Deep Dive: The politics around Qatar and the FIFA World Cup 2022

Qatar, situated on the eastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula in the Persian gulf, is the second smallest country in the Middle East and home to 2.9 million people, with just one in ten being Qatari citizens. Within Qatar is the North Field which was discovered in the mid-20th century and is now shared with Iran. This underwater gas field is the largest in the world, holding approximately 10% of the world’s known natural gas reserves. As a small nation that is often viewed as a Saudi vassal state due to its lack of military or geographical advantage, it relies on its sales of oil to gain influence throughout the region and the world. This has provided the young country with vast amounts of wealth since gaining independence from Great Britain on September 5th 1971, enabling it to successfully lead its 300,000 citizens and their tribes out of a life of fishing and pearl diving.

Qatar has since become the world’s biggest seller of Liquified Natural Gas, representing 30% of global supply, as well as being one of the world’s 3 largest gas producers and one of the 20 largest exporters of oil. Consequently, Qatar was the wealthiest country in the world in 2017 and remains in the top 4 today. Their position as a key exporter of natural gas also makes it a prime candidate to replace Russia as Western countries look to other countries for energy supplies following the war in Ukraine. But their economic success is just beginning thanks to their position as a major energy producer at a time when energy prices are soaring, fuelling predictions by the International Monetary Fund that their economy will grow by a further 3.4% this year.

Qataris are clearly thriving economically but they have long remained on the periphery of global politics and craved greater influence and international recognition. Hosting the World Cup is a significant step forward for the country but they have been making powerful deals in the background for well over a decade. Possessing roughly $338 billion in assets globally, the country is the fourth largest shareholder in the Swiss Bank, the third largest shareholder in Germany’s Volkswagen, a primary investor in Barclays Bank following the financial crisis, the owner of London’s Shard (the tallest skyscraper in Europe) and an owner of Canary Wharf and HSBC Tower skyscrapers. They also bought Harrods and a 20% stake in IAG, who own British Airways and a 20% stake in London Heathrow, as well as owning 22% of Sainsburys. In America, they bought a 10% stake in the owner of the Empire State Building and have invested in Uber, with plans to open an office in Silicon Valley to invest in more U.S. tech firms. In Singapore, they purchased a well-known Asia Square tower in from BlackRock for $2.5 billion, the largest office transaction in Singapore’s history. The businesses in which Qatar owns a stake are some of the most influential in their country and are important to their country’s economy, thus buying Qatar power and influence in these regions.

Sport is another significant part of Qatar’s growth. Since 2000, the country has organised more than 20 world and continental events but they have been determined not to be the losers or underdogs in these events so they have plowed money into their national teams in various sports, especially in football. However, the Qatari government dreamt of hosting the FIFA World Cup in its capital Doha, announcing its candidacy to host the tournament back in 2009. The last four hosts, Russia, Germany, South Africa and Brazil, were all large countries and were required to have 12 large and modern stadiums, along with suitable hotel and logistical facilities due to the millions of fans that will be attending. The 2018 World Cup in Russia attracted 3 million foreign spectators, and if this were to be equalled in Qatar the country’s population would be temporarily doubled. At the time of its candidacy, the country had no suitable stadiums and would struggle to accommodate a fraction of the visitors, making their candidacy seem illogical and impossible. Since winning the bid to host the World Cup, Qatar has spent $200 billion on infrastructure and other development projects. $6.5 billion of that has been spent on building eight stadiums for the tournament, with many additional billions being spent on a metro line, a new airport and roads to cope with the influx of 1.5 million tourists expected to visit for the tournament.

Since the announcement, many corruption plots have been revealed involving Qatar and FIFA, revealing exactly how the small, conservative country bought the right to host the world’s biggest tournament. The sums involved are rumoured to run into the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars. Just 3 weeks before the vote, Al Jazeera offered FIFA $400 million for the broadcasting rights with a further $100 million offered if Qatar were awarded the hosting rights. As a sweetener, the Qatari government volunteered a further $480 million, bringing the total to almost $1 billion in TV rights alone. The government then spent $387 million on identifying critical committees within FIFA to bribe the most corrupt members to vote for Qatar as hosts. It has been widely reported that one of the most consequential meetings took place at the Élysée Palace on November 23rd 2010, just 10 days before the official vote. The then-President of the French Republic, Nikola Sarkozy, met with Michel Platini, then-president of UEFA, Sebastien Bazin, representative of Paris Saint Germain football club, and Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, then-heir to the Qatari throne. Investigators discovered documents confirming that Sarkozy obtained assurances that the Emir of Qatar would invest in PSG football club and French television, including the beIN sports network which is now owned by Qatari Sports Investments. Following Qatar’s investment in PSG, the club went from being a mediocre European team to almost the wealthiest football club in the world. Furthermore, Sarkozy persuaded Platini to support Qatar’s candidacy so the Qatari government would invest in France and cooperate with them militarily. Their multi-billion contract covered missiles, helicopters, and pilot training, and resulted in Qatar purchasing 24 fighter jets from France in 2015 for €6.3 billion, and then a further 12 jets two years later.

FIFA have strict restrictions for host nations but they made concessions to assist Doha by reducing the number of required stadiums from twelve to eight and moving the date of the tournament from Summer to Winter, due to temperatures in Qatar reaching 45 degrees Celsius between May and September. These temperatures were intolerable for footballers but migrant workers did not receive the same concessions and were forced to work in inhumane conditions. Many of the work force, coming from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and other South Asian countries, lived in shared rooms on labor camps and worked throughout the long summer months with little respite, causing many workers to die from heatstroke. These conditions were allowed by Qatar’s ‘Kafala’ system under which a foreign worker is under contract with his sponsor, meaning that the employee is prohibited from leaving the country without written permission from the sponsor. The employee was provided with transport, accommodation, and food but, in return, their passports were removed and they were forced to work in the extreme weather conditions, six days a week with no overtime pay and prohibited from returning home until the projects are complete. Qatar eventually implemented a minimum monthly wage of around $275 in 2020, but many of the workers were sending most of their wage to their families back home who they go years without seeing. These workers were also used in various projects around Qatar that were unrelated to the World Cup. Several stipulations of the Kafala system that favoured the employer have been amended or outlawed before the tournament begins but this doesn’t make amends for the more than 6500 foreign workers who have died or been killed in Qatar over the past decade. Various causes of death have been reported, from road accidents and heat exhaustion to suicide and falls from tall structures, and conditions have been so bad that some migrant workers are reported to have developed long-term kidney disease. No tournament or event is worth a life, let alone so many. Regardless of whether or not the event is a success, Qatar has a lot of blood on its hands and human rights groups will ensure that these abuses do not go unpunished or forgotten.

Aside from the abuse of workers, Qatar already had a despicable human rights record due to its practice of Sharia law. Under Qatari laws, same-sex relationships are illegal and trans people are forced to undergo conversion therapy sponsored by the government. Many LGBTQ+ people suffer violence and imprisonment simply for being themselves, with some being locked in underground prisons and subjected to verbal and physical abuse before being stoned to death. FIFA and Qatar have been keen to play down these discriminative laws and assure non-heterosexual football fans that they will be safe, but as recently as 8th November a World Cup ambassador, Khalid Salman, described homosexuality as “damage in the mind” and confirmed that it is “garam”, Arabic for “forbidden”. Sharia law also requires women to submit to their husband’s demands and obtain permission or be accompanied by a dedicated male guardian when getting married, studying, working in government jobs, travelling abroad or receiving certain kids of reproductive healthcare. Women visiting Qatar will be required to dress modestly, with their shoulders and legs covered. Although the rules are expected to be relaxed in certain areas, such as the stadiums and hotels, when women are in public they will be expected to comply with the laws or potentially be ejected from the country. FIFA has many campaigns against racism and promoting LGBTQ+ rights in football, making Qatar a wholly unsuitable candidate. As a Muslim country, alcohol is also banned which was an issue for FIFA who have lucrative advertising contracts with prominent beer producers. Regardless, on December 2nd 2010 Qatar were officially announced as the hosts of the 2022 World Cup, the smallest country to host such a large tournament. On the same day, Russia were announced as the 2018 hosts, ignoring the fact that they invaded their neighbours in Georgia just two years before, and then attacked Ukraine in 2014. The country also has a high level of intolerance against homosexuality even though it has been decriminalised since 1993. FIFA’s lack of a moral compass is crystal clear and this will not be the last time that votes are bought in its contests or that a country with oppressive regimes is rewarded.

To understand the political context around Qatar and the larger Middle East, you must first examine the religious divisions within the region. In the Middle East, religion is a form of geopolitical power that is used by countries to dominate the Muslim world and the region, with countries largely being divided by the two main sects within Islam; Sunni and Shia. 85% of the world’s Muslims are Sunni while 15% follow Shia. Qatar is a part of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council), an organisation formed in 1981 by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, and Oman as a reaction to the Iranian revolutionary Shia influence in the region. The Sunni-led Saudis have been in a Cold War with the Shia-led Iranians for decades, while Saudi Arabia contains two of the most important religious locations in the Islamic world; Mecca and Medina. Many military factions such as Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, and ISIS are built on and legitimised by their religion, thus transforming religion into a military and political power. Qatar’s relations are severely strained with their neighbours in Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, but their most serious conflicts are with Syria, Yemen and Israel, the latter being exacerbated by Qatar’s public support of the radical Palestinian group ‘Hamas’. However, they maintain good relations with Iran, Oman and Turkey, due to its ultimately unfruitful support for the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ and Turkey’s 2017 military aid to Qatar.

Deteriorating relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia led to the formation of a Saudi-led anti-Qatar coalition in 2017, supported by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain and the Maldives. Their aim was to embargo Qatar and economically isolate it, taking advantage of its only land border which they share with the Saudis. The campaign included the funding of 30-second TV adverts in the U.S. accusing Qatar of funding terrorism, which is technically true but also true of most Middle Eastern countries. The coalition was emboldened by praise from President Trump, further unnerving the Qatari government. As a result, Qatar sought closer relations with Ankara and Tehran, spurring a reorientation of trade and the implementation of new policies. However, less than four years later the situation had reversed, with Qatar pursuing an ambitious foreign policy and pushing the coalition into a defensive state until their anti-Qatar campaign ended in 2021 with the help of American diplomacy. While Qatar was previously accused of cavorting with Islamism and supporting terrorism, it has now positioned itself as gatekeeper to the Taliban in Afghanistan when negotiating with the Western world with Doha being relied upon to monitor and restrain the Taliban’s extreme Islamist ideology. This suggests a large step up for Qatar as this international relationship is one based on diplomacy and maintaining peace and not solely on its ability to provide oil and gas.

As Qatar does not have the military strength and geographical potential to become a regional power, its hosting of the World Cup is intended to raise its profile within the region and around the world. This is not so simple, though, as its fame can quickly turn to infamy as the country is situated in the middle of a region known for harbouring various terrorist groups. Due to this threat and the inexperience of the Qatari authorities in organising such a large event, Qatar became a major non-NATO ally in early 2022 to add a layer of security and protection to the World Cup. Thirteen teams in the tournament are NATO members and have provided Qatar with support in the form of training on chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats. As part of the security deal, the U.S. will help to identify air passengers linked to terror groups and human trafficking activities, the UK will be sending RAF and Royal Navy support, France will supply early warning and reconnaissance systems, and Turkey are supplying more than 3000 security personnel to secure the country.

The World Cup is not just a one-off event for Qatar, it is a major building block for the country’s future and possibly their greatest opportunity yet at gaining a seat at the international table. In the ‘Qatar National Vision 2030’, they laid out their plans to develop on the success of the tournament and has spent the equivalent of $225 billion on domestic investments since 2008. The World Cup is also intended to legitimise the young Middle Eastern state in the eyes of its dominant neighbours and to rekindle diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia are likely to be more receptive to Qatar’s friendship now that they too have a stake in the tournament being a success as it may open doors to more world sporting events being brought to the Middle East. There is already talk of a joint bid by Qatar and Saudi Arabia to host the Olympic Games in 2036 or 2040, while the Saudis are already in a joint bid with Greece and Egypt to host the 2030 World Cup. The World Cup has already been a success for Qatar, having received more than $200 billion in investments which has greatly improved its technology sector and is making it a valuable trade and security partner with foreign powers.

Qatar won their bid under very suspicious circumstances but by bringing the World Cup to the Middle East and to an Islamic country for the first time they will be temporarily uniting the West and the Middle East, two conflicting and contrasting parts of the world. The month of football and celebrations will undoubtedly provide an interesting sociological case study for the future. They claim that they intend to reduce the friction between cultures by compromising on some of their stricter laws by allowing alcohol under certain conditions and they will allow rainbow flags to be displayed in stadiums. However, it remains to be seen how the authorities will react when non-heteronormative behaviour occurs outside the stadiums and other regulated areas.

As a football fan and someone on the left-wing of politics, I have been torn for months over whether to watch this World Cup or not. Two months ago I was briefly caught up in the hype around it and purchased the tournament’s sticker book, regrettably spending over £100 on stickers to fill it with. But, as I started to do more research into the working conditions in Qatar and their abhorrent LGBTQ+ laws, I quickly realised that I could never claim to be an ally of the gay or trans communities while supporting a corrupt tournament that was bought by a government who persecute their own citizens just for being who they are. Qatar are only one half of this sordid tale, though, as FIFA is the organisation that allowed the country to buy the votes in the first place, while antithetically running campaigns to stamp out discrimination in football. It’s the most blatant example of hypocrisy I’ve ever seen, and footballers like Gary Neville and David Beckham should be ashamed to be promoting the tournament in return for hundreds of thousands in Qatari blood money.

It has to be said, though, that Qatar is not the only country with blood on its hands and many people have wrapped their Islamophobia up in their faux outrage over the country’s human rights record. Every country that has ever hosted the World Cup could easily have been boycotted for various crimes and laws, particularly Russia and South Africa, and even England in 1966 (remember the British Empire?) This leads me to two personal quandaries: 1) the 2026 World Cup will be hosted in the United States, Mexico and Canada, all of which have committed atrocities either to their own people or in other countries, so should that tournament be boycotted also? 2) I play the FIFA video games regularly and loyally buy the new version every September, but this only helps to fund a corrupt organisation which no longer aligns with my morals, so is it time to now boycott the games too? I’m sure many other football fans will be experiencing similar dilemmas but for now, I intend to atone for my naive initial support of the World Cup by donating £200 to migrant-rights.org, who support migrant workers in the Middle East, and Ahwaa.org who have created an online platform where LGBTQ+ members in the Middle East can openly communicate and support each other.

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