Political and human rights criticism grows louder as World Cup nears in Qatar

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Western outrage was already palpable in 2010, after FIFA, soccer’s governing body, chose Qatar’s bid to host the World Cup in 2022. The German tabloid Bild responded to the move by printing the headline “Qatarstrophe”, claiming that only petro-wealth and corruption could influence the selection of the Persian Gulf kingdom. “The only explanation for this decision is that FIFA sold the World Cup to the sheikhs of the mini-state in the desert,” said Bild. “There is no other explanation.”

There was also an element of disbelief and condescension. “How can such a small country with no sporting tradition organize such an important event?” He observed the left-leaning French daily Liberation at the time. “In many points, demographic, economic, environmental, sports and tourism, the choice makes you wonder.”

Twelve years later, much of that sentiment endures. Pop star Dua Lipa denied he was performing at the opening ceremony, saying he looked forward to visiting Qatar when fulfilling his human rights commitments. Philipp Lahm, who lifted the World Cup trophy as Germany’s triumphant captain in 2014, cited human rights concerns as the reason he was not present in Doha. Although the World Cup is days away from the start, the talk of boycotts is only getting louder.

Protesters from soccer fans showed their displeasure over the weekend, especially in Germany, where tens of thousands of fans threw banners against the tournament at local club league matches in Hamburg, Berlin, the valley of Ruhr and elsewhere. These detailed a laundry list of complaints about the host nation’s autocratic monarchy, including its alleged human rights abuses, suppression of dissent, persecution of LGBTQ people and mistreatment of migrant workers.

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“5,000 dead for 5,760 minutes of football. Shame on you!” read a message repeated across Germany, a reference to various estimates of worker deaths over the course of Qatar’s ambitious construction projects since it won the tournament bid 12 years ago.

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Even the executive who presided over Qatar winning the bid now says it was a “mistake”. Qatar “is too small of a country,” Sepp Blatter, former FIFA president, recently told Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeiger. “Football and the World Cup are too big for that.”

To be sure, Blatter’s remarks carry a strong note of sour grapes. He left his post in 2015 amid a spiraling corruption scandal that also implicated some of his colleagues. In earlier years, he strongly defended taking the tournament to Qatar, whose vast natural gas reserves financed the first World Cup in the Middle East, never mind the country’s lack of participation in any previous tournaments.

While Blatter is still locked in legal disputes over fraud charges, Qatari officials resent the accusations against them. In a speech last month, Qatar’s emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, said his nation was the target of “unprecedented” external attacks that “included fabrications and double standards that were so ferocious that unfortunately it has prompted many people to question the real motives. and the motives of the campaign.”

There is no clear chain of evidence linking the Qatari authorities to any act of impropriety or graft that secured their bid for the World Cup. Indeed, far from the smoky backrooms in Zurich, where FIFA is based, Qatar has spent its sovereign wealth cash out in the open since winning the bid, expanding its influence through the purchase of the French club Paris Saint Germain. The PSG team is now a real Harlem Globetrotters of the global game, including some of its most famous superstars in Brazil Neymar, Argentina Lionel Messi and French talisman Kylian Mbappe.

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Critics call PSG’s ownership an exercise in “sports laundering” to burnish the image of a problematic regime. They will extend that argument to the World Cup itself, which has seen Qatar shell out around $220 billion to build from scratch the vast infrastructure needed to host a tournament of this scale. That includes new roads, a subway system, dozens of hotels and seven new stadiums.

This mammoth construction project has always drawn attention to the country’s labor rights record. Eighty-five percent of Qatar’s 3 million people are foreign workers, and a sizable portion of that cohort are migrant workers from poor communities in East Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Well before Qatar won the World Cup bid, rights groups documented the abuses and harsh conditions visited upon these migrants, who constitute a permanent underclass in Gulf monarchies such as Qatar and United Arab Emirates.

Last year, the Guardian revealed that around 6,5000 workers from South Asia had died since Qatar was awarded the World Cup. But these deaths marked a general figure for all workers and were not related to the World Cup projects. Qatari authorities have suggested that the death toll of specific workers at the construction sites was around 38 people – although Amnesty International has called Qatar’s failure to investigate the cause of death for most of the workers.

The external scrutiny exposed a host of problems in the labor sector, from problems in housing conditions to heat-related illnesses, to unpaid wages and other abuses by employers. Since being awarded the World Cup, Qatar has overhauled its labor laws, introduced a higher minimum wage than most in the region and declared it would abolish the notorious “kafala” system. a policy of de facto indentured servitude governing the rights of migrants. workers in some Arab countries.

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In a report this month, the UN’s International Labor Organization said Qatar had carried out “significant” reforms that “improved working and living conditions for hundreds of thousands of workers,” but acknowledged that ” more needs to be done to fully apply it.” and enforce labor reforms.”

A recent report by Eqidem, a human rights organization, documented numerous abuses of workers involved in FIFA-related projects over the past two years. The prevalence of these alleged abuses “in workplaces so regulated by Qatar, Fifa and their partners,” the group said, “suggests that the reforms undertaken over the past five years have acted as a cover for the ‘powerful companies that seek to exploit migrant workers with impunity’.

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Both Qatari and FIFA officials are urging the millions more fans arriving in the country to tone down their political criticism and respect the tournament for its historic uniqueness.. To many Qataris, the posturing of fans, celebrities and politicians elsewhere smacks of hypocrisy. In 2018, when Russia hosted the tournament, there was perhaps not this level of condemnation from other sports authorities and fans. Scrutiny of Russia’s broader human rights record did not seem as intense as the glare now on Qatar — even as President Vladimir Putin’s regime fueled a separatist war in Ukraine and conducted war crimes in Syria at the moment.

Reacting to criticism from Germany, Qatar’s foreign minister questioned the agenda. “On the one hand, the German population is misinformed by government politicians; on the other hand, the government has no problem with us when it comes to energy partnerships or investments,” Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani said to the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in an interview this month.



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