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  • Writer's pictureSarah Kiegeland

Qatar World Cup 2022: Decolonising the court of public opinion

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

Photo by Rhett Lewis on Unsplash

When Qatar won the hosting bid for the 2022 FIFA World Cup back in 2010, the country saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Mega sporting occasions like the World Cup or the Olympic Games are one of the few events the global community has in common. The meritocratic ideal of sports - that good, honest, hard work will naturally lead to success - makes these events opportunities for non-Western countries to assert themselves in the global community. In a world where the West - its morals, philosophies, produced knowledge and international laws - control the dominant perceptions we have of each other, this was an opportunity for Qatar to showcase its culture and modernity; and to assert its soft global power as a wealthy Middle Eastern country.

Until 2010, Qatar had rarely been featured in Western media at all. But in the years since, Qatar’s Western medial image has become almost exclusively negative. The years-long debate following Qatar’s successful hosting culminated in boycott demands that escalated with every day we got closer to the formal beginning of the event. Prominent newspaper headline their reports with titles such as "Qatar - World Cup of disgrace“. The BBC chose not to air the World Cup ceremony in an act of protest against the human rights abuses that occurred in Qatar. Fans write that they could never turn on their TV to support the World Cup being held in an "autocratic nation that stands for human rights violations and backwardness“. At the same time, non-Western media outlets are criticizing these dominant media narratives of Qatar, and pointing out that they perpetuate an "us versus them“ rhetoric tainted by Orientalism and Islamophobia. While it seems that the Western court of public opinion has long decided Qatar’s moral fate, we want to take another look.

FIFA - corruption from the get-go

FIFA’s decision to award Qatar the right to host the World Cup has been controversial from the get-go. Qatar does not have a long history with football and did not possess a lot of the infrastructure necessary to hold the event, which needed to be built. Furthermore, Qatar’s very warm climate meant that stations need to be heavily air-conditioned and that the traditional timeframe in which the World Cup usually happened, which is the summer months of the Northern hemisphere, was not a viable option for Qatar as the temperatures were too high.

Hosting the World Cup always necessitates large-scale construction work to meet the infrastructural needs of the sporting event. Brazil was similarly criticised in 2014 for building a station in the middle of the jungle, in a part of the country that did not have a football tradition either. After World Cups, these stadiums become underused, if not completely abandoned. In a world where an already large inequality between rich and poor increases every day and we are fighting to ameliorate the effects of global warming and climate change, these practices are entirely unsustainable. And worthy of critique.

Many investigations into how Qatar came to win the right to host the World Cup indicate that Qatar paid off or otherwise bribed the selection committee in its favour. This is by far not the only outcry of corruption for FIFA, which has been under investigation for taking bribes, evading taxes and circumventing local laws in their favour since as early as the 90s. It has come under fire repeatedly over the past 15 years for its secretive deals and willingness to take bribes. Nevertheless, football fans find it unfair that this is how Qatar has come to host the World Cup, that Qatar does not deserve it.

In these instances, football fans can experience the world that we live in first-hand. On a macrostructural level, our common language is money, and many organisations will do short of anything for more of it. FIFA is an exceptional example of this, and it is not fair to demonise Qatar for speaking this language so well.

Human Rights and Migrant Workers in Qatar

Although the valid concerns of corruption and unsustainability that FIFA has caused, most Westerners are threatening to boycott the World Cup because of the human rights violations that occur in Qatar. While some Westerners focus their critique on the lack of LGBTQ+ and women’s rights that they feel is synonymous with the Middle East, most cite the poor working conditions and resulting deaths of migrant workers as their reason for boycotting this year’s World Cup.

Since Qatar is such a small and scarcely populated state, the country has needed to rely largely on migrant workers for most of the labour necessary to maintain and modernise the country. The World Cup, for which Qatar built an entirely new infrastructure, including 8 Stadiums, is no exception.

Migrant workers who want to come to Qatar need to be sponsored by a specific employer that they are tied to afterwards. Until labour reforms in 2016, migrant workers in Qatar could not quit or switch jobs at all, and it remains difficult to this day. This creates a strong power imbalance between employer and employee, as employees often had no choice but to remain in employment no matter what the working conditions were. Migrant workers are often attracted to these jobs under false pretenses, and speaking out against the employer is virtually impossible. Migrant workers in Qatar are subjected to dangerous and abusive labour conditions often described as modern slavery.

Over the years, news outlets and human rights organisations have reported that these labour conditions have caused the deaths of thousands of migrant workers in Qatar. These reports justifiably led to public outcries, even though the number of deaths directly resulting from the labour conditions during the World Cup construction work is unclear. An early and recently redacted report spoke of 15,000 deaths, a number that outraged fans still often cite when discussing the Qatari World Cup. A Guardian article later estimated around 6500 occupational fatalities related to the World Cup, although this number is based on statistics describing the total number of migrant worker deaths in the country without estimating how many of them passed away during work.

No matter the exact death toll, no argument justifies the abusive labour conditions and resulting fatalities that occurred during Qatar’s preparation for the World Cup. At the same time, Western reporting of this situation, which places the blame for these fatalities solely on Qatar, has been one-sided and inflammatory.

Our concept of human rights does not always make sense in reality. This is most obvious when we look to the fact that human rights frameworks tend to see culture as something that occurs within the bounds of the nation-state. The idea that an easily distinguished unit of responsibility will comt a human rights violation within a national border, and the blame for that violation will be easily assigned to the actor or nation responsible, is too simplistic for our globalised societies. Our global market system is based on centuries of slave trade and colonialism that has left Western nations economically and culturally dominant while also exploiting and depending on the material resources and labour of poorer, “less developed” non-Western countries. This system is inherently racialised, where non-white labour is generally valued at a much lower price than white labour. Furthermore, the globalised nature of market capitalism fully transcends borders and involves complex networks of processes and actors. It is those complex systems that tend to cause human rights violations, making it difficult to place blame on a single entity.

We find these complex systems at play in Qatar as well. The Kafala system itself directly originates from British colonial systems, as Qatar sourced its first migrant workers from existing British imperial trade networks. The visa sponsorships used in Qatar were also first introduced to the Gulf by the British back in the early 1900s. While the past does not justify the present, it is important to acknowledge that much of the human rights abuses that occur in countries such as Qatar stem from European colonial projects.

Next to its violent Western origins, Qatar’s preparation for the World Cup also involved Western actors. Even though newspapers tend to point towards small Qatari building companies as the perpetrators of the Kafala system, many Western construction firms were highly involved in this situation as well. German and French firms are among those who have profited most from Qatar’s modernisation projects, and the German railway company Deutsche Bahn was paid to construct much of the transportation infrastructure surrounding Qatari stadiums. To criticise Qatar as an exceptional violator of human rights does not correspond to reality here and begets to the West a false sense of moral superiority. If Western countries were just as concerned with the well-being of the migrants seeking refuge at their own borders, this may be a different discussion.

A culture too different?

With Qatar hosting the first World Cup to be held in the Middle East, the strained relationship between West and East - largely spurred by Islamophobia and other Orientalist prejudices - was bound to cause conflict. As an Islamic country, Qatari culture is significantly more restrictive than Western cultures, which infringes on the human rights of freedom of expression and equality. From a very controversial ban of alcoholic beverages to valid concerns for LGBTQ+ and women’s rights, Western football fans struggle to see Qatar as a suitable host for the World Cup.

It is true that Muslim culture does not permit or accept homosexuality, and this negatively impacts the lives of queer people who live in Muslim cultures. In the same way, it is true that many countries with pervasive Muslim cultures severely restrict the freedom of women. It is important to continue talking about these issues and fight for the improvement of LGBTQ+ and women’s rights globally.

Any attempt at defending Qatari culture could immediately be seen as a defense of homophobia and sexism. At the same time, these concerns are often used to justify a very polarising rhetoric that demonises the second-largest religious group in the world without any room for nuance or discussion. To write off Qatar completely would ignore the many queer people and women fighting to improve these situations from within, just as feminist and queer activists fought for equality in the Western world. They succeeded, as a reminder, only about 20-30 years ago.

There is no need to excuse the restrictive and intolerant aspects of Qatari culture in a project of cultural relativism. The bigger problem seems to be that the West struggles to disentangle its critiques of Qatar from its general Islamophobia. For example, Russia’s turn to host the World Cup in 2018 caused far less public controversy, even though homophobia is a similarly pervasive problem in the country. Without wanting to make whataboutism the main argument, it seems that the disparity in public outrage points to the problem at hand. The Western mistrust of Islamic countries largely originates from the fear of Islamic terrorism and has been spurred by the Syrian refugee crisis. For many, Western “enlightened” values stand in direct opposition to Muslim values, of which the West only speaks when they have caused violence or terror.

While cultures worldwide have always played football, the West has made football an institution and sees it as its own. Football fans are attached to football as a Western cultural practice and seem to be threatened by Qatar “invading” it. We see this in the debate that ensued when Qatar banned alcoholic drinks from its venues. Restrictive laws on alcohol cannot be argued against in the same breath as LGBTQ+ or women’s rights because they do not cause direct harm. Accepting and valuing the Qatari attitude towards alcohol would be an important exercise of inclusivity in football.

An appeal to the court

The World Cup in Qatar is a perfect example of the impossible complexities that characterise our world and offers up the opportunity for a nuanced discussion of how Western and non-Western countries and citizens engage with each other.

There is no question that since Qatar won the right to host the World Cup, countless atrocities have occurred in the country for which it is partially to blame. Much critique has rightly been directed towards FIFA, which has failed to answer for the plentiful evidence of its corruption, greed and dishonesty. In fact, we may argue that the values that have caused these human rights abuses - profit for profit’s sake - are an entirely Western invention.

Nevertheless, there is a larger point to be made about how this World Cup will escalate already negative Western ideas about the Middle East and complicate the meritocratic ideal of sportsmanship. People who had not given Qatar a single thought before 2010 may struggle to see the country as anything but the power-hungry, authoritarian, restrictive regime that Western media has made it – even if Qatar is home to so many people who have nothing to do with the World Cup, who are just living their lives, and do not deserve any anger.

So far it seems that the critiques of the 2022 World Cup have increased anti-Muslim sentiment in the West. And if we want international sports to be what it claims to be: a fair and inclusive game, Western fans need to find a way to accommodate non-Western cultures without othering them. That means holding each other accountable while walking the line between polarisation and cultural relativism and reflecting on how our own upbringing may taint our view of the world. As the 2026 World Cup in North America comes closer, it will be interesting to see whether the West will extend the same courtesy of critique to the US and Canada that it did to Qatar.

Note from Melody, Managing Director of Waterworth Consulting:

At Waterworth, I strive for my staff, clients, and the general population to see nuance in arguments; coming from a conflict resolution background, I notice more and more the polarity of politics, nationally in the U.K. and internationally. This is a very concerning trend, which will only lead to more conflict if we cannot learn that two things can be true simultaneously, the world is not black and white. I have been following the media closely (internationally and from Jordan – a Muslim-dominant Arabic country - where I reside) in the run-up to the World Cup in Qatar and have seen a huge amount of polarising content. I have been most concerned with the rhetoric from the UK of a higher moral ground by which to judge others. Unfortunately, much of this is embedded in long-standing orientalist and Islamophobic discourse. I do not believe in any way that Qatar is faultless; its human rights record towards foreign workers and outdated laws speaks for itself; however, as a Brit, I don’t feel comfortable throwing stones from our fortified glass house. Below is one of our excellent research assistants, Sarah Kiegeland’s musings on the media circus surrounding Qatar hosting this year’s World Cup. I enjoyed reading this piece; I hope you do just as much. Please comment and send us your thoughts.

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