4. Won’t this World Cup backfire for Qatar, because of all the bad publicity?

It’s a comforting thought: all the publicity for Qatar’s modern slavery will turn out to be a net negative for the country’s regime. But this hypothesis has always felt a bit unrealistic to me. The idea of the Qatari royal family, in their ivory tower, worrying about all the controversy seems far-fetched. In reality, I picture it to be a bit more like this:

Mohammed Bin Al-Thani looks at the picture on his desk and smiles. There he is, son of the Emir of Qatar and head of the State of Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy (a fancy name for organizing committee), holding the World Cup in his hands. Still only a 22-year-old, flanked by Sepp Blatter and Jérôme Valcke. Those two recently received an additional six-year suspension from FIFA[i]. They played their part, but their part is over. No problem. Al-Thani would rather conduct his business with Gianni Infantino, who at least knows how to retain a positive reputation.

A servant enters the spacious office, places a cup of coffee on the desk, bows, and gets out of there. It’s like the ticking of the clock for Mohammed: he doesn’t even notice it. He opens his laptop and starts his day, like always, by scouring the international newspapers. He scrolls past the death and destruction of the day feeling satisfied, as he doesn’t see the word ‘Qatar’ anywhere.

Only when he reaches the sports section, he finds the five letters of his glorious nation: ‘Lucas Hernandez predicts ‘perfect’ World Cup as Qatar human rights row rages’[ii]. Mohammed clicks the video and watches France international and Bayern Munich defender Lucas Hernandez speak about the World Cup at a press conference. “I’m not going to talk about human rights. Everybody has their own opinion. I think everything will be perfect in Qatar for the World Cup. I don’t know about the workers’ situation, and I will not join the discussion. It’s not up to me to determine what is right and wrong.”

Al-Thani sips his coffee and sits back. Everything’s going according to plan. For every Norwegian player with ‘Human rights on and off the pitch’ on his shirt[iii], there’s one like Hernandez claiming not to join the discussion while simultaneously praising Qatar. Football stars are highly ambitious young millionaires: they have much more in common with Mohammed Bin Al-Thani than they do with a migrant worker. Qatar has nothing to fear from the players.

Still, to be sure, Al-Thani hired some iconic former players as ambassadors: David Beckham, Tim Cahill, Cafú, Samuel Eto’o, Xavi and Mohammed Aboutrika[iv]. Those investments seem to have been quite unnecessary.

He downs his coffee and pushes a button. The servant comes in with the next cup, which he carefully places on the desk again. This time, Al-Thani looks at him and smiles. They work hard, those Indians, or Nepalese, or whatever their nationality. And they don’t complain. Or maybe nobody hears their complaints.

This day in the life of Mohammed Bin Al-Thani is probably still far from the truth. Because the chances of him worrying at all about what Western media say about his country, appear slim. When there are big revelations, he makes a statement to repair the damage, but he won’t lie awake at night when some Norwegians speak up against the World Cup. The only thing he would fear is a boycott by major footballing countries, but this has never happened. The tournament is happening, even Amnesty International doesn’t want it to be cancelled[v].

It would then be wonderful if all the attention for human rights abuses would make Qatar a pariah state, shunned by the rest of the world. It would be a kind of poetic justice, making the sacrifices of modern slaves a bit less pointless. But will this kind of ‘justice’ really be served?

The first thing to consider is the tiny amount of negative attention Qatar receives. All parties point to each other. Players like Hernandez, but also those who are more outspoken on social issues, like Georginio Wijnaldum[vi], don’t think it’s their responsibility to speak up. They justifiably think it’s up to national federations to make a statement. But federations only issue half-hearted comments in which they often mention the false hope of the World Cup leading to positive change. This includes the Dutch KNVB[vii]. When asked about a boycott, they point to human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, who in turn say the World Cup should not be boycotted, because migrant workers might lose their income.

Then, responsibility seems to fall on journalists – but they are torn on the issue. Prominent Dutch football journalist Willem Vissers announced in 2014[viii] that he would not travel to Qatar for the World Cup, but by 2019[ix] he had begun to doubt his decision. “Back then I wrote an article hoping it would make a difference. Nothing happened. So what’s the point? If everything’s already decided, shouldn’t I go there and write critically about it? But that’s not a great argument, because once you’re there and the World Cup has started, those worker camps will all be gone, because the stadiums are finished. So that’s a bit pointless as well.” In the same conversation on Dutch radio, Sjoerd Mossou, another well-known journalist, says: “Everyone needs to make their own moral judgement. It’s not true that individuals can’t do their part, but clubs and federations do have a bigger responsibility than a left back or a journalist.” This closes the loop of people pointing at each other while nobody really does anything.

Even if there would really be overwhelming negative attention by media outlets, via widely shared statements or other initiatives – these won’t hurt the Qataris if nobody boycotts their tournament. To understand this point, it’s important to understand why Qatar is making such huge investments in organizing this World Cup.

The Qataris have spent a lot of time researching the relationship between sports and their country’s future. A leading expert is sociologist Mahfoud Amara, professor at Qatar University. He situates the organization of sporting events in a broader context[x]. Qatar is facing several challenges in the 21st century: for example, some people are starting to doubt whether a monarchy is the best power structure, at a time when the call for political reform from inside and outside the country is becoming stronger and stronger. Another source of discontent is the role of migrants and women as secondary citizens. Furthermore, the rich oil fields will one day run dry, so Qatar needs a diversified economy in which the services and tourism sectors can become increasingly important (which is why Qatar released a half-an-hour video starring David Beckham, who praised the country’s potential as a tourist destination[xi]).

Wadih Ishac, Assistant Professor in Sports Management, also at Qatar University, cites the country’s geopolitical situation as another reason for hosting sports events[xii]: Qatar is a small trading nation with limited military power, in an unstable region. It has had tensions with powerful neighbors such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. That’s why it needs to have strong ties with both the US and China for protection, but also with other Arab nations. It cannot afford to cut itself off from the rest of the world, but instead needs to showcase itself to the international community as a modern nation with plenty of business opportunities (as described in detail in the ‘Qatar National Vision 2030’, a report commissioned by the Al-Thanis[xiii]).

How do sports fit into all this? Amara calls it the ‘sportification’ of the Arabian Peninsula: “Large investments are being poured into Gulf countries in the staging and sponsorship of the world’s leading sports events and the building of sporting infrastructures. The aim is to open the Arabian Peninsula to the world of business and finance and to establish the global reputation of a leading destination for international sporting events.” In Qatar’s case, it also hopes to achieve significant success in all kinds of sports, naturalizing top athletes from abroad.

All this to create an image of a new, modern Qatar. Not just for the outside world, but also for its own population, which might otherwise not support the regime for much longer. Or, as Ishac puts it: “Sport is used as a tool with the objective of domestic policy to support the system. Sport is mirroring the principal values of the society. Therefore, sport is an attractive vehicle used by the government to improve the level of support. This support is not only internal for the society on psychological aspects, but it can also be external to gain more soft power, especially through improving relations and diplomacy between countries. Therefore, sport is one of the tools that can be used between countries to show case every system and regime while replacing war between countries. Soft power (power via diplomacy) is replacing hard power (military power) while countries are competing against each other, and supporters are enjoying the games.”

Qatar wants to be a part of the international community. Which sport is more global than football? And which tournament is more global than the World Cup? Only the Olympic Games will draw an even bigger international audience. Still, from a Qatari perspective, we should not overstate the importance of this tournament. It’s just one part of a broader strategy to properly join the international community. Other pillars of this strategy are the international news broadcaster Al Jazeera and sports broadcaster BeIN Sports[xiv]; the accumulation of huge art collections[xv][xvi] which Qatar uses for exhibitions at home and abroad; positioning Qatar Airways as one of the world’s leading airlines; the takeover of Paris Saint-Germain, and of course hosting several other sports events, like the Asian Games in 2006 and the handball world championships in 2015.

All of these increase the oil nation’s soft power. Because Qatar’s military power (hard power) is so small and the current source of income will one day run out, it has to go all in on soft power: its cultural, diplomatic and financial influence[xvii]. When the entire world watches Hollywood movies and yearns for ‘The American Dream’, the United States gains power without any military intervention. And everyone wants to do business with them. Qatar aims to achieve something similar through the avenues mentioned above.

In this way, the World Cup is used as a tool for propaganda. But propaganda aimed at whom? Well, not at the average football fan from the West. According to Ishac, Qatar wants to bring in more foreign visitors, but 60 per cent of them are corporate travelers. People with money. A related goal is to foster business relations, and so far that’s working out great for Qatar: football clubs like Bayern Munich[xviii], Ajax[xix], and PSV[xx] make lucrative trips to the Gulf State while fully aware of the human rights abuses; oil company Shell has become Qatar’s largest foreign investor[xxi], and the World Cup itself has also drawn in foreign companies. Tekfen Construction, from Turkey, is one of the largest construction contractors building stadiums and infrastructure[xxii]. The British construction company Carillion sparked controversy because of the way in which it treated its workers[xxiii]. Ishac also points to highly educated expats and teachers, who should help strengthen Qatar’s knowledge economy, as intended targets. None of the above seem to mind the modern-day slavery. There’s money to be made in Qatar, so why ask questions?

In addition to these foreign interests, the World Cup’s PR is intended to reach the Qatari people. Not the migrant workers, but their employers. They – as will be clear by now – don’t mind the modern slavery either. But they might mind the monarchy which rules over them. The Al-Thanis expect the Qatari people to have a greater sense of unity and pride when the national football team manages to get some good results at the World Cup (as Russia did so brilliantly in 2018) and when they can successfully host this major event. A more proud and happy people are more likely to keep supporting the Al-Thani family.

Emir Tamim Al-Thani will also need to be popular in order to stave off threats from within his own family. The royal house is anything but a nice family enterprise. Tamim’s grandfather came to power in 1972 after deposing his own uncle and then banishing him from Qatar. This uncle’s son, Sheikh Talal Al-Thani, was put in prison without trial when Tamim came to power in 2013. Talal has been in prison ever since, without ever being allowed to consult a lawyer[xxiv]. Tamim’s father, Hamad, became Emir in 1995 through a non-violent coup against his own father, Khalifa (who had done the same to his uncle in 1972), while the latter was visiting Switzerland. Khalifa didn’t go down easily and staged his own countercoup in 1996, after which Hamad banished him from the country until 2004[xxv].

Tamim himself is one of the few Qatari rulers who was handed the Emirate peacefully by his predecessor. He will probably also hope to become one of the few not to be deposed by a family member. What better way to achieve this than by being immensely popular? And what better way to achieve that than by giving the people some high-level entertainment?

Al-Thani’s regime also hopes for the World Cup to be conducive to public health. According to Ishac, the Qatari people aren’t the most physically active, leading to relatively high rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. In turn, these issues cause the government’s medical expenses to be high. By building modern sports facilities and by starting a program which should train the next generation of top athletics (promoted by another high-profile ambassador, Tim Cahill), the government wants to stimulate people to work out from a young age. The World Cup is an ‘excuse’ to make these investments and could provide an inspiration for more people to start playing football, or to be involved in sports at all.

To summarize, the World Cup’s benefits for Mohammed Bin Al-Thani and his family are as follows: international relations which guarantee the country’s safety and make the economy future-proof; a unified people more supportive of the royal family; and a healthier population costing less money. The opinion of Average Joe in Europe is just as irrelevant to the Al-Thanis as the migrant workers’ human rights.

Only a boycott by several major countries could lead to a serious loss of face for Qatar, but the odds of this happening are getting lower each month. The World Cup will be a resounding success for Qatar. This question about negative publicity could also be asked for FIFA. Won’t they feel the heat of criticism? The short answer is that FIFA’s reputation is already so negative that the 2022 World Cup could only confirm it. A more nuanced answer takes into account the political and economic goals of FIFA, which we’ll explore in the next chapter. But first we’ll go to South Africa, in the summer of 2010.

[i] NOS Voetbal. (2021, March 24). Oud-FIFA-preses Blatter krijgt nog eens dik zes jaar schorsing aan z’n broek. [Article]. From: https://nos.nl/artikel/2373926-oud-fifa-preses-blatter-krijgt-nog-eens-dik-zes-jaar-schorsing-aan-z-n-broek.html

[ii] Goal Africa. (2021, March 25). Lucas Hernandez predicts ‘perfect’ World Cup as Qatar human rights row rages. [Video]. From: https://www.goal.com/en/news/lucas-hernandez-predicts-perfect-world-cup-as-qatar-human-rights-/d72v1185aue41sqj1mq1reazj

[iii] BBC Sport. (2021, March 25). Norway players wore T-shirts bearing the message ‘Human rights on and off the pith’ before their 2022 World Cup qualifier against Gibraltar to show support for Qatar migrant workers. [Article]. From: https://www.bbc.com/sport/football/56516109

[iv] Ambassadors. From Qatar 2022: https://www.qatar2022.qa/en/about/ambassadors

[v] Wil Amnesty een boycot van het WK? From Amnesty International: https://www.amnesty.nl/wat-we-doen/landen/qatar/wil-amnesty-wk-boycot

[vi] NOS Voetbal. (2021, March 23). Vraag over Qatar en racisme leidt tot felle reactie bij Wijnaldum. [Article]. From: https://nos.nl/collectie/13781/artikel/2373802-vraag-over-qatar-en-racisme-leidt-tot-felle-reactie-bij-wijnaldum

[vii] NU Sport. (2022, March 29). KNVB neemt petitie tegen WK in Qatar aan: ‘Maar een boycot werkt tegengesteld’. [Article]. From: https://www.nu.nl/voetbal/6192066/knvb-neemt-petitie-tegen-wk-in-qatar-aan-maar-een-boycot-werkt-tegengesteld.html

[viii] Vissers, W. (2014, March 25). ‘Ik ga niet naar het WK in Qatar; het verkwanselen van een sport kent grenzen’. [Opinion]. From de Volkskrant: https://www.volkskrant.nl/nieuws-achtergrond/ik-ga-niet-naar-het-wk-in-qatar-het-verkwanselen-van-een-sport-kent-grenzen~b03ccb7f/

[ix] De Nieuws BV. (2019, December 19). WK Voetbal 2022 in Qatar: moeten journalisten het boycotten? [Podcast]. From NPO Radio 1: https://www.nporadio1.nl/sport/20613-wk-voetbal-2022-in-qatar-moeten-journalisten-het-boycotten

[x] Amara, M. (2005). ‘2006 Qatar Asian Games: A ‘Modernization’ Project from Above?’ In: Sport in Society 8(3), p. 493-514.

[xi] Griffin, L. (2022, August 30) David Beckham raves about ‘incredible’ Qatar in new tourism video despite country’s human rights record. [Article]. From Metro: https://metro.co.uk/2022/08/30/david-beckham-raves-about-qatar-in-video-despite-human-rights-record-17270749/

[xii] Ishac, W. (2018). Furthering national development through sport, the case of Qatar [PDF]. From: https://www.theses.fr/2018UBFCH037.pdf

[xiii] General Secretariat For Development Planning. (2008). Qatar National Vision 2030 [PDF]. From: https://www.gco.gov.qa/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/GCO-QNV-English.pdf

[xiv] Henderson, S. (2000, December 8). The ‘al-Jazeera Effect’: Arab Satellite Television and Public Opinion. [Article]. From The Washington Institute for Near East Policy: https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/al-jazeera-effect-arab-satellite-television-and-public-opinion

[xv] Adam, G. & Burns, C. (2011, July 7). Qatar revealed as the world’s biggest contemporary art buyer. [Article]. From The Art Newspaper: https://web.archive.org/web/20150307065133/http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Qatar+revealed+as+the+world%E2%80%99s+biggest+contemporary+art+buyer/24185

[xvi] Collecting practices of the Al-Thani Family. From Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collecting_practices_of_the_Al-Thani_Family

[xvii] Grix, J. & Lee, D. (2013). ‘Soft Power, Sports Mega-Events and Emerging States: The Lure of the Politics of Attraction’. In: Global Society 27(4), p. 521-536.

[xviii] 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

[xix] NU.nl. (2019, November 1). Ajax naar Qatar: ‘Triest dat geld meer telt dan mensenrechten’. [Podcast]. From: https://www.nu.nl/dit-wordt-het-nieuws/6008275/ajax-naar-qatar-triest-dat-geld-meer-telt-dan-mensenrechten.html

[xx] Elfrink, R. (2019, November 16). PSV maakt het zichzelf niet makkelijk met een keuze voor Qatar. [Article]. From Eindhovens Dagblad: https://www.ed.nl/psv/psv-maakt-het-zichzelf-niet-makkelijk-met-een-keuze-voor-qatar~a4787939/

[xxi] Projects and sites. From Shell: https://www.shell.com.qa/en_qa/about-us/projects-and-sites.html

[xxii] World Construction Network. (2017, February 24). Main constructor chosen for 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar stadium. [Article]. From: https://www.worldconstructionnetwork.com/news/main-contractor-chosen-for-2022-fifa-world-cup-qatar-stadium

[xxiii] Lloyd-Roberts, S. (2014, December 8). Qatar 2022: Construction firms accused amid building boom. [Article]. From BBC News: https://www.bbc.com/news/business-30295183

[xxiv] Alsulami, M. (2020, August 19). Wife of jailed Qatari royal speaks of her battle to see justice done. [Article]. From Arab News: https://www.arabnews.com/node/1721881/middle-east

[xxv] Harman, D. (2007, March 5). Backstory: The royal couple that put Qatar on the map. [Article]. From The Christian Science Monitor: https://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0305/p20s01-wome.html/%28page%29/2


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