As the world comes together to witness this prestigious event, many eyebrows have been raised on the host country, Qatar. The World Cup has grabbed the world’s attention for reasons more than just the popularity of the game. While fans around the world have kept a close eye on the premier event, there is much more to the story than just the undying passion of these fans.
Qatar won the bid to host the FIFA World Cup 2022 back in 2010 and it has been a host of various controversies ever since. Contrary to what is claimed by the Qatari authorities in charge of the World Cup, there have been questions raised on the organisation of this year’s event and the multitude of stories involving espionage and bribery. Ever since winning the bid for hosting the World Cup, Qatar has been at the forefront of criticism regarding grave human rights violations that extend beyond just the preparations for the World Cup but tie up to the very structural problems that exist within the Qatari state.
One of the fundamental questions to ask amidst all these controversies is how did Qatar come up to be the host of the World Cup. The country remains a curious choice for hosting the event, due to various factors. First of all, the climate conditions of Qatar are not very conducive to organising a sporting event. The temperature in the country can rise up to more than 52 degrees Celsius and this was primarily the reason why the World Cup was eventually moved to be held in November. The worrisome factor at the heart of the accusations of human rights abuses is that labourers were made to work consistently without relief in the torturous heat.
It is also important to point out that issues regarding women’s rights, protection of human rights and LGBTQ rights have existed in Qatar well before the bidding of the World Cup. So how did Qatar come to win the bid? Were the FIFA authorities completely unaware of the situation of human rights in the country?
It has been speculated for a long time that Qatar’s win in the bid to host the World Cup has been the result of structural corruption. This claim is now supported by the United States Department of Justice as they asserted that FIFA officials were bribed by the representatives of Qatar to secure the bid for hosting the World Cup. The prime governing body of world football, FIFA has been mired under corruption scandals since 2015 wherein the officials have been accused of being bribed to award the bids for hosting the World Cups to Russia and Qatar.
The Qatari state has reportedly spent more than $200 billion on organising this World Cup and if the speculations of corruption are true then the actual figure spent could be much more than that.
Not only this, as the World Cup has finally commenced, fresh allegations of the Qatari state bribing the players of Ecuador in the first match between Qatar and Ecuador, have also come up to the surface. A strategic political advisor, Amjad Taha claimed that Qatar paid up to $7.4 million to the players of Ecuador to lose the opening match. As Qatar finally lost to Ecuador, how true these allegations are, still remains to be seen.
Amidst all these allegations of bribery and corruption, a more grave concern is taking root regarding Qatar’s handling of the World Cup preparations. At the centre of these issues is the human rights violations of the workers that were involved in the massive infrastructural projects that the country undertook before the event.
Human Rights violations
Majority of the workers involved in the development of necessary infrastructure were migrants coming primarily from India, Nepal and Bangladesh. It has been reported by human rights agencies such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, that these workers were also made to pay a ‘recruitment fee’ of as much as $4000 to secure their employment. This suggests that most of the workers coming in from these countries must already be under debt to meet the cost of the recruitment.
Apart from the high costs of recruitment already incurred at the very beginning, the Qatari authorities have been accused of grave negligence of these migrant workers. As per the reports, these workers have had to stay in horrifying unsanitary conditions, with little to no security of minimum wages as well as lack of proper access to food or healthcare. The officials have likely engaged in what the Human Rights Watch has called ‘wage theft’ wherein a lot of the workers have not been paid their due wages.
What is important to understand is that the abuses faced by these workers is not just isolated to the preparation of the World Cup but it is a part of the larger structure that inherently discriminates against the labourers denying them basic human rights.
The ‘Kafala’ System
Akin to the ‘modern day slavery’, the system of ‘sponsorship’ or ‘kafala’ forms the root of the migrant work culture in the Gulf countries. This system completely takes away the autonomy of the migrant worker as they become dependent on their employers for securing residence in the country. As per this system, for a worker to stay in the country, they have to be first sponsored by their employers, following which they always have to obtain the consent of their employers before leaving the country. Some claims have gone so far as to say that the employers could also take away the visas and confiscate the passports of these workers to prevent them from leaving.
The Qatari state has faced the heat regarding the Kafala system once before following a complaint by the International Trade Union Confederation at the International Labour Organization (ILO). This complaint was met with assurances from the state of Qatar in 2017 that the Kafala system would be replaced by an employee contract system.
To put this into the perspective of the present World Cup, the commitment to abolish the Kafala system was made in 2017, which was 7 years after winning the bid for hosting the event. This would mean that even though Qatar acknowledged the abuses meted out by the system, it was still too late for workers who were victims of this system since the beginning of the preparations.
Deaths of Migrant Workers
A report by Amnesty International suggests that a high number of these workers also succumbed to the inhumane conditions that they were subjected to.
The deaths of about 69 per cent of the migrant workers primarily hailing from India, Bangladesh and Nepal was attributed to ‘natural causes’ by the Qatari state. No further investigation was conducted to understand the high number of deaths. The lack of transparency further substantiates the claims of inaction by the authorities to deal with these abuses effectively.
For more details on the lack of documented attention to the migrant worker’s deaths in Qatar, read the comprehensive report by Amnesty International, here
The Question of Women’s Rights
The Qatari state has always held an authoritarian control over the freedom and basic rights of women. They are barred from going out without permission from their male ‘guardians’ as per the 2021 Human Rights Watch report.
Their freedom is severely restricted as they lack autonomy in various aspects of their personal life such as marriage or taking up a job. In public domain it is not different as political participation for women is prohibited. It has also been reported that pregnant women have to showcase a marriage certificate to claim any prenatal healthcare benefits. The structural violence and abuses faced by women is not a new phenomenon in Qatar and simply points to the fact that women are still considered to be second class citizens in their own countries.
Apart from the curtailment of women’s rights, the Qatari authorities have also been criticised over their approach towards the LGBTQ community.
The LGBTQ Community
This forms another issue of contention in this year’s World Cup. Qatar, has criminalised same sex relationships. Article 28 of the Qatari Penal Code considers same sex relations as a crime and includes a sentence of up to seven years. There exist horrifying reports of people being subjected to immense torture at the hands of the security forces and even being made to consult psychologists to ‘cure their illnesses’. The security forces have also taken liberty to arrest people arbitrarily based on mere suspicions without any follow up trials. Even though the sentence by law is of seven years, those arrested under such suspicions are seldom charged or put on legal trials which extends their subjugation for a far longer period than is legally mandated.
Those suspected of being in part of the LGBTQ community are often subjected to high level surveillance by authorities and their online activities are tracked through cybersecurity violations. The Preventive Security Department is at the forefront of inflicting these abuses and it works directly under the Interior Ministry of the State of Qatar.
As the World Cup teams aimed to show solidarity with the LGBTQ community through their “one love” campaign, their efforts were shunned by FIFA authorities as they imposed threats of sporting sanctions on teams engaging in these campaigns.
Accountability by FIFA
All of the accounts of various human rights abuses and violations boil down to the issue of accountability by FIFA itself. FIFA had adopted the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights which makes the association liable to protect human rights. FIFA thus needs to address any issues of human rights violations and also to ‘prevent, mitigate and remedy’ them. Considering the present situation, it would not be an understatement to say that the association has largely failed to address the issues lying at the heart of these controversies. This has been primarily the reason behind the movement to even boycott the World Cup.
It is also very unrealistic to suggest that the FIFA authorities in 2010 were unaware of the questionable human rights condition in the country. The fact that the former FIFA chief Jerome Valcke admitted that the conditions of “less democracy” is better for organising a World Cup says a lot about what goes behind all the glitz and glamour of the sporting association.
However, the decision to allow Qatar to host the World Cup could just become the catalyst for change that is needed by those suffering through Qatar’s draconian laws. There has never been a time when the status of human rights in Qatar has taken such centre stage. The scale of publicity of these issues has been immense bringing to light what was only spoken in hushed voices till now.