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The 2022 World Cup in Qatar is about More Than Soccer

The 2022 World Cup is fast approaching, but the host country is facing concerns over human rights, event management, and the quality of life for residents.

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Later this fall, the attention of the sporting world will turn to Qatar as it hosts the 2022 World Cup, the men’s soccer tournament that takes place every four years between qualifying members of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the governing body of international soccer. When FIFA awarded the hosting of its 2022 event to the Persian Gulf state back in 2010, they committed themselves to a plan that seemed unrealistic against a backdrop of tensions in the Middle East. At the most basic level, tournaments like the World Cup are an opportunity for host nations to practice sports diplomacy, harnessing the unique power of sports to bring people together to cheer, groan, and exult in the achievements of world-class athletes playing on behalf of their nations. Qatar’s bid to host the World Cup is their chance to put themselves on display in the best light possible.

However, while a host nation is provided a global audience to whom they can showcase the best of their country’s facilities, competence, largesse, and hospitality, hosts are also vulnerable in this spotlight. When the eyes of the world turn toward an individual country, media examine and highlight deficiencies, whether failures of management of the event itself or larger concerns about human rights and quality of life for the host country’s residents.

Now, just a few weeks away from the kick-off of the 2022 World Cup on November 20, which will be played across eight stadiums throughout Qatar, the eyes of the world turn toward this small, very wealthy nation known both for its role as a leading natural gas exporter and its punitive laws against blasphemy and homosexuality. And although the temperature in Doha, Qatar’s capital, can surge up to 118 degrees Fahrenheit, as it did this past June, the heat is not the only potential stressor. There are other sources of tension surrounding Qatar’s handling of the event, and to learn more, we asked SIS professor Robert Kelley to explain the lay of the land as the World Cup draws near.

First, here are a few facts about Qatar.

The semi-constitutional monarchy is home to roughly 2.5 million people, occupying just under 4,500 square miles – an area slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut. Out of Qatar’s 2.5 million residents, nearly 90% are people living outside their home country. Qatar’s service-based and externally focused economy generates one of the highest average incomes in the world, although that number is skewed by a small subset of the extremely wealthy. Prior to the World Cup, many outside Qatar will have been exposed to the country through its state-sponsored media juggernaut, Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera’s arrival, launched by Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family in 1996, proved to be an ingenious measure for a small state seeking to influence regional politics. When neighboring countries Bahrain, UAE, and Saudi Arabia blockaded the country in 2017 for its talks with Iran and regarded terrorist sponsors, Qatar drew upon political and social capital from Al Jazeera’s global reach to escape it. Crucially, Qatar’s location between Saudi Arabia and Iran presents a natural base for the US military’s Central Command, giving the state a secure foothold in the Middle East and cementing its role as a regional mediator between Islam’s hardline and moderate elements.

Why is the World Cup so important?

In short, hosting the World Cup is prestigious. By winning hosting duties over competing proposals from the likes of Japan and the US, Qatar notched another symbolic victory for small states punching above their weight. However, unlike the close-ups that other countries seek by hosting similar sporting events, Qatar’s World Cup will showcase the country’s material embrace of the West. In addition, Qatar’s strict sharia law will be a stark contrast with the expected, soccer-mad culture for television viewers and live spectators. These games won’t be defined by the vuvuzelas of South Africa or bask in the hallowed atmosphere of the Maracanã in Brazil; rather, partying fans will be put in designated zones, and there will be no alcohol allowed at the matches. In this light, the 2022 World Cup’s identity will represent the region, with Qatar – not Dubai or Cairo – situated firmly at the center of it all.

Hosting comes at a steep price.

At $220 billion, Qatar’s World Cup shatters the event’s record for expenditure, previously owned by Brazil’s 2014 event at $15 billion. The budget has gone to fund ambitious infrastructure projects: stadiums, hotels, airports, and ground transportation. But for all this rapid development at such a staggering price, the human capital has dogged the Qataris the most.

FIFA’s decision was met with immediate speculation that Qatar must’ve bought its selection. Qatar’s defenders did not deny this theory but instead maintained that this is how countries gain an advantage in an opaque process. Qatar has also found itself at the center of controversy surrounding its treatment of the very workers who have delivered on its World Cup vision, most of them migrants caught in a labor arrangement known as kefala. Commonplace among the Gulf states, kefala entitles private individuals and companies to sponsor foreigners who commit to work in exchange for travel, housing, and wages. However, this system is poorly regulated and severely disadvantages workers to the point of exploitation, or worse. Abuses abound, and these migrant workers find themselves victims of wage theft, withheld exit visas, the threat of imprisonment, and inhospitable living and working conditions. Some estimates of migrant worker deaths in preparation for the World Cup exceed 6,000. In recent years, the Qatari government has responded to pressure on this point by granting more rights to laborers, but the degree to which these were implemented remains unclear.

Potential hosting pains are manifold.

Qatar’s socially conservative society will have to commingle with soccer fans from overseas. While trying to manage the rowdiest fans and crowds of unprecedented scale, Qatar will be hard-pressed to accommodate the variety of international visitors and myriad of identities for which sharia is ill-suited. According to Human Rights Watch, same-sex relations in Qatar are punishable with up to seven years in prison. A Qatari woman’s life decisions often depend on a tradition of male guardianship. No amount of money can overcome the predominant local mindsets on these and other clashing issues. While well-meaning visitors may find themselves insulated from such clashes by the presence of Western media, a global audience, and a nation wanting everything to go smoothly, the list of potential problems for this groundbreaking affair is limitless. 

Until then, the buildup has begun. You can learn more about the staging of this year’s World Cup by tuning into, of course, Al Jazeera.