Qatar’s Golden Opportunity: Create Football Fandoms for Migrant Workers

Susan Dun

Human rights organizations and international media have consistently expressed vociferous disapproval of Qatar’s treatment of its foreign workforce, calling it  “modern slavery.” In response, Qatar’s government has partnered with the ILO, introduced a minimum wage, required salaries to be paid into banks, and made significant changes to the controversial kafala system, although it is not clear whether the reforms have been widespread enough or will last after the conclusion of the FIFA World Cup 2022.

With significant strides being made in these basic human rights, it is also important to ask about workers’ quality of life. An obvious paradox is that the very workers who are building dozens of sports facilities and stadia for the World Cup 2022 may not even have access to recreational activities that are important for their physical and mental health. This fact has not been lost on Qatar: multiple sports opportunities have been created specifically for workers to be players and/or fans, with the explicit purpose of helping them “relax and rejuvenate” and “widen access to football.”

Simple math tells us that creating enough opportunities for most workers to be players is an insurmountable task, but sports spectatorship can bring about many of the same benefits as playing. For example, it can encourage a sense of community between fans of the same teams, creating social bonds that add meaning and satisfaction to people’s lives. Coincidentally, low attendance at sports events is an issue that plagues many sports events in Qatar. With the realities of COVID-19 affecting travel and fan attendance around the globe and a small native population, attracting sufficient fans to fill the 2022 stadia, especially during the group stage, could well be a challenge.

Qatar has had sporadic, poorly organized attempts to provide fan opportunities for workers, which have resulted in negative press. Sports fandoms are not created; they must develop through repeated, meaningful interactions with teams and competitions. Qatar could systematically develop worker fandoms for its local football teams in the Qatar Stars League (QSL), which regularly suffers from low fan attendance. Rather than creating worker-specific events, the QSL could partner with local companies to enable workers to attend matches by providing transportation, time off of work, and tickets.

This would benefit not only workers’ physical and mental well-being but would also help Qatar to positively respond to at least some of the international criticism regarding its treatment of laborers. Rather than separating workers into purpose-built activities, Qatar could instead integrate them into local fandoms, breaking down social barriers and creating more meaningful experiences not just for workers, but for all members of the fandoms.

Some laborers in Qatar have expressed their desire to “make people know we are footballers, not just workers” when participating in the Worker’s Cup—an annual football tournament designed for workers to both play in and attend as fans—but events that are not integrated are unlikely to achieve this worker’s stated goal. People must be aware of each other and interact to change opinions and build connections. Creating a level playing field where guest workers and locals alike share in supporting their teams could be a meaningful step towards a better quality of life for Qatar’s migrant labor force.

Qatar has a golden opportunity: it could demonstrate true commitment to worker welfare, develop local fandoms in preparation for the World Cup 2022, and answer criticism of its treatment of migrant workers.

Article by Susan Dun

Dr. Susan Dun is Associate Professor in Residence in the Media Industries and Technologies Program at Northwestern University in Qatar.  Her research program investigates the intersection between globalization and attempts to develop soft power via sports and health initiatives in the Arab world. Her research focuses on assessing and understanding how the changes brought by globalization and attempted to develop soft power have affected sports activities and health behaviors as well as advanced nations’ agendas. Developing message-based interventions to change sports and health attitudes and behaviors is a key component of her research.

Read more about the Building a Legacy: Qatar FIFA World Cup 2022 project here.