, P. (2013, September 25). Revealed: Qatar’s World Cup ‘slaves’. [Article]. From The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/25/revealed-qatars-world-cup-slaves

[vi] Amnesty International (2021). Reality check 2021: A year to the 2022 World Cup. The state of migrant worker’s rights in Qatar [PDF]. From: https://www.amnesty.org/en/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/MDE2249662021ENGLISH.pdf

[vii] Migrant Workers in Qatar – Trapped in Slave-like conditions as they work for World Cup 2022. (2019, June 8). From YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BjgYVHdU0Zo

[viii] Romanos, M. (2021, March 4). Is Qatar planning a u-turn on reforms? [Article]. From Amnesty International: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2021/03/is-qatar-planning-a-uturn-on-reforms/

[ix] Human Rights Watch (2021, December 6). FIFA: Ensure Fair Trail of World Cup Whistleblower. Qatar’s World Cup Organizers Instigated State Security Involvement. [Article]. From: https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/12/06/fifa-ensure-fair-trial-world-cup-whistleblower

[x] Associated Press (2022, August 22). Qatar Detains Workers Protesting Late Pay Before World Cup. [Article]. From: https://www.voanews.com/a/qatar-detains-workers-protesting-late-pay-before-world-cup-/6711249.html

[xi] Amnesty International (2020). Reality check 2020: countdown to the 2022 World Cup. Migrant worker’s rights in Qatar [PDF]. From: https://www.amnesty.org/en/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/MDE2232972020ENGLISH.pdf

[xii] Tasnim News Agency. (2018, March 2). Gianni Infantino: Politics Should Stay Out of Football. [Article]. From: https://www.tasnimnews.com/en/news/2018/03/02/1669767/gianni-infantino-politics-should-stay-out-of-football

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