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The Qatar Men’s FIFA World Cup 2022: Free Kick or Body Check for Human Rights?

12 Jul 2022
By Emeritus Professor David Rowe
A promotional display for the FIFA World Cup competitors in Doha. Source: Robert Wilson, Flickr,

The Qatar men’s FIFA World Cup 2022 will take place in November. There will be plenty of enjoyable football on show, but we should all keep our eyes on the human rights ball.

The men’s FIFA World Cup 2022 was controversial from the moment that FIFA President Sepp Blatter announced Qatar had won the right to host it. Much has happened in the world of football since that December 2010 afternoon in Zurich. Blatter and his “football counsellor” Michel Platini were charged and then cleared on counts including fraud and forgery, several other FIFA members have been expelled, indicted, and convicted, and the tournament moved from its traditional June-July time slot to the end of the year.

There have been various calls to cancel Qatar, but it will take place from 21 November – 18 December this year “barring Armageddon,” as senior International Olympic Committee (IOC) member Richard Pound proclaimed when the pandemic-afflicted Tokyo 2020/21 Olympics were under threat.

Qatar will be the second consecutive illiberal nation to host the event after Russia in 2018. That selection by FIFA now looks especially dubious after Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine and subsequent ban from Qatar and other FIFA events. Given the repressive turn of Brazil under the Bolsonaro regime since hosting the 2014 men’s World Cup, the next hosts — Canada, Mexico, and the United States — will inherit a tarnished tournament. A return to the US Presidency by Donald Trump in 2024 would further damage its image.

In the turbulent years since Qatar defeated liberal democracies Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the United States to grasp the hosting prize, the term “sportswashing” has entered the lexicon. A rather imprecise concept, it in part describes how countries with lamentable human rights records use and abuse the soft power cachet of high-end sport to gloss over the ugliness beneath. Despite projecting itself as the “enlightened” Middle Eastern state that produced, for example, the Amnesty Media Award-winning Al Jazeera news network, there remain concerns over Qatar’s approach to human rights.

Qatar, like other Middle East nation-states, is ruled by a hereditary monarch, currently Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. The Sheikh has introduced limited political reforms via a partially elected Shura Council (Consultative Assembly), but it has been limited in both effectiveness and representation. The male guardian and family law systems continue to restrict severely the position of Qatari women.

Among many human rights issues, two in particular have been raised regarding the World Cup: the treatment of Qatar’s migrant work force and of LGBTQ+ people. They revolve around how the tournament’s sporting and urban infrastructure was built and whether visitors – and residents – can safely express their sexuality and gender diversity.

Migrant Workers’ Rights

Fossil fuel exports enabled Qatar to become among the richest countries in the world per capita. This is in large part due to its very small citizen population of just over 300,000, restricted in number by its nationality law. Qatar has a much larger service population of around 2.3 million non-citizens who have historically lived and worked under the kafala sponsorship system that contractually binds them to an individual employer or sponsor (kafeel). Unable to enter or leave the country or change jobs there without the written permission of their employers, kafala makes migrant workers virtual hostages of their employers.

Hosting the World Cup brought immediate pressure on Qatar to improve the perilous position of migrant workers, including those involved in building football stadia. Yet, in 2021 The Guardian calculated that “6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died in Qatar since it won the right to host the World Cup ten years ago,” while judging this to be a substantial underestimate of total migrant worker fatalities. The Qatari government claims that it has made many improvements to the conditions and rights of migrant workers, including the abolition of kafala. However, evidence of legal compliance has been challenged regarding, for example, protections of workers from extreme heat.

LGBTQ+ Rights

The migrant worker question in Qatar is largely about production, but the emphasis on LGBTQ+ rights mostly involves consumption. Footballers are part of the production apparatus of the spectacle, but only a tiny number of professional men in the prime of their careers have ever “come out.” They will also be secluded in team base camps. Instead, it is the million-plus visiting football fans who are of most concern as they move between hotels, shops, restaurants, and football venues in a country where their sexuality may constitute a crime.

The Qatari authorities have said that LGBTQ+ fans are welcome to come along to watch the football, but have discouraged, for their own protection, open displays of same-sex affection or carrying rainbow flags. Such behaviour would usually lead to interventions by the police, but the likely official response still remains ambiguous.

At previous sport mega events in countries with homophobic policies, like the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, sportspeople, fans, and local residents have often expressed dissent, including by wearing rainbow-coloured cosmetics, ornaments and apparel. Any such gestures would bring Qatar’s laws on freedom of expression into view. But temporary tolerance will be of scant benefit to LGBTQ+ residents and future visitors if it evaporates once global attention has moved on to the next big show, as occurred after the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

A Human Rights Sports Mega-Event Legacy

To counter this problem of reform with a post-event “use-by date,” Play the Game, the long-established, Denmark-based “initiative promoting democracy, transparency, and freedom of expression in world sport,” has called, alongside Human Rights Watch and other activist groups, for a tangible human rights legacy in the Middle East arising from the Qatar World Cup.

For much of the 21st century, the main buzzword of the sports mega-event has been legacy. Although largely intended to handle local objections that hosts will be left with a very large bill, “white elephant” sport facilities, displaced urban residents, and environmental damage, legacy today is increasingly used in connection with human rights.

FIFA and the IOC have both published grand human rights statements and frameworks — not coincidentally, at a time when their showcases are most attractive to hosts unlikely to respect them. Qatar 2022 may offer some news media flashpoints, but of paramount importance is its capacity to enhance enduring human rights in the host location and far beyond.

Debates about sport and human rights necessarily involve tortuous attempts to balance the short- and long-term costs and benefits of mega-events. The flurry of World Cup-related building activity no doubt resulted in more migrant worker deaths and injuries in Qatar. Perversely, those who built the venues and survived are reportedly being sent away for five months on unpaid leave and so will be “disappeared” during the tournament.

But Qatar 2022 also provides a precious opportunity to apply scrutiny and generate reforms that, if properly designed and enforced, could create lasting benefits in Qatar. It may provoke progressive change in other places in the world, like Singapore, where migrant, mostly female domestic workers are vulnerable to exploitation. Football fans in all countries bound by the United Nations’ International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families can be alerted to repressive labour laws in their own and others’ countries around the world.

Many football fans, among whom the author can be counted, will relish the football on display in Qatar. But there are other, vital human rights scores to be monitored long after the last ball is kicked.

David Rowe is Emeritus Professor of Cultural Research, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University; Honorary Professor, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Bath; Research Associate, Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS University of London, and Distinguished Senior Research Fellow, Centre for International Sport Communication and Diplomacy Studies, Beijing Foreign Studies University. He is a Fellow of both the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia and the Australian Academy of the Humanities. The translation of his authored work Global Media Sport: Flows, Forms and Futures (Bloomsbury Academic, 2011) was an Outstanding Book Selection of the National Academy of Sciences, Republic of Korea in 2018.

Disclosure: Professor Rowe has been a Peer Reviewer for the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF) since 2009.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.