Visitors to the Qatar World Cup, stuck for something to do between games, should consider a visit to the museum of slavery at Bin Jelmood House in Doha, where they will see a large aerial photograph of the capital taken in the late 1940s. Were it not for the crescent-shaped shoreline, the city would be unrecognisable. Then it was a run-down port of around fifteen thousand people, home to fishing and herding tribes that had lived on the Qatar peninsula for at least three centuries. The tallest building was a two-storey fort constructed by the Ottomans in the 19th century. Although ruled, as now, by the al-Thani dynasty, it was a British imperial protectorate. Its only significant source of wealth had been the pearl fishing industry, but that was destroyed by the Second World War and the invention of artificial pearls. Hunger and malnutrition were widespread.
Today more than 2.3 million people live in Doha, while Qatar as a whole has a population of 2.9 million, just 300,000 of whom are Qatari citizens. The rest are migrant workers, only a small proportion of whom – Arabic Levantine and Indian families that arrived a generation or two back – have residence rights. Everyone else is there on a temporary work visa: professionals from the Global North; Filipinos, who make up a large proportion of Qatar’s domestic workers and cleaners; Africans, many of whom work as taxi drivers or security guards; and almost a million men from South Asia, Nepal and Bhutan who have toiled to build the new city. This racialised hierarchy, as John McManus argues in his anthropological account of Qatar, is a modern version of the British Empire’s ethnic division of labour.
Since 1971 Qatar has been an independent nation-state under a near absolutist monarchy. Its immense wealth is largely derived from hydrocarbons, especially liquefied natural gas, now even more valuable as a result of the war in Ukraine. Obesity and cardiovascular disease are its biggest health problems. Doha’s tallest structure – in a city with dozens of flamboyant high-rises – is the 300-metre Aspire Tower. Built for the 2006 Asian Games, the tower now sits at the centre of the Aspire Zone, a vast complex of elite sports infrastructure – stadiums, training grounds, hi-tech gyms, medical facilities and generously appointed accommodation – primarily devoted to football.
We have been here before. In 1930, Uruguay was a country of fewer than three million people that had undergone an explosive economic and social transformation. It had grown rapidly on the strength of beef and agricultural exports, attracting huge numbers of migrants from Italy and Spain. It was also building South America’s most robust liberal democracy and its first welfare state. Having charmed Europeans while winning the football gold medals at the 1924 and 1928 Olympics (in Paris and Amsterdam respectively), Uruguay celebrated the centenary of its constitution in 1930 by hosting Fifa’s first World Cup. The Estadio Centenario, built in Montevideo to stage the final, was one of South America’s first concrete arenas; its capacious stands were arranged like the overlapping petals of an Art Nouveau flower.
The Qatar World Cup has its own claims on history. It will be the first sporting mega-event staged in an Arabic-speaking, Muslim-majority nation. This is a good thing. More people will watch this World Cup than any other, probably more people than have watched anything, ever. In part, this is a function of technology, but it also reflects the growing audience for football in the world’s three most populous countries, China, India and the United States (where the game has long had only a marginal presence), as well as among women, who made up 40 per cent of the audience for the last World Cup, held in Russia in 2018. This will also be the first World Cup to take place during the northern hemisphere winter. The prospect of playing and watching games in the searing heat of a Gulf summer, where temperatures regularly touch 45°C, was too much even for Fifa, and the global football calendar was duly rearranged to accommodate the change.
Qatar 2022 has already exceeded its predecessors in cost and controversy. At a conservative estimate, the Qatari government has spent around $250 billion on development since it was awarded the tournament in 2010 – more than its entire GDP. It is also more than the cost of every previous World Cup and Olympic Games put together. The eight stadiums that will host the World Cup are large, architecturally ambitious and equipped with the latest in everything from surveillance technology to air conditioning. Even so, at $10 billion their combined cost is a fraction of the overall expenditure. Far more expensive have been the complete remodelling of downtown Doha; the building of nearly a hundred new hotels, a massively expanded port and a pharaonic international airport; the complete rebuilding of the country’s road system; and the installation, from scratch, of three metro lines in Doha. The final will be played in the Lusail Iconic stadium, a huge 80,000-seat structure, around which Qatar has built an entirely new satellite city, at an estimated cost of $50 billion, which will house more than a quarter of a million people.
The World Cup has always been a tool for political messaging. After Uruguay’s celebration of its nascent social democracy in 1930, Mussolini used the competition in Italy in 1934 to show off fascism to the world. Italy’s victory in the tournament seemed to lend credence to the country’s newly concocted spirit of martial masculinity. Argentina’s home win in the 1978 World Cup was a blessed distraction, at home and abroad, from the military junta’s punitive rule and economic incompetence. But no state, until now, has placed sport in general, and the World Cup in particular, at the heart of its foreign policy and economic development.
Qatar is a tiny peninsula, whose only land border is with its giant neighbour, Saudi Arabia, which has never entirely reconciled itself to Qatar’s independence. To the north are Iraq and Iran, both sources of uncertainty and threat. What strategies are available, Paul Michael Brannagan and Danyel Reiche ask in their useful overview of the politics of the 2022 World Cup, to such a small and vulnerable state when it attempts to achieve some measure of security and influence? Acquiring powerful allies and a military overlord is a good starting point. In 1996 Sheik Hamad bin Halifa al-Thani, then the emir of Qatar, built the billion-dollar al-Udeid air base and offered it to the United States, with which it had signed a defence co-operation agreement a few years earlier. It has hosted the Pentagon’s Central Command ever since, and has been the base for most of the US and UK’s aerial military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria over the last twenty years.
Alongside hard power, Qatar has deployed a number of soft power initiatives, including a substantial global aid programme, hyperactive diplomacy in the Middle East and a policy of staying on decent terms with friend and foe alike – Qatari diplomats brokered the US-Taliban talks that led to the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. None of this brings much visibility beyond the corridors of power. For that you have to be on TV. In the mid-1990s, Qatar launched Al Jazeera, which has since become a major global media network. Its Arabic language services broadcast news and opinions that would be censored in most Middle Eastern states – though criticism of the Qatari state, indeed critical coverage of any kind, is conspicuous by its absence.
Important though Al Jazeera is, Qatar’s biggest soft power success has been Al Jazeera’s subsidiary, beIN Sports – now the biggest sports broadcaster in the Middle East and North Africa. While Dubai has specialised in loose banking laws and gated tourism, Qatar has settled on sport as the most effective way of drawing attention and visitors. Since the turn of the century, Doha has been a regular stop on the global tennis and cycling circuits, and has hosted dozens of world championships, from gymnastics to handball to wrestling, as well as the Asian Games and the Asian football championships. The government has spent freely in its attempt to create a domestic football league: every Qatari boy with a hint of athletic ability has been screened and tested. African and Asian hopefuls are sifted with the aim of bringing the best of them to Doha, and eventually into the Qatari national team.
In 2010 the Qatar Foundation made a deal with Barcelona FC to pay $30 million per year to sponsor the team’s shirt (it was the first time Barcelona had accepted money from a shirt sponsor; before that its shirts carried the Unicef logo, for which Barcelona had to pay). This was followed by an even bigger deal with Qatar Airways. The same largesse has been extended to Boca Juniors, Bayern Munich and AS Roma, not to mention Uefa’s 2020 European Football Championships and Fifa itself. The national telecoms provider, Ooredoo, has in a good example of Qatar’s friend-and-foe strategy sponsored both Barcelona and its greatest rival, Real Madrid. All three organisations, as well as the Qatari National Bank and the Qatari Tourism Authority, have sponsored Paris Saint-Germain since the French club was bought outright in 2013 by the state agency Qatari Sports Investments. From Paris, Qatar has been conducting a steady and very expensive assault on the heights of European football, while at the same time gaining an influential place in French politics.
Football has proved a potent political weapon in Qatar’s recent dealings with its neighbours. In 2017 Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE, unhappy with Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates, suspended diplomatic relations with Qatar and cut off its access to air, land and sea routes. Saudi Arabia jammed beIN and broadcast its own, pirated version of the channel, beoutQ. Qatar’s wealth and its diplomatic ties with Turkey and Iran allowed it to circumvent the blockade, but its influence in football has enabled its neatest political footwork. Closing beoutQ was one of the conditions of Saudi Arabia’s purchase of Newcastle United last year. When the UAE hosted the Asian Cup in 2019, its attempt to exclude Qatar failed. Once at the tournament, Qatar beat its reluctant hosts in the semi-final, and then Japan in the final, to become Asian champions. Nothing in Qatar’s short history has generated such an outpouring of national pride.
But football has also brought an unprecedented amount of scrutiny, and Qatar 2022 offers plenty to scrutinise. This was also true of Russia in 2018: North Korean slave labour at the stadiums and widespread corruption in their construction; virulent anti-LGBT+ legislation; a violent, ultra-nationalist and racist football subculture; the occupation of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Earlier this year, the Beijing Winter Olympics played out alongside accusations of genocide in Xinjiang and environmental destruction in the mountains. Moscow and Beijing are almost entirely indifferent to outsiders’ opinions. Qatar, by contrast, is a relatively open society for foreign journalists to work in, and Qataris do care what the rest of the world thinks – that was, after all, the point of the project in the first place.
Qatar’s critics have focused on five issues: the original bid to host the World Cup; the availability of alcohol; the question of human rights, especially women’s and LGBT+ rights; the treatment of migrant workers; and the environmental implications of the tournament. The first two can be quickly dealt with. It is inconceivable, given what we know about the way Fifa was run in the first decade of the 21st century, that anyone could have won the bid without recourse to questionable, not to say illegal, means. We know that since at least France 1998, bribes, presents and favours have been handed out by every successful World Cup host. The Sunday Times investigation into the bid concluded that Qatar is no different. As for alcohol, weak beer from one of Fifa’s sponsors will be available around the stadiums and in nearby ‘fan zones’. In hotel bars, the full range of alcohol will be on sale as usual. But public drinking and drunkenness are unlikely to be tolerated (how they will be policed is another matter). Beer may be the drug of choice at men’s football matches in Europe and Latin America, but having experienced the collective euphoria of watching England’s women winning the European Championships at Wembley this summer without encountering a single drunk or coked-up maniac, I wonder whether a model of reduced alcohol consumption might end up being Qatar’s most significant contribution to world football.
Qatari society is fundamentally undemocratic. Only Qatari citizens can vote, and only for what are essentially powerless consultative institutions. Politics, to the extent that it exists beyond the royal house, is largely a matter of struggle and negotiation within tribal kinship networks. There is no independent press and a number of foreign journalists covering the lead-up to the World Cup have been arrested or obstructed in the course of their work. (World Cup broadcasters will be prohibited from filming at ‘accommodation sites’ – such as, most obviously, migrant worker camps – as well as industrial, religious and public buildings.) Qatari women constitute a majority of university students, and occupy a number of powerful political and cultural offices, but the law (and common practice) concerning guardianship, travel and marriage is much the same as in Saudi Arabia. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, and though the organisers of the World Cup have insisted that everyone is welcome, it remains to be seen how public demonstrations of same-sex affection will be handled; earlier this year, one of the men in charge of security at the tournament, Major General Abdulaziz Abdullah al-Ansari, warned that rainbow flags may be taken from fans for their own protection.
But it is the treatment of Qatar’s migrant workforce that has drawn the most attention. Investigations by the International Trade Union Confederation, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Guardian have found that most workers are recruited by unscrupulous agents, who saddle them with large debts in exchange for getting them to Qatar. Once there, they are subject to the kafala system, a Gulf-wide model for controlling migrant labourers, inherited from the British. Under this system, all workers must have a sponsor, who is responsible for their conduct and who has the power to decide whether they can take another job and whether they can stay in the country at all. Many migrants are forced to cede their passports and other documents to their sponsors. They often get paid much less than they have been led to believe and are housed in dismal conditions. They have no legal redress and trade unions are banned. Domestic workers have been treated just as badly, at times kept in conditions close to imprisonment.
Working conditions on construction sites, exposed to the searing heat and dust of the desert, have been a particular cause for concern. A widely circulated report suggested that around six thousand migrant workers have died in Qatar since the bid was successful. The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy (the organising committee of the World Cup) claims that just three ‘work-related’ fatalities have occurred on projects for which it is directly responsible. What, mendacity aside, could account for the discrepancy? It’s true that some critics have been cavalier with the data. First, not all migrant deaths are migrant worker deaths; the overall figure includes retired people, spouses and other dependents. Second, not all migrant worker deaths result from work. Third, not all migrant worker deaths result from World Cup projects; no more than 20 per cent of the migrant workforce are employed in construction. At the same time, the Supreme Committee’s figures are disingenuous, based on a definition of ‘World Cup projects’ that includes only a handful of prominent initiatives, all of which observe the highest health and safety standards. On these, 37 deaths have been recorded, 34 of which have been classified as non-work-related. World Cup projects all have enormously complex subcontracting arrangements and supply chains and if the Supreme Committee had been monitoring every construction project since 2020, its tally would be higher. As for non-work-related deaths, the Guardian noted that, for example, 69 per cent of deaths among Indian, Nepalese and Bangladeshi workers were categorised as ‘natural’, but the figure probably includes deaths resulting from mental and physical stress, accidents or poor working conditions. Amnesty International has argued that many cases of work-related cardiac arrest, often caused by heat stress, have been missed by the Qatari authorities because post-mortems are seldom conducted and there is no public inquest system to determine cause of death.
There is no way of knowing how many workers have suffered serious injuries on World Cup construction projects and their derivatives. But even without precise figures, the issue has overshadowed every effort to publicise the tournament. John McManus quotes an exasperated PR consultant, talking about the early years after the successful bid: ‘The only thing we can tell them is the Guardian and Amnesty International will not leave you the fuck alone until you abolish kafala, that’s your job, and then leave the rest to us.’ In the end, that is more or less what has happened. Reforms between 2013 and 2016 introduced stricter regulation and better health and safety conditions on the projects run by the Supreme Committee, but this did little to stop the avalanche of criticism. So, since 2017, in collaboration with the UN’s International Labour Organisation, Qatar has been dismantling kafala and, in 2020, replaced it with a state-run system. Amnesty International has continued to call for Qatar and Fifa to allocate $440 million between them – less than 0.5 per cent of the total cost of the tournament, and less than 10 per cent of Fifa’s cut – to compensate workers and their families for deaths and injuries sustained over the last decade. Both parties have declined to do so.
The case for allowing closed authoritarian societies to host international sporting competitions is that it forces them to engage with international norms in the full glare of the global media, which helps nudge them towards a democratic future. This was the argument made about South Korea by Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, when Seoul hosted the Summer Olympics in 1988. The South Korean junta did institute democratic reforms in response to mass protests in 1987, but in retrospect the Olympics seem just one factor in this, and not the decisive one. It’s hard to think of another competition that has produced a change equal to Qatar’s recent labour reforms. But the reforms have only shifted the dial a little and some worry that even this won’t last: many businesses grew wealthy under the kafala system and politicians are still trying to dilute the reforms.
Finally, there are the environmental concerns. No World Cup has been so closely examined for its climate credentials, but then no other World Cup host made any serious claim to be sustainable or carbon neutral. Once the tournament is over, Qatar plans to downsize its stadiums – one of them, made primarily from shipping containers, will be entirely dismantled – and to find plausible sustainable uses for the rest. It has invested in public transport, tree-planting and renewable energy. The tournament has strict rules on waste management and an offset policy commits Qatar to invest in the highest-rated carbon sequestration and reforestation projects. Again, with increased transparency comes closer scrutiny. Critics wonder how the 10,000 litres of water needed each day to preserve each of the tournament’s 140 playing surfaces, training pitches and back-up turf, can make environmental sense, especially since Qatar’s desalination plants are powered by fossil fuels and pollute the Gulf. According to Carbon Market Watch, Qatar has vastly underestimated the carbon emissions produced by its stadium programme (let alone the wider infrastructure bonanza), while its offset programme is currently incomplete and tied to questionable projects. The emissions associated with any World Cup are huge, with fans flying in from all over the world, but they will be especially high this time. Since there isn’t enough accommodation for ticketholders in Doha, Qatar Airways is putting on hundreds of additional flights to ferry spectators from Dubai, Oman and Bahrain. (Then again, building yet more hotels in Qatar might have been worse.)
There is no way to offset the fact that a gigantic dose of hydrocarbon wealth is being used to stage an immensely carbon-intensive spectacle, in a place that is already getting hotter faster than almost anywhere else on the planet. In the narrowing window of opportunity that remains, can we justify burning this much of our carbon budget on international football? Next time round, in 2026, the World Cup will be played across the whole of North America, from Vancouver to Mexico City, New York to Los Angeles, and since it will be bigger than ever, with 48 teams (there will be 32 in Qatar; the last time it was held in the US, in 1994, there were 24), Canada/US/Mexico 2026 is set to exceed even Qatar’s carbon emissions.
History suggests that after kick-off on 20 November, all qualms will be put aside. This is what happened in Russia 2018, even though the Kremlin chose the opening day of the tournament to announce an enormously unpopular reform of Russia’s pension system, and despite the huge protests staged by Alexei Navalny and his supporters. The global media focused instead on the bacchanalian crowds celebrating in public spaces. We won’t see that kind of revelry on the streets of Doha, though there will be plenty of positive social media posts from the small army of visiting fans that the Qataris have assembled and paid for. We may see flickers of protest on the pitch if, say, players wear rainbow armbands or, as Denmark has promised, a kit in ‘mourning black’ to honour the workers who died building the stadiums. Even then, we shouldn’t expect sustained attention to be paid to the tournament’s controversies. Few people in the Global North want to consider their own complicity in the systemic inequalities of capitalism and the horrors of climate change, especially while they’re watching the football. So far, professional football and its fans have been happy to benefit from the hydrocarbon wealth of authoritarian societies – Gazprom sponsored the Champions League until the invasion of Ukraine; in 2008, the UAE’s royal family bought Manchester City, the most prominent of its global network of clubs; last year, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund paid £300 million for Newcastle United – and have shown little concern for the provenance of things like shirts and balls, often made in factories that use child labour.
While some aspects of Qatari society may be better understood by the end of the World Cup, almost nothing about the lives of Qataris will have been revealed. What has it been like to live through the transformation of a country from premodern penury to postmodern opulence? McManus offers some insights. Qatari citizens pay no tax. Healthcare and education are free. State employment is guaranteed to all of those who wish it. But political power is held by a narrow stratum of aristocrats around the royal house. Unconventional behaviour, let alone criticism of the status quo, is risky. Civil society – from political pressure groups to independent artistic production – is almost non-existent.
Conspicuous consumption, however, is allowed. Qataris are the world’s most enthusiastic purchasers of luxury goods, which means that, despite the state’s largesse, they are massively in debt: three-quarters of Qatari families owe at least $70,000. Many have responded to the country’s hyper-modernisation by embracing tradition; some have become more involved in Wahhabist Islam or even, to the dismay of the regime, in more radical Salafist currents. Most Qataris prefer to wear traditional dress in public. A widespread obsession with falconry suggests a romantic notion of the bedouin and desert cultures of the past, but the birds and kit are wildly expensive. One of McManus’s interviewees, discussing the ennui felt by young people, says: ‘It is very difficult to just live here and do nothing.’ There is the option to leave, of course, but few Qataris take it. McManus meets a young man called Khalid who, unusually, spends much of his time motorbiking around Europe; his peers consider him odd, if not deviant. McManus asks him how he would compare his life in Qatar with his experiences elsewhere. ‘I have met lots of people happier than us in Qatar,’ he replies.
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