Qatar 2022: between controversy and hypocrisy

The 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar was a hugely significant occasion for football and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. It is the first time that the competition has come to the region, the first time it has come to an Arab country and the first time it has come to a majority-Muslim country. Why, then, has much of the coverage in the Western media focused more on negativities than the opportunities that have prevailed? This article will explore Qatar’s logic for hosting the World Cup, some of the key controversies surrounding the event and why some of the Western criticism has been problematic.

FIFA World Cup as a strategic opportunity

Qatar is an extremely small country when compared to previous World Cup hosts, with a land area of less than 5000 square miles and just 2.8 million inhabitants. This, coupled with the country’s lack of footballing pedigree, might leave some onlookers questioning why Qatar would want to host the competition. The answer is primarily political.

The FIFA World Cup grants host nations a unique soft power opportunity. Qatar views the tournament as a chance to change perceptions and present itself to the world in a positive light as a technologically advanced, culturally rich and modern country. This may ultimately encourage investments and increase tourism. In a hyper-capitalist society, nations operate like businesses and rely on marketing through media opportunities to generate more favourable perceptions. Hosting the World Cup has also been a significant networking opportunity for Qatar’s political establishment, with world leaders and dignitaries visiting the country. For example, French President Emanuel Macron attended the final between France and Argentina, demonstrating the interoperability of sports and politics in international tournaments.

Qatar is no stranger to using soft power methods for advancing its standing in the international arena. The relatively small, gas-rich monarchy has already hosted large sporting events and, in 2011, a Qatari sovereign wealth fund bought the French football club Paris Saint Germain. Such actions may be seen through the lens of “soft power” in international relations, however, the term sports-washing tends to be used in much of the Western media. This process describes using sport to try to launder the image of a brutal or unjust regime. This sort of framing has meant that Qatar has faced great difficulties in its quest to show itself in a positive light.

Alleged corruption

Since winning hosting rights in 2010, allegations of corruption have plagued Qatar’s bid. It should be noted that no allegations of corruption have been proven in relation to Qatar’s bidding team, despite a lengthy enquiry by FIFA. However, exchanges between FIFA officials and other Qatari actors have drawn plenty of attention.

In 2015, the Federal Bureau of Investigation pursued an extensive corruption case against FIFA, resulting in multiple top-ranking officials pleading guilty to a plethora of charges and the eventual resignation of former president, Sepp Blatter. Since 2010, 17 of the 22 Executive Committee members which awarded the competition to Qatar have been banned from football and accused of corruption. A subsequent Swiss investigation found dozens of suspicious transactions relating to the 2018 Russian and 2022 Qatari World Cup bids.

It has been reported that Mohammed Bin Hammam, the Qatari former-president of the Asian Football Confederation, made multiple payments to influential figures in global football governance – including then FIFA Executive Committee member Jack Warner – in the run-up to the vote. However, Hammam was not part of Qatar’s official campaigning committee. It has also been alleged that Al Jazeera’s television rights deal with FIFA in the run-up to the 2010 ballot included the promise of a further $100 million if the Qatari bid was successful. FIFA denied this played any role in the selection process.

It was also reported that then French president, Nicholas Sarkozy, pressured UEFA president and executive committee member Michel Platini into switching his vote for Qatar in pursuit of French economic interests. However, many of the accusations and insinuations that have floated around the Western media during World Cup season have painted potential corruption as an issue unique to Arabs.

Workers’ rights

One of the biggest controversies relating to the Qatar World Cup has been the country’s treatment of migrant workers. Migrant labourers make up most of Qatar’s population. These workers are mainly drawn from South Asia, South-East Asia and Africa by the promise of better wages than would ever be possible in their home countries. However, these wages are frequently exaggerated by recruitment agencies which also charge these same migrant workers massive recruitment fees, often leading to long-term indebtedness.

Once in Qatar, migrant workers face immense exploitation. While all capitalist economies are dependent on some level of worker exploitation, the situation in Qatar is particularly bleak. Much of this is due to Qatar’s “sponsorship” (kafala) system. With similar models in other Gulf nations, this system makes it difficult to change jobs and sees passports routinely confiscated. Workers are also faced with delayed or non-payment of wages, forced labour, overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions and excessive working hours in stifling heat. Their chances of driving meaningful change have also been restricted by bans on joining trade unions and engaging in strike action.

The harshness of life as a migrant worker in Qatar has frequently been summed up in the oft-cited Guardian study which found that 6,500 migrant workers had died since 2010. However, this figure includes all migrant worker deaths, no matter the cause. This has been a point which the Qataris have been keen to make. Yet, obtaining a precise figure for work-related deaths is impossible because of the vague way that Qatar records such data, often attributing causes of death to the likes of heart or respiratory failure.

Frequent failure to carry out autopsies has meant that thousands of deaths have been effectively left unexplained, and progress around health and safety has been stifled. Nonetheless, this has not prevented the persistence of stories which point to workplace deaths being somewhat more common than the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy would like to admit to.

Apologists for the Qatari state tend to make two arguments relating to working conditions:

  1. Qatar has seen a raft of labour reforms introduced in recent years.
  2. The global spotlight that has come with hosting the World Cup has catalysed labour reforms.

The first of these points has even brought praise from the International Labour Organization (ILO). Reforms have included the setting of a national non-discriminatory minimum wage, passing a law improving domestic workers’ rights, setting up new dispute resolution committees, establishing a Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund, as well as the supposed easing of the kafala system, such as through making it easier to change jobs and leave the country without employer permission.

In practice, the actual implementation and enforcement of these reforms has been patchy at best. While reforms have arrived quicker in Qatar than in other Gulf countries with similar systems, it can equally be argued that, given the intensity of the recent global spotlight, the (patchy) progress on labour relations has been rather slow.

Other human rights issues

The rights of various other groups had also attracted a lot of media attention in the lead up to the tournament. Much of the coverage in the Western media has focused on the standing of the LGBTQI+ community in Qatar, where same-sex relations (as in much of the MENA region) are considered illegal.

The Secretary General for the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, Hassan al-Thawadi, had sought to allay concerns relating to the safety of gay fans at the World Cup, stating that everyone is welcome. While stating that Qatari customs should be respected, state representatives hinted that the rules would be laxer for foreign visitors. In contrast, LGBTQI+ people residing within Qatar face persecution including harassment, beatings and unlawful detention without access to legal counsel. Before the start of the tournament, public relations efforts with gay fans were dealt a blow when a Qatari ambassador referred to homosexuality as “damage in the mind”.

Less media attention has been placed on other demographics which face a tough existence in Qatar. Morality laws also negatively impact women. For instance, female victims of rape have been punished for engaging in sex outside of marriage. Qatar’s male guardianship system has also been criticised by human rights organisations along with wider laws such as those pertaining to marriage and citizenship rights.

Despite positive steps which put Qatar ahead of many of its neighbours, human rights organisations continue to highlight the structural discrimination faced by asylum seekers and refugees in the country. Additionally, former Qatari citizens from the Ghufran tribe also grapple with discrimination. Many families have been made stateless in the years since 1996 when some members of the tribe were involved in a failed coup attempt. Today, members of the Ghufran tribe do not have the right to ‘work, access to health care, education, marriage and starting a family, owning property, and freedom of movement.’

Hypocrisy and other criticisms

During the World Cup, there was an uptick in Western voices attempting to defend Qatar from criticism. Former footballer Gary Neville sought to use liberal logic in defending the host country, arguing that, by engaging with Qatar, change can be achieved. Moral relativist arguments stated that Qatar’s culture is simply different to mainstream Western culture and should be respected. Meanwhile, Piers Morgan attempted to underline Western liberal hypocrisy on human rights and questioned which countries in the world could be considered morally pure enough to host the World Cup.

Each of the points above have at least some validity. The “engage for change” argument has already been addressed in this article. Yet, even where progress has been achieved (such as on worker and refugee rights), this has been slow, uneven, and comfortably behind “international standards” at best. There is something unsettling about Western media outlets which frequently salivate at the mention of invading Middle Eastern countries lecturing an Arab nation about the West’s morality of the day. That aside, it is clear that Qatar’s laws around LGBTQI+ people fall short of FIFA’s own anti-discrimination commitments.

Ultimately, the lens through which the West is viewing the Qatar World Cup has been shaped by a fascinating cultural context. Indeed, Qatar can feel unfortunate that its turn to host the World Cup arrived during a context of unparalleled media saturation, ever-growing social media use, online activism and toxicity, and profitable culture wars. Despite there being substantially negative media coverage, the level of criticism aimed at Russia four years ago cannot be compared to that levelled at Qatar. This comes despite Russia’s annexation of Crimea four years before the 2018 World Cup, its problems with hooliganism and racism, its refusal to respect the right of self-determination of its Muslim republics, as well as laws against “gay propaganda”. It also unlikely that the USA will face much scrutiny when it co-hosts the tournament in 2026 with Canada and Mexico despite its problems with police brutality, allegations of institutional racism within the criminal justice system, gun violence and exploitation of undocumented migrant workers. These double standards are plain to see. Yet, it is crucial to point out that this does not shield Qatar from the valid criticisms it has faced.


The arrival of the World Cup in an Arab country should have marked a celebratory occasion for Arabs and football fans everywhere. While a source of pride for Qataris, the competition is also regarded as an important soft power opportunity for the monarchy’s ruling class. However, issues surrounding Qatar’s winning bid, its execution of said bid and treatment of certain demographics have dampened the celebratory mood. Despite no evidence of foul play by Qatar’s bidding team, it seems that FIFA’s culture of corruption and allegations against other Qatari actors have led to the common perception that hosting rights were won on shaky grounds. While there are serious question marks relating to how FIFA’s Executive Committee arrived at their votes, much of the corruption conversation has centred on the potential wrongdoing of Qataris, whilst less attention has seemingly been paid to FIFA as an institution.

Despite some improvements on workers’ rights, Qatar’s labour market remains profoundly exploitative. Meanwhile, laws pertaining to LGBTQI+ people, women, refugees and stateless Qataris suggest that Qatar is some way off matching FIFA’s own anti-discrimination messaging. Qatar might be unfortunate that the negative coverage of this World Cup appears to go beyond anything seen at previous tournaments, ultimately painting Qatar as entirely unique in its shortcomings. However, the criticisms remain valid and there remain significant improvements to be made when it comes to human rights. Indeed, as the ILO has stated in the case of workers’ rights, the World Cup should not mark the end of such efforts.

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