Qatar, world cup and human rights


Things have not gone all Qatar’s way in the World Cup

November 2022

Qatar has spent huge sums of money on building stadia and in attempts to promote its image around the world. It was perhaps the most expensive example of sports washing there has been. How successful is it?

Not going to plan

What is obvious is that it has not gone according to plan. Previous nation’s attempts to sanitise their image using sport have, from their point of view, been reasonably successful, one thinks of China. This has been because the sporting community: the sports people themselves, the managers and promoters, the media and many of the supporters – have cared little for the human rights of the countries where competition has taken place. So tennis, golf, boxing, cycling, horse racing, motor sport and other competitions have happily taken place in countries where torture is still practised, opposition is repressed, women have few rights and the death penalty is still a fact of life. Why let a stoning or public amputation spoil a game of tennis? No matter, the money is good and the sports pages of our media do not sully their pages with the sordid goings on outside the field of play. Sport has existed in a kind of bubble making it supremely suitable to be used by autocratic regimes to launder their image.

Qatar has been different. People have noticed and suddenly, some of the sports pages have moved away from sports reporting and are talking about arm bands, protests and footballers not singing the national anthem. The wearing of arm bands has become politically charged. There are pictures of people holding up posters particularly about women’s rights (or should we say, the absence of them). Yesterday, it was the German team covering their mouths. David Beckham who, up till now, has been able to promote himself as the honest Essex boy done good, is now seen in as a somewhat dubious light having accepted a reported £120m fee to be an ambassador for the Qataris. It is said he will not now get his knighthood. When reporters approach him for interview, he is silent. Not yet hero to zero but certainly a damaged brand.

FIFA want us to focus just on the football. Never mind the 6,500 worker deaths, the near absence of women’s rights, the silencing of opposition people and the anti LGBQI+ actions and laws. Where once football was to be the means by which nations came together and mutual understanding increased, now we are enjoined not to look outside the stadium itself. FIFA’s Infantino tells us that he understands prejudice because he has freckles and red hair which was a problem for him at school.

Sports washing may not be the same again

One positive thing may emerge from this World Cup and that is the days of sports washing may not be numbered but it will make countries and despots think twice in future. Instead of hundreds of thousands of supporters and spectators arriving to marvel at the spectacle no questions asked, some of them are asking questions. Some might even be a little uncomfortable at being there at all. The sports pages now mention the uncomfortable truths about the regime where the event is held and do not simply report on the sport as though wearing blinkers. Sport has been a willing captive, happy to take the millions and all too ready to claim ignorance of what happens outside the stadium or arena. The media has also followed the money. Perhaps those days are over and future events will bring a greater readiness to question and take account of the human rights situation in the host country.

FIFA and the World Cup


FIFA writes to all contestants urging them to ‘focus on the football’

November 2022

The decision to hold the World Cup in Qatar was always controversial and as the competition approaches, temperatures have risen concerning the state’s human rights record and treatment of the migrant workers who built the stadiums and facilities, around 6,500 of whom have reportedly died. The FIFA president Gianni Infantino has written to the 32 competing nations asking them to ‘focus on the football’. He suggests further that they need ‘to respect all opinions and beliefs without handing out moral lessons.’ The FIFA General Secretary Fatma Samoura goes further and tells us that the food is great and ‘the tea is beautiful!’ She suggests, absurdly, that Qatar can be used as a ‘role model for other countries in the Gulf’.

The essential dispute is whether sport is a useful pressure point to improve the human rights of the host nations where events take place, or whether sport is simply being used to sanitise the reputations of dire regimes, in other words, sports washing. There is an argument for sporting events going to a country where the combination of visibility, media attention and the need to ‘put on a good face’ can have a positive effect on how individuals are treated. While this may be true in principle, it was hard to find such positive examples on a search through a range of sport-based campaign organisations who promote this idea such as the Centre for Sports and Human Rights. The IOC claimed to insert requirements into their contracts but the extent to which they outlast the actual competition has to be questioned.

Qatar has a range of problems on the human rights front. They include the kafala system which ties workers to their employers. We have mentioned the claim that around 6,500 have died building the facilities. The workers are barred from forming a trade union. FIFA has claimed that reforms have been introduced but there seems little sign of them in practice and enforcement seems minimal. Wage theft is common.

Women are treated poorly. The suffer under the guardianship system which means the permission of a male member of the family is needed to marry, travel or study abroad and divorced women are not permitted to be their children’s guardian.

Same sex relations are banned and are a crime. There is no freedom of expression.

FIFA’s statements seem to be at variance to the idea of sport having some kind of ambassadorial role. If the footballers are being asked not to wear armbands, nor to ‘hand out moral lessons’ as they put it and generally keep a low profile, where then is the pressure on the Qataris going to come from? They were joined by the UK’s foreign secretary James Cleverly MP who was quoted at saying, in connection with LGBT football fans heading for the competition, that they should be ‘respectful of the host nation’. Downing Street distanced themselves from this crass comment.

Another factor is how the competition will be reported. Sports reporting lives largely in a world of its own. The narrative is around how the home country is progressing, who is the favourite to win and facile interviews with the various participants about their performances on the field past and future. Life outside the stadium and hotel rooms are unlikely to get a mention. Will any of the sports reporters visit the squalid accommodation that the men who built the stadiums live in? Will the subservient status of women be mentioned? Since freedom of expression is substantially curtailed, none of this is likely to see the light of day. The reporters might reasonably argue we are here to comment on football not on social or human rights conditions.

There seems no escape from the fact that sport is being used by repressive or abusive regimes to enhance their reputations and the sports people are only too willing to play along. It’s not just football of course: tennis; boxing; golf; motorsport; cycling and athletics have all quite happily taken the money. The notion that sporting events are a force for good and the publicity they generate helps those abused by the regimes is fanciful at best. There seems little evidence of sustained benefit deriving from these major international sporting events. Claims are made but the power of money seems to trump any moral considerations and those with the power to make a difference are only too content to look the other way.

Sources: ITV News; HRW; Amnesty; Mirror; Daily Mail; UNSW Sidney

Qatar World Cup


October 2022

The World Cup, soon to start in Qatar, brings together in one place, sports washing, corruption and human rights abuses in a kind of symbolic statement of how to understand the modern world. FIFA itself is in a league all of its own in terms of corruption. It is reported that 16 of its voting members have been implicated in corruption or bad practice since Qatar was awarded the tournament. The list of enquiries investigations, legal actions and the like would take thousands of words to describe.

States like Qatar, with its enormous wealth derived from its massive reserves of natural gas, can afford to spend huge sums on supporting or sponsoring sporting events to green wash their dubious political activities. They are safe in the knowledge that simply by waving large cheques at sporting entities, they can secure these events with no sign of sportsmen or women, their managers or coaches, showing the least concern about the activities going on in those countries.

To build the stadiums has caused a large number of deaths, either from safety failures or from heat exhaustion. The labourers, recruited under the infamous kafala system, are unable to change employers, are not allowed to join a trade union, and live in appalling squalor often sleeping in shifts in the same bed. Their wages are often stolen and despite investigations and promises, there seems no end to the abuses. Various statements have been made by FIFA representatives expressing concern at the deaths and Qatar has made promises to improve their practices. It seems however, that nothing was actually done.

Women are still second-class citizens suffering under a range of gender-based restrictions. They must seek permission from a male guardian to study or travel abroad, marry, or work in some government jobs. Some hotels will not allow single women under the age of 35 to stay.

Some of the footballers have expressed concern but seemed to say there was nothing they could do, and it was all too late anyway since the stadiums were built. A boycott would serve no purpose one England team person said.

So, a tournament takes place soon, in a country where an unknown number of workers – with few rights – have died building the stadiums, where corruption on a massive scale has taken place and where women enjoy few rights. Nothing political will be said because we depend on their gas following Russia cutting off their supplies. Our sports pages will be full of the results and eager reportage of England’s progress in the tournament and will show scant attention to events beyond the pitch. A neat encapsulation of where human rights are today perhaps.

Sources used in this post: HRW; al Jazeera, Amnesty; The Guardian

Readers may also like to link to FairSquare human rights organisation, based in London, which has published reports on abusive labour practices in Qatar.

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