Heat and human rights: will the Qatar 2022 World Cup ever kick off?
The Gulf State has faced media attention over its human rights record and its treatment of migrant workers
Qatar’s hosting of the FIFA 2022 World Cup has thrust the country into the spotlight. This year, the Gulf State has faced media attention over its human rights record and treatment of migrant workers, its strict laws and harsh climate.
FIFA’s decision, made in 2010, astonished and baffled many, given that Qatar is not renowned for its sporting prowess, while its hot climate poses difficult logistical challenges. Many questioned the decision, especially in light of FIFA’s poor reputation after the election controversy and corruption allegations involving President Sepp Blatter.
Blatter and Michel Platini, president of the European football governing body UEFA, have been harangued over Qatar’s suitability to host an event of such magnitude. Many have been left asking whether the event will ever kick off as originally planned.
Qatar 2022, inshallah?
The tiny Gulf nation has played host to major events before, most notably the 2011 Asian Cup and 2006 Asian Games, which were both criticized for transportation issues, accommodation shortages and low attendance figures.
Because of this previous experience, along with the pressure of successfully hosting such a tournament, Qatar has been aggressive and lavish with its spending since submitting its bid in 2009. TV ads, posters and costly endorsements by some of football’s all-time greats - such as Zinedine Zidane, Gabriel Batistuta and Pep Guardiola - were present throughout their campaign to host the tournament.
Qatar has reportedly pledged to spend well over $100 billion on infrastructure projects in preparation. This includes $4 billion on nine new state-of-the-art stadiums, and the promise of major renovations on three existing ones. It has also spent close to $20 billion on new roads, $4 billion on a new causeway linking Qatar and Bahrain, and has pledged $24 billion on a new high-speed rail network.
Qatar has also vowed to supplement its existing 44,000 hotel rooms with another 140 hotel properties across a range of price brackets to more than double its existing number of rooms, to help accommodate the 400,000 expected visitors. One of the most notable developments is Lusali City, costing a reported $45 billion, and including the 86,250-seater Lusali Iconic stadium.
Hamad International Airport, which cost a reported $15.5 billion, is under construction. Originally due to be completed in 2009, it has been experiencing delays, so an official opening date is still up in the air.
Qatar has also been faced with allegations that it effectively bought the right to host the World Cup. According to a report by Britain’s Sunday Times, a whistleblower exposed Qatar’s proposed sponsorship of a gala worth $1 million organized by the son of a FIFA executive committee member whose three-year ban by football’s governing body for breaching bribery rules expired last month.
The magazine France Football published a series of reports linking Qatar to bids and money exchanges with high-ranking FIFA officials and representatives, such as Argentina’s Julio Grondona and Brazil’s Ricardo Teixeira, who stepped down as president of the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) last year.
The magazine wrote that Qatar’s sports agency Aspire spent millions of dollars promoting youth sports in countries that members of the FIFA executive committee represented in exchange for their vote.
France Football also alleged that former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, along with Platini, were involved in a lunch that included the newly-appointed Qatari Emir Tamim al-Thani, and a representative of the investment fund that owned the then-struggling French side PSG.
In that meeting, Platini was allegedly pressured into switching his vote from the United States to Qatar, in exchange for a proposed Qatari bid for PSG and a new sports channel to compete with Canal Plus, beIn Sport.
These claims were denied by Qatari officials and Platini. However, Blatter recently admitted that there was “direct political influence” on executive committee members to vote for the Gulf nation, which put the charges back in the spotlight.
“There is no specific evidence of malfeasance or wrongdoing during the bid process which helped hand Qatar the World Cup hosting rights,” stated David Larkin, an American attorney who runs a campaign organization called Change FIFA.
“Yet, what has significantly damaged public confidence in the FIFA 2018 & 2022 World Cup award process, which may be very unfair to both Qatar and Russia, is that seven of twenty-two voting FIFA Executive Committee members have subsequently been banned or reprimanded for alleged impropriety or resigned with unresolved allegations of impropriety hanging over their heads. It’s worth noting that seven votes would have been enough to potentially change the winner of both the 2018 and 2022 World Cup.”
To complete these ambitious and costly projects, Qatar relies on migrant workers, who represent 94 percent of its labor force. According to recent press reports, these workers face poor conditions with constant mistreatment, lack proper attention and care, are regularly unpaid, and endure forced labor.
In a recent report, British newspaper the Guardian concluded that Nepalese workers - who represent 40 percent of the emirate’s migrant labor force - “died at a rate of almost one a day in Qatar, many of them young men who had suffered heart attacks. The investigation found evidence to suggest that thousands of Nepalese face exploitation and abuses that amount to modern-day slavery, as defined by the International Labour Organisation, during a building binge paving the way for 2022.”
The report revealed that “at least 44 workers died between June 4 and August 8, more than half died of heart attacks, heart failure or workplace accidents, employers routinely confiscate and refuse to issue ID cards reducing them to illegal aliens, some laborers were denied access to free drinking water amidst the searing heat, and about 30 Nepalese sought refuge at their embassy in Doha to escape the brutal conditions of their employment.”
According to the International Trade Union Confederation, at this rate, an estimated 4,000 workers will have lost their lives by 2022.
Qatar is also in the spotlight for, according to Amnesty International, imposing laws that suppress “freedom of expression, allow cruel and degrading punishments, discriminate and display violence towards women, and denial of nationality.” The country has also been criticized for its anti-gay laws and legislation.
Another high-profile human rights case is that of French-Algerian footballer Zahir Belounis. He says he has been prevented from leaving Qatar, and left stranded along with his wife and two daughters, for attempting to take legal action against his former club al-Jaish for failing to pay his wages for two years. The case has received widespread attention and condemnation, as well as calls for FIFA to intervene on Belounis’s behalf. Qatar finally succumbed to those calls and released Belounis, who has returned to France and was greeted to an emotional reunion with his wider family. He is now looking to rebuild his life and move on from his bitter ordeal, and has even reportedly attracted the interest of a few English sides.
“The national host context is important for any event award, whether the World Cup or the Olympic Games. Any bid nation must accept that, if it wins, it will come under ferocious international political and media attention,” said Keir Radnedge, a long-time football writer and chairman of the AIPS Football Committee.
“To maximize on the image-building opportunity which a World Cup offers, a would-be host nation must accept it will be pushed on certain issues - and human rights is a basic one. That said, I do not believe there will be any review of the bid award. A host nation, for its own sake, has to demonstrate flexibility within its own cultural and political and social norms.”
Ali Khaled, a senior football writer at the United Arab Emirates newspaper The National, said: “The workers’ issue cannot be ignored, and the foreign media will quite rightly subject almost all hosting nations to the same scrutiny. The organizing committee may feel that there are double standards at play, but they are better off addressing the issue than pointing the finger of blame elsewhere.”
Qatar’s World Cup Committee said the government was investigating the allegations, and have been cooperating with organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to address the migrant labor issues.
HRW’s Nicholas McGeehan wrote: “Unfortunately, the Qatari authorities have yet to give any indication of any labour reforms... The response, three years after their bid was successful, has been hugely disappointing.”
Temperatures in Qatar can rise to searing heights of more than 50 degrees Celsius during the day, and around 30 degrees Celsius at night. The heat and humidity have raised concerns - particularly from the new head of England’s Football Association, Greg Dyke - for the health of footballers participating in the World Cup, as well as for the visiting fans.
Because of this, Blatter has ruled out the traditional June-July tournament, and FIFA’s Secretary General Jeremy Valcke has dismissed the possibility of an April-May event.
Qatar has promised to install cooling technology, and said open-roof stadiums, training camps and fan zones will be climate-controlled and emit no carbons. The stadiums will also take measures to reduce solar radiation and warm winds, and provide soft air-conditioning to keep pitches below 27 degrees Celsius.
Despite these promises, many still doubt the feasibility of Qatar’s promise to build fully air-conditioned stadiums. Some experts consider the move to be high-risk, since it has never been attempted before at such a major event. Because of that, some are proposing moving the tournament to a cooler time of the year.
“Personally I think the World Cup should go ahead close to the original bid slot,” Radnedge said. “But this will demand the Qataris becoming extremely proactive over their technological capacity to air-cool any and every space where players, officials and fans will gather.”
Khaled said: “Of course the health of the players should be the priority. Many still remember those images of Irish players suffering in the match against Mexico at the 1994 World Cup in the US. Advances in technology mean the proposed air-conditioned stadiums can be pulled off in the coming years.
“But there’s more to it than simply the 90 minutes in the stadium. Fans from around the world not used to extreme temperatures will be spending long hours travelling, waiting outside stadiums and generally passing the time outdoors during the day. Many will be watching from fan zones, it’s what the World Cup is all about. Their concerns and well-being are as important as those of the players.”
To counter climate concerns, Qatar has expressed it openness and flexibility in hosting the tournament either in the summer or winter.
With persistent condemnation and widespread calls for Qatar’s bid and hosting rights to be reviewed, and even revoked, should the same standards be applied to the likes of Israel and China who, in spite of their well-documented human rights abuses, were allowed to host the 2013 under-21 Euros and 2008 Olympics, respectively? If FIFA relents, does this raise a case of double-standards?
“The Olympic Charter makes no distinction between countries, nor should it,” said Larkin. “Sporting authorities in every country have an obligation to uphold the core values of the Olympic Charter if they intend to remain a part of the Olympic Movement. That obligation applies to sporting authorities in Israel as it does to sporting authorities in Qatar, the UK or anywhere else.”
This shows how much of a slippery slope it would be if Qatar’s hosting rights were revoked due to its poor human rights record.
Despite this, pressure is mounting on it to enact essential reforms and adhere to basic human rights and needs. Steps that should be taken not only as host of a prestigious tournament, but as a nation that should value fundamental human rights and freedoms. “The World Cup in Qatar can prove to be a morale and economic boost for the region,” Khaled said. “As things stand, however, with many questions remaining unanswered, it could go either way.”