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Qatar’s appalling human-rights record should give pause to even the most diehard fans

Workers pass a World Cup mural in Doha, Qatar’s capital. The Persian Gulf state has spent years preparing, aided by a migrant labour force that has endured exploitation and dangerous conditions. Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images

Declan Hill is an associate professor of investigations at the University of New Haven and the lead of its Sports Integrity Center. He is the author of The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime and The Insider’s Guide to Match-Fixing in Football.

There are some things more important than soccer.

Don’t get me wrong. I love soccer. For a Canadian fan, it has been a long, long wait to see our men’s team at the World Cup. Yet I will not be tuning into the tournament when it starts Sunday in Qatar, and I am not alone.

FIFA’s World Cup of soccer makes the Super Bowl and Stanley Cup look like parochial, neighbourly tournaments. The games will be watched by billions of people. When the matches are played, entire countries will stop all business. At the last final in 2018 – where the French team defeated Croatia 4-2 – one-in-seven of everyone breathing on the planet watched the game.

The entire event is a marketer’s dream. The broadcasting rights are one of the last guaranteed pots of gold in the television world. The sponsorships of FIFA’s international corporate backers are in the billions of dollars.

Yet despite these immense resources, the host country for the next tournament, Qatar, has built its stadiums and infrastructure, according to human-rights groups, with “modern-day slave” labour. There are also serious allegations of corruption and brutal mistreatment of women and sexual minorities.

The sporting world has, largely, greeted this situation with silence.

On Doha’s waterfront, workers walk along the Corniche, tidy up around the National Museum of Qatar and clean the Pearl Monument, which honours the peninsula’s main industry before fossil fuels. The migrant labourers building Qatar’s World Cup infrastructure can work up to 16 hours a day. Ryan Pierse/Getty Images; Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images; Nariman El-Mofty/AP

Too little, too late

To a visitor, the demographic division of Qatar may be reminiscent of a dystopian science-fiction novel. A city-state, the country consists of Doha, its capital, which is surrounded by a desert roughly twice the size of Metro Toronto. The country sits on vast fields of natural gas and oil, which makes it one of the richest countries per capita in the world. However, its population is where things get odd: Approximately 95 per cent of Qatar’s population of 2.8 million are not actually Qatari. Rather they are international workers ranging from North American and European business executives, to more than two million construction workers and domestic servants.

It is in this population where the exploitation takes place.

The workers who constructed the World Cup infrastructure in Qatar – subways, hotels, stadiums, even a new city – are mostly from India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. They toil for up to 16 hours a day in intense desert heat. They often have no rest or days off. Their living conditions are usually shantytowns without air conditioning or even the most basic of services. The workers are brought in by companies who charge them high fees for “finding them work” and then their Qatari employers take away their passports. Many of these workers haven’t been able to change jobs without their employers’ permission (it has seldom been given) and are almost without any legal recourse.

Because of these conditions, the Guardian newspaper in London calculated that there have been more than 6,500 unnecessary deaths related to the construction of the World Cup tournament. This high death rate comes from accidents, overwork, cardiac arrests, heat exhaustion and suicides.

In Nepal, activists speak of the “processions of coffins” flowing back from Doha of young Nepalese men who went to work there. It’s a record that would make an Egyptian pyramid-building pharaoh blush.

The Qatari government denies these charges. It claims that the numbers of workers who have died is in the dozens, not the thousands.

While the arduous labour conditions may have been true in the past, the government says, in the past five years it has brought in sweeping reforms that have softened the system.

For example, workers are now promised a minimum wage of at least US$275 a month and the controversial kafala system, which ties migrant workers to a single employer, has been officially eliminated.

However, human-rights groups claim that these changes are all simply too little, too late.

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International media have a difficult time reporting on conditions for workers in Qatar, like these ones outside their accommodations near Lusail Stadium.Marko Djurica/Reuters

One of the challenges of sorting out the conflicting claims between the Qatar government and the international human-rights groups is that the Doha officials have a history of arresting anyone who tries to report on the conditions there.

“Eight cars drove us off the road,” writes the BBC’s Mark Lobel. In 2015, he was on a trip to Qatar with an invitation from the Prime Minister’s office to view the workers’ housing. When his team decided to see living quarters that were not in the official agenda, the police followed, arrested and jailed them.

“It was meant to be the first day of our PR tour but instead we were later handcuffed and taken to be questioned for a second time, at the department of public prosecutions,” Mr. Lobel recounts. “Thirteen hours of waiting around and questioning later, one of the interrogators snapped, ‘This is not Disneyland. You can’t stick your camera anywhere.’ ”

International broadcasters for the World Cup tournament have had to sign contracts with the Qatari government. The contracts stipulate that their journalists are not allowed to broadcast anything outside of three specially designated media zones, each of them a long distance from any of the shantytowns of the impoverished workers.

As for the workers, in August, a group peacefully demonstrated for their unpaid salaries. They were immediately jailed. A few were deported, still unpaid. The rest languish in prison, presumably as a lesson to any other worker thinking about protesting for their wages.

At least prison gives them a place to sleep. Last month, hundreds of other workers were evicted from their low-rent housing. They claim they were given less than three hours notice and were forced to move as their lodgings were too close to the city centre, where the tourists for the World Cup would see them.

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A woman in Doha looks at a mural of the Qatar 2022 mascot, La'eeb.GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images

The situation for women’s rights in Qatar is also dire. In 2016, a Dutch tourist was arrested for rape. She was not detained by the police in Doha for sexual assault. Rather, she was one of a number of women who have been arrested for reporting their own rape. The 22-year-old woman had a drink at a hotel with a man. She woke up hours later, dazed and dizzy. She reported the attack to the police. They arrested her and charged her with public drunkenness and adultery. Sex outside of marriage, consensual or not, is entitled a “love crime” and is an illegal act in Qatar.

She was, compared with some women who have suffered similar attacks in Qatar, relatively fortunate. The Dutch embassy intervened and she was released after three months detention and flown back to the Netherlands.

However, her case was not an isolated exception. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women wrote in a 2014 report that it had “deep concern” at the “high prevalence of domestic and sexual violence against women and girls, including women migrant domestic workers.”

In 2012, the UN Committee on Torture stated, with regard to Qatar, that it had received “numerous allegations by migrant [domestic] workers of physical abuse, sexual violence, rape and attempted rape.”

LGBTQ people are also subject to poor treatment in Qatar, where homosexuality is illegal. In October, Peter Tatchell, a prominent British social activist, was stopped by Qatari police. His crime? Standing on the street outside of the National Museum in Doha with a sign appealing to the Qatar government not to arrest homosexuals or lesbians.

The New York-based group, Human Rights Watch, which has been investigating conditions in Qatar for more than a decade, issued a report in September claiming that “security forces are detaining and abusing LGBT people simply for who they are.” The report speaks of people taken to an underground prison, beaten and humiliated.

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At top, protesters kiss in front of the FIFA Museum in Zurich on Nov. 8, holding banners reading 'shoot out queer hate' and 'rights not greed'; three days earlier, fans in Dortmund, Germany, show pro-boycott banners at a match between Borussia Dortmund and VfL Bochum.Michael Buholzer/Keystone via AP; Leon Kuegeler/Reuters

Silence from the soccer world

Despite the well-documented human-rights abuses in Qatar, Canada – and more specifically, the Canadian soccer establishment – hasn’t led the way.

Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, said in an interview that Canadian soccer officials are “close to the bottom” in fighting for human rights at the World Cup.

She shared letters written starting this past spring by her own group, Amnesty International, and other human-rights groups, requesting a meeting with Canada Soccer officials to brief them on the situation in Qatar.

Canada Soccer’s response? To issue a statement last month, after a CTV story highlighted this issue. The statement never directly addresses the deaths of thousands of workers or the widespread attack on “love crimes” but does highlight the Qatari government’s willingness to discuss these issues.

In part, the statement talks about “our shared Canadian values,” and says, “we encourage all partners to continue the dialogue ensuring these reforms translate to tangible improvement in protections for workers’ rights and inclusivity across the country beyond the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.”

“In the human-rights world,” Ms. Worden says, “we call these statements complete jokes. They are all platitudes and no substance.”

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A Doha building shows a giant image of Canadian forward Alphonso Davies.GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP via Getty Images

Canada’s lack of action is in contrast to the much of the rest of the soccer world.

Philipp Lahm, the captain of the German 2014 World Cup-winning soccer team and now a journalist, has declared he will not travel to Qatar to cover the World Cup. Eric Cantona, the former Manchester United star player, and no stranger to controversy himself, agrees. He said, “It’s only about money and the way they treated the people who built the stadiums, it’s horrible … thousands of people died. And yet we will celebrate this World Cup.”

Other former players and coaches have joined protests for human rights in Qatar, along with the current Australian, Norwegian and German teams. The Danish team plans to play and train in black uniforms to show their sympathy for the people killed in the construction of the tournament infrastructure. The captains of the English and Welsh teams intend to wear multicoloured “One Love” armbands that highlight discrimination.

Some European governments have also joined in. French cities, such as Paris, Strasbourg and Lyon, have announced that they will break from their usual tradition of publicly airing any World Cup games.

Even U.S. Soccer has gone far further than its Canadian counterpart. Not only have the American sports officials been more open to meeting with international human-rights groups, they have publicly backed the idea that Qatar should pay compensation to all the workers equal to the prize money paid to all the players in the World Cup.

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FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who lives in Doha, has said it's not the soccer body's job to be 'the police of the world.'WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images

The multibillion-dollar organization that runs the World Cup – FIFA – has not joined in this call for worker compensation or protection for women and LGBTQ people.

At a May press conference, when asked about the controversy around the labour deaths in Qatar, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said, “When you give work to somebody, even in hard conditions, you give him dignity and pride.” He later added, “Now 6,000 might have died in other works and so on … [but] FIFA is not the police of the world.”

Mr. Infantino, who now lives in Doha, claimed last month that the workers who toiled on the tournament infrastructure are “proud of their work.”

His attitude might, in part, be due to the massive controversy inside FIFA that marked Qatar’s obtaining the World Cup.

At 4:10 p.m. on Dec. 2, 2010, then-president Sepp Blatter pulled out of an envelope the name of Qatar to play host to the World Cup. Almost immediately, a howl of disbelief circled the soccer world.

That evening, Mr. Blatter’s second-in-command, Jérôme Valcke, was seen, his head in his hands, saying, “This is the end of FIFA.” Years later, Mr. Blatter himself declared that it had been “a mistake” to award Qatar the tournament. No surprise. For the announcement had catalyzed multiple law-enforcement investigations that convicted dozens of FIFA executives of corruption and forced Mr. Blatter and Mr. Valcke out of the organization.

The chief Qatari executive at FIFA, who had been instrumental in getting the country the tournament, was even thrown out in a separate scandal for offering $40,000 cash bribes to soccer officials.

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Former FIFA executive Theo Zwanziger has had harsh words for Qatar's handling of the World Cup.Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

One senior FIFA executive did speak out about the Qataris. In 2012, Theo Zwanziger was delegated to work with them. He gave up after 11 months, declaring publicly that “Qatar is a cancer on world football.”

The Qatari government and the Qatar Football Association quickly sued Mr. Zwanziger for defamation. Just as quickly, a German court threw the charges out, saying in effect, that Mr. Zwanziger may not be correct in his opinion, but it was not an unreasonable opinion.

The U.S. Department of Justice certainly thought there was something wrong with the 2010 decision to award Qatar the World Cup. Its “FIFAgate” investigation, showing corruption at the heart of international soccer, resulted in the convictions of dozens of FIFA executives under the RICO racketeering statutes usually used for organized crime.

After the controversial World Cup hosting-rights decision, the Qataris decided to lead the parade of research about ethics and sports. Now, much of the discussion in my own field – sports integrity – has been driven by Qatari-funded organizations. There are high-priced conferences in beautiful locations. Academics and journalists accept invitations to present papers or speeches at these events.

The lid was blown off the real story of at least some of these conferences by French journalists at Mediapart. They revealed that the Qataris had, on one occasion, actually used those events to break into their sporting rivals’ rooms and spy on them.

Worse was the revelation by the Associated Press that the Qataris had spent US$387-million dollars to hire former CIA operatives to help silence their critics. Their tactics included paying unwitting academics and sexually appealing “honey-traps” for some of their serious critics, including Theo Zwanziger, the FIFA executive who denounced them as “a cancer.”

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At Doha's Flag Plaza, the maroon-and-white Qatari flag, top middle, stands with banners from nations whose diplomatic missions are accredited by Qatar. The World Cup has been a chance for rapprochement between Qatar and its rivals in the Middle East.GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images

Will Qatar’s efforts bear fruit?

As Qatar has spent US$220-billion on the tournament, employed ex-CIA operatives, influenced the sports integrity industry and employed millions of indentured labourers in conditions of “modern-day slavery” – the question remains: If it is already one of the the richest countries in the world, why bother?

Karim Zidan is an international journalist who covers the intersection of sports and politics, and is on the board of advisers for my own University of New Haven Sports Integrity Center, explains that playing host to the World Cup has brought Qatar extraordinary power.

“Its Middle Eastern rivals – Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt – have had to reverse their hostility as the World Cup has become such an important symbol.”

Five years ago, tiny Qatar was facing a military blockade from regional superpower, Saudi Arabia. Its tanks were parked on the Qatari border. This month, during the tournament, soldiers from NATO and Pakistan will be directly defending Qatar. It is an extraordinary rise in power and prestige.

“The West has underestimated the extent of what Qatar has achieved,” Mr. Zidan says. “It’s far more than reputational washing or a soft power exercise. It’s significant international relations at play and the Qataris have largely succeeded.”

Jérôme Valcke, the former FIFA executive who was convicted of forging documents, told the French newspaper Le Monde that a good performance for France’s national team would supplant any questions about Qatar’s behaviour. “All this will take a back seat,” he said. “I’m sure that once the trophy is lifted on December 18, everyone will have forgotten.”

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Qatar's Emir, shown with the FIFA president in April, has pushed back against global criticism of the country he rules.Hassan Ammar/The Associated Press

For all the external criticisms, Qatari leaders haven’t changed their position. Last month, in a speech before the country’s legislative council, the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, denounced criticism of the country. “It soon became clear to us that the campaign included fabrications and double standards that were so ferocious that it has unfortunately prompted many people to question the real reasons and motives behind the campaign.”

Several weeks ago, Labour Minister Ali bin Samikh Al Marri said that the criticism of Qatar’s labour record was a racist attack on the country.

Human-rights activists are not backing down. ”Qatari authorities were very poorly advised [to think] that journalists would only report on sports,” Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch says. “Don’t be surprised when your workers go home in coffins that you get criticized.”

Personally, I agree with the human-rights workers. I love soccer. In my investigations of match-fixing, I risked much to expose corruption at the heart of the beautiful game. But I will not watch a single minute of this Qatar-hosted World Cup. There has been too much sweat, too many tears, too much blood and far, far too many deaths to be justified by any sport.

There are more important things than a soccer game.

World Cup 2022: More from The Globe and Mail


The World Cup gets under way in Qatar on Nov. 20. To learn what to expect, listen to the first episode of Ahead Of The Game, a podcast hosted by Globe columnist John Doyle and soccer journalist Sonja Cori Missio.


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