There are growing calls for a boycott of the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar. Human rights groups have long criticized Qatar for the abuse and exploitation of its migrant workforce, and Danish football fans have, more recently, initiated a petition against the 2022 World Cup. I argue that such demands are hypocritical and ignore recent policy changes in the country. In fact, they actually serve to undermine Qatar’s ongoing reform process in the labor market.
Western critics often compare labor policies in Qatar with the situations in their own home countries, but it would make more sense to compare Qatar to its neighbors for a proper assessment of its policies in a regional context. In such a more balanced comparison, Qatar comes out ahead as a regional reformer. The U.S. Embassy in Qatar, for example, has announced its support by tweeting about “Qatar’s new minimum wage legislation,” and emphasizing that it is “the first of its kind in the region.”
The head of the International Labor Organization (ILO) Project Office for the State of Qatar, Houtan Homayounpour, called the recent labor market reforms “revolutionary” and “historic achievements” in a CIRS World Cup 2022 podcast. He stated that “the power imbalance between worker and employer has been addressed to a large extent” through reforms such as the abolishment of the exit permit requirement to leave the country; the abolishment of employer approval for an employee to change jobs; the institution of elected worker representatives; and the introduction of a minimum wage.
While Danish fans protest against human rights violations in Qatar, they are silent about Denmark’s upcoming matches against Israel, the first being played on March 25, 2021, in Tel Aviv. Israel promotes illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land and recently made headlines after the International Criminal Court launched an investigation into the country’s war crimes. Also, Israel’s COVID-19 vaccination apartheid was a much reported topic in the international media: while Israel is a world leader in vaccinating its population, it excluded Palestinians even though the occupied West Bank is an Israeli responsibility according to international law.
I do not support a boycott against Israel, as I have argued in previous research, and my remarks mainly serve the purpose of exposing the double standards in the global discourse. The upcoming Winter Olympic Games in China in February 2022 did not result in a global movement for the boycott of China, for example, in protest of its abuses of its Muslim minority, the Uighurs. Only pointing the finger at Qatar, the first Arab or Muslim host of a World Cup, indicates that Islamophobia plays a major role in the different responses to mega sporting events in non-democratic countries.
There are generally two camps regarding the issue: one side argues that mega sporting events give legitimacy to authoritarian rulers, while the other stresses the potential for social change in light of the FIFA World Cup or the Olympics. Just as life is complicated, so is this argument and depends on who is involved. China (Summer Olympics 2008 and Winter Olympics 2022) and Russia (World Cup 2018) were mainly targeting domestic audiences at these great sporting events. As I argued in a publication about the 2018 World Cup, Russia aimed to prove to its own population that it had restored it greatness. No social changes have occurred in China and Russia in light of hosting the Olympics and the World Cup.
For Qatar, however, the World Cup is more of a foreign policy tool. By becoming a global sports center, the country aims to gain reputation and soft power influence in international affairs, which in turn contributes to its national security. Whether Qatar’s continuous commitment to labor policy reforms is done through firm conviction or just to please international onlookers does not really matter as long as the conditions for migrant workers are improving.
I conclude by arguing that Qatar’s labor reforms should be supported and encouraged rather than disparaged. A widely circulated story in the Guardian recently reported that 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal have died in Qatar since the World Cup was awarded to the country in 2010. The article—which has been slightly revised after being discredited for its sensationalism—falsely gave the impression that people from those five countries only work as manual labor on World Cup infrastructure. However, there are also many nurses, engineers, teachers, and doctors, amongst many other professions, from those countries working in Qatar. The report did not bother to compare the number of deaths from the same age groups and professions within those five countries.
Such misleading reports and calls for a boycott only serve to strengthen local Qatari hardliner opposition to change and to weaken those who work hard for reforms. A very promising sign is that local media have started to monitor the proper implementation of the labor market reforms.
Article by Danyel Reiche, Visiting Associate Professor at Georgetown University Qatar.
Danyel Reiche is Visiting Associate Professor at Georgetown University Qatar. He is on leave from the American University of Beirut in Lebanon where he is a tenured Associate Professor of Comparative Politics. His past research has focused on two areas: energy and sport policy and politics; the latter his recent priority. He is author of Success and Failure of Countries at the Olympic Games (Routledge, 2016) and co-editor with Tamir Sorek of Sport, Politics, and Society in the Middle East (Oxford University Press, 2019). Reiche is the faculty lead of the GU-Q/CIRS research initiative “Building a Legacy: Qatar FIFA World Cup 2022.”
Read more about the Building a Legacy: Qatar FIFA World Cup 2022 project here.