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World Cup in Qatar: 'Reforms are a PR stunt'

Thomas Klein
November 10, 2022

With less than two weeks to go until kickoff in the controversial World Cup in Qatar, the human rights situation in the emirate is still considered poor. There have been changes, but do they go far enough?

Katar | Replika des FIFA WM Pokal vor der Skyline von Doha
Image: Ulmer/IMAGO

There is not a cloud in sight, the sky is bright blue and the sun is heating the air to about 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit). Numerous cars squeeze through the narrow streets of the Al-Sadd district in Doha.

It is humid and the air conditioning in cars and buildings is running at full blast. Some construction workers at an intersection have pulled scarves over their heads and faces to protect themselves from the sun. Others are sitting in the shade taking a short break for a drink. Less than a month until the World Cup kicks off on November 20, Doha still resembles a giant construction site.

In the capital of the desert state, roads are being tarmacked, buildings renovated and sidewalks paved. The construction work must be completed before the first teams, officials and fans arrive in the small country on the Persian Gulf. But time is running out.

It has been 12 years since FIFA awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, probably the most controversial hosting decision in the history of the sport's global governing body. 

A decision, according to Wenzel Michalski of Human Rights Watch (HRW), that was determined by corruption and illegal machinations that triggered a wave of criticism and yet have not changed much in the country to this day.

"The current human rights situation in Qatar is bad," Michalski tells DW, listing the abuses: "LGBTQ people have no rights and are persecuted; they are beaten, tortured and put in prison. Freedom of the press is restricted. There is no rule of law. Demonstrations and trade unions are not allowed in Qatar. In addition, women have limited rights and are not empowered citizens."

This is despite the fact that the male-guardian system, the paternalism of women by men, was recently officially abolished. According to Michalski, that move has only taken place on paper. The reality still looks very different.

Since the awarding of the World Cup in 2010, the desert emirate has done its best to convey a liberal, tolerant image to the outside world. Even LGBTQ fans will be welcome, according to the official line.

Speaking to Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) broadsheet recently, Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani slammed criticism of his country, particularly from Europe, as "arrogant and racist," pointing instead to reforms that he claims will continue even after the World Cup.

His claims were undermined somewhat just a few days later when Qatar's official World Cup ambassador Khalid Salman, a former international player himself, told German broadcaster ZDF that homosexuality was "haram" — a sin — and a sign of "damage in the mind."

Qatar's World Cup ambassador Khalid Salman (right) told German journalist Jochen Breyer (left) that "homosexuality is haram"
Qatar's World Cup ambassador Khalid Salman (right) told German journalist Jochen Breyer (left) that "homosexuality is haram"Image: Mateusz Smolka/ZDF

'Every death is one too many'

The situation of migrant workers in Qatar has attracted particularly intense criticism in recent years. Numerous journalists and non-governmental organizations have traveled to the country, documenting the sometimes hellish living and working conditions in shelters and on construction sites.

"I have seen shelters where up to 12 people had to live together in a small room. They were miserable living conditions," Malcolm Bidali recalls in an interview with DW. The 29-year-old was employed by a security company in Doha and was tasked with guarding one of the subway construction sites that will transport World Cup fans to the stadiums.

In addition to the intolerable living conditions, thousands of migrant workers have reportedly lost their lives in recent years — although the statistics on the actual number of deaths vary wildly.

"We see that many of the dead were between 18 and 40 years old, young healthy people. The death certificates then almost always said they died of natural causes," explains Bidali, who blogs about migrant worker abuses in Qatar. "But no matter how high the numbers are, every death is one too many."

Malcolm Bidali, a 28-year-old Kenyan national, is a security guard, blogger and activist in Qatar
Malcolm Bidali, a 28-year-old Kenyan national, recounted "miserable living conditions" for workers in QatarImage: © Private/Amnesty International

'Too little, too late'

For a long time, criticism of Qatar and the awarding of the World Cup was ignored by FIFA, and by the Qatari government. Reforms were blocked or only slowly implemented. But there have been changes.

"A lot has changed on paper," Michalski explains. "The kafala system — the total dependence of an employee on their employer — has been officially abolished. However, parts of this system still exist in practice. The implementation of the reforms leaves a lot to be desired. Too little has happened too late."

For Binda Pandey, a representative of the Nepal Federation of Trade Unions at the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Nepal, reforms are visible, but still far from sufficient.

Pandey believes about 500,000 people have come to Qatar from Nepal as guest workers.

"Some of the big companies and those owned by the government are following the new labor laws. But the small and medium enterprises are not," Pandey said. "Wages are now paid into a bank account, and Qatar is training more and more labor inspectors."

But, the trade unionist told DW, "it's still far from enough."

Reforms only for PR reasons

In hosting the World Cup, Qatar wanted to expand its position in the world, and improve its international image. The emirate apparently did not expect the degree of criticism it has received in recent years.

"The enormous pressure from the media, international civil society and human rights groups has meant the criticism that comes with it could be damaging to its reputation. That's why reforms have been pushed for PR reasons," Michalski says, adding that there is no sign of a will to make real changes even a few weeks before the World Cup.

What will remain when the full-time whistle blows at the end of the World Cup final on December 18? Will the awarding of the World Cup to Qatar have helped people in the country or not?

Even with the World Cup fast approaching, parts of Doha still resemble building sites
Even with the World Cup fast approaching, parts of Doha still resemble building sitesImage: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance

For Binda Pandey from Nepal, the discussions have at least brought more attention. Not only in Qatar, but also in her own country, where thousands of migrant workers continue to travel to the emirate to earn money for their families.

"Because of the discussions and changes called for by the ILO and other organizations, we are now talking about the problems of migrant workers in Nepal as well," Pandey says.

"For example, an assistance fund has been set up that provides financial support for the workers, and we can help some families with schooling," she said. "Or if migrant workers are poorly paid when they work abroad, we can cushion that with the fund. Now we have direct contacts and labor lawyers in Nepal for the migrant workers."

Aid fund is 'publicity stunt'

In Qatar, however, a similar fund was rejected by labor minister Ali bin Samikh Al Marri who, in an interview with the AFP news agency, called it a "publicity stunt."

"Such a fund is a minimum requirement and duty of employers such as the Qatari government and FIFA to compensate workers who suffer injury, and their families," counters Michalski, who fears that there will be no sustainable improvements.

Twelve years have now passed since the controversial award in 2010, and only time will tell whether the reforms in Qatar prove to be sustainable. There is a danger that once the final whistle blows, attention will drop, criticism will subside, and pressure on the country will decrease.

"We have to remain critical," urges Pandey of ILO Nepal. "Without the awarding of the World Cup, nothing would have changed in Qatar, but we must remain critical even after the World Cup."

This article was translated from German