The complicated legacy of Qatar's World Cup

In 2010, when FIFA announced that Qatar would host the 2022 World Cup, the news spurred celebration in that nation - and trepidation around the globe. Qatar lacked infrastructure, faced extreme summer heat and had a dubious human rights record. But officials from FIFA, soccer's global governing body, and Qatar insisted those issues wouldn't just be overcome but would be improved by the arrival of the world's most popular sporting event.

"We know it would be a bold gamble and an exciting prospect," Hassan al-Thawadi, head of the Qatari bid committee, said then. "But with no risk."

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That "bold" and risk-free World Cup, captured by Argentina in December, is now nearly a year in the rearview. And it offers perhaps the biggest test case for what happens when a Middle Eastern nation intent on using oil money to enhance its influence through sports emerges on the global stage.

Can sports help bring societal progress to a region that has long resisted change? Or are those countries rewarded with reputational prestige despite human rights abuses that they have little intention to address?

FIFA isn't alone in its assertion that the World Cup sparked progress. Greta C. Holtz, a retired U.S. diplomat in the region, said the tournament would be "100 percent net positive," with the effects only spreading in the long term. But others worry it only proved that, with the right messaging and enough money, countries can raise their global stature without compromising on ingrained systems and policies.

"FIFA has a human rights policy that guarantees press freedom, women's rights and nondiscrimination," said Minky Worden, the director of global initiatives for Human Rights Watch. "What the Qatar World Cup showed is that, if you have enough money, you can absolutely ignore those requirements."

Most fundamentally, the 2022 World Cup provided a new platform to a part of the world historically neglected by global sporting events. Qatar, an oil-rich country of roughly 2.7 million, executed a tournament that fans around the globe raved about, particularly a dream final that around 1.5 billion watched, per FIFA.

"It showed the world that a tiny but very well-resourced country in the Arab world can successfully pull off a world-class and world-level event," said Holtz, who served as chargé d'affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Doha in 2020 and 2021. "Maybe the effect is other countries who haven't traditionally been able to host something like that, if they've got the resources, could do it. For the Qataris, it was a big sense of pride."

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A dangerous dream

Qatar sought to use the World Cup to enhance its global reputation and increase tourism, both part of an effort to diversify its economy away from reliance on oil. In the process, it continued to make sports central to its strategy and its identity. National Sports Day is a Qatari holiday when the country shuts down for a day of exercise. Along with owning French soccer powerhouse Paris Saint-Germain, Qatar also purchased a lower-tier team in Belgium with the goal of sending its players overseas for experience against more advanced competition.

But at the World Cup, Qatar's reputation received scrutiny in ways the country may not have anticipated. Owing to its small population of roughly 300,000 citizens, Qatar relies heavily on migrant workers. When it won the World Cup bid, it employed a labor system called kafala. Under kafala, migrant workers, mostly seeking to leave impoverished conditions elsewhere, have to pay exorbitant recruitment fees and cannot change jobs without the consent of their employer. The system led to rampant abuses that included wage theft and unsafe working conditions, ultimately resulting in the deaths of thousands of workers. Qatar also bans homosexuality, which it defends on religious grounds.

"It put them in the world's spotlight, so they had to answer those questions," Holtz said. "They had to think about them. Whatever their policy they came up with was, they had to defend it. Some of these types of issues change in an evolutionary manner, not revolutionary manner, in different countries."

In 2016, Qatar said it would abide by the United Nations' human rights code. In 2019, Qatar announced it would abolish kafala. In 2021, Qatar instituted a minimum wage. The Supreme Committee, Qatar's World Cup host organization, created a workers' welfare program for those who built World Cup infrastructure. By the sound of the first whistle last November, the country's labor market was "radically transformed," a FIFA spokesman said.

"Would any of that have happened if they hadn't hosted the World Cup?" said Mary Harvey, chief executive at the Centre for Sport and Human Rights. "Would kafala still be in place in Qatar if they hadn't hosted the World Cup? That may not be the question people want to ask, but it's important. . . . You don't just flip the switch with a law change and expect an implementation is going to take hold. It's going to take a generation probably to get this put in. But it's still big change, and it's change that is needed."

Max Tuñón, head of the International Labor Organization's Qatar office, said he has seen major improvements in working conditions for foreign laborers over the past five years.

"That's not only because of the World Cup, but the World Cup definitely helped to accelerate a lot of the changes that were introduced in the past few years," Tuñón said. "They want to be very clear that this is part of their national agenda and they want to look forward. But they readily admit the fact that the World Cup has accelerated things. We work all over the world, and we rarely see change happening at this pace."

In its 2021 report, the workers' welfare program said 103.95 million in Qatari riyal (about $28.5 million) had been reimbursed to workers. Between November 2020 and August 2022, according to the ILO, roughly 350,000 workers in Qatar changed jobs with approval from Qatar's labor ministry.

"Before, that was not possible," Holtz said. "They're working on it gradually because they rely on that foreign worker base. A lot of their small companies, small Qatari [business] owners, you have to bring them onboard politically, too, just like here. It's an evolution."

And, some said, it will have to continue. Qatar plans to host more global sporting events, and it now understands that exporting itself to the world comes with glare.

"They want to do more of this kind of thing, so they know the spotlight will be on them again," Holtz said. "They learned a lot about trying to provide a better working situation for their labor force. It's not perfect. It's not perfect [in the United States]. The more you shine the light on it and have a country be in the world spotlight, it helps them examine those issues."

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Reckoning with the past

While the World Cup changed Qatar's laws and placed it on a new path, some close observers of the country believe those laws have not prevented abuse and the country and FIFA have not adequately reckoned with the past.

Rothna Begum, a Human Rights Watch researcher, has worked extensively in Qatar and visited with workers. (Unlike Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Qatar's government allows human rights groups to work in the country.) Begum said it is "not the case" that Qatar dismantled kafala in practice.

"They didn't do it properly, anyway," Begum said. "They didn't take away all the elements. They reformed aspects of the kafala system, but they didn't dismantle the kafala system. The bits that they did reform, they are implementing in such a way that kafala still exists in practice."

Begum has spoken with workers who have received payouts that barely covered the costs of labor courts. One worker, she said, filed a claim for $25,000 and was told he couldn't be paid because the amount exceeded the cap. Begum said she has spoken with workers who have had to choose between buying food and paying legal expenses to recoup lost wages.

Even if workers no longer need to receive consent from their employer to change jobs, Begum said, the implementation of the law leaves workers vulnerable. While workers can apply to change jobs, Begum said, she has found they must first give notice to their employer. If the employer does not sign a resignation notice, the worker cannot get permission from the government - "employer permission through the back door," Begum said. "This is the problem we have in terms of the ways in which the various systems exist to leave workers in abusive situations."

When challenged on practices that violated human rights, Begum said, Qatar's government painted itself as the victim - a public relations gambit she said other countries in the region took note of.

"Qatari authorities - not just Qatari authorities but FIFA - sought to weaponize a narrative of Qatar being an underdog, that they were under attack in this double-standard way that no one else has been under attack before, and it's because they are a Middle Eastern country," Begum said. "Rather than dealing with the fact that they just did not come through with reforms and did not protect migrant workers who really contribute to the success of the World Cup and made sure they got their wages and compensated them for it, they instead used this narrative and weaponized it. We're seeing the Saudis and UAE are moving in that direction."

Qatar's reforms also did not address the biggest cost of the World Cup: the migrant workers who died - in the thousands according to human rights groups, a number disputed by the Qatari government - while building stadiums and other infrastructure FIFA required after working in extreme heat on strict schedules. Human Rights Watch challenged whether Qatar could move forward with meaningful reform without compensating the families of the workers who died.

"The horrifically high human cost for migrant workers - whether North Koreans or Nepalis, Indians, Pakistanis, Ugandans - has not been recognized and compensated by FIFA," Worden said. "And as a consequence, they are likely to make exactly the same errors over again."

Asked about the assertion that FIFA should compensate families of migrant workers who died, a FIFA spokesman referenced a speech that Michael Llamas, the chair of FIFA's subcommittee for human rights and social responsibility, made in March at FIFA's congress in Rwanda. Llamas said the subcommittee, prompted by a proposal from Norway's soccer federation, would conduct a public report regarding FIFA's responsibility to compensate workers and their families.

"Despite the clear and positive progress which has been made, there are still some mixed views on whether sufficient progress has been achieved in Qatar as a result of the World Cup," Llamas said in the speech. "There are also different opinions as to the exact role and responsibility of FIFA in this area. Against this background, it was evident to us that a more comprehensive assessment would need to be conducted after the competition - in particular to assess what FIFA can realistically be expected to achieve in a host country across the whole range of human rights and social responsibility factors."

FIFA instituted its human rights policy in 2017 in response to criticism about Qatar. That policy may receive a more stringent test in coming years. Saudi Arabia, whose government has jailed and executed dissidents, submitted a bid to host the 2034 World Cup and is the favorite to host the tournament. Unlike Qatar, Saudi Arabia has not met with human rights groups.

"Barely a year after the human rights catastrophes of the 2022 Qatar World Cup, FIFA has failed to learn the lesson that awarding multibillion-dollar events without due diligence and transparency can risk corruption and major human rights abuses," Worden said in a statement. "The possibility that FIFA could award Saudi Arabia the 2034 World Cup despite its appalling human rights record and closed door to any monitoring exposes FIFA's commitments to human rights as a sham."

Begum is hopeful that Qatar's desire to host more major events will push that country to further improve working conditions. She also believes Qatar cannot effectively move forward until it addresses the workers affected by the building of the World Cup.

"All of us have been concerned that, with the spotlight being taken away, the attention coming off, the authorities can easily backslide on the reforms if they wish to do so," Begum said. ". . . The fact they've been able to get away without compensating workers with the World Cup having ended means they have no real incentive to move forward with the reforms.

"The hope, however, is that Qatar is still a game player here. They still want to be hosting other events. They still want to be a state where people go to. We still need them to be held accountable. We still need other governments and the international community at large, media organizations, to still ask Qatar about compensation for these migrant workers and ensure they come through with it. Only then could we really believe those reforms might actually be built on."

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Rick Maese contributed to this report.

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