Iimagine the scene in Qatar a year from now. On the other side of the Corniche, the palm-lined boulevard that runs along the Doha waterfront, thousands of football fans of different nationalities and religions smile, sway, have fun. And what sound do you hear? Not broken bottles, but stereotypes. Against all odds, the first Arab World Cup – and the first Muslim World Cup – not only builds bridges between East and West, but changes perceptions of the country itself.
The other hero of this rose-tinged story? The power of sport itself. Over the weekend, FIFA president Gianni Infantino praised Qatar for making “real strides” since winning the right to host the World Cup, “especially with regard to concerns human rights and the well-being of workers “. It followed a promise from Hassan Al-Thawadi, Secretary General of the Supreme Committee of Qatar 2022, that the tournament “would set new benchmarks for social, human, economic and environmental development … and will be forever remembered as innovative. , sustainable and transformative ”. .
But will the World Cup really change Qatar – or just change perceptions of the country? As usual, you better be skeptical.
Qatar, of course, insists it has made fundamental changes – in particular the abolition of the kafala system in 2020, which has prevented migrants from changing jobs or leaving the country without it. authorization from their employer. “The abolition of the kafala, the liberalization of the labor market and the establishment of a national minimum wage would have arrived on time,” explains an insider. “But was the World Cup a catalyst? Undoubtedly.
But there are caveats and asterisks. Last week, Amnesty International said the new laws were not yet implemented by all employers, leaving migrant workers still facing “widespread exploitation”. This sentiment is shared by Nicholas McGeehan of human rights organization FairSquare, who warns that there is “genuine concern that as soon as the spotlight is lifted after 2022, these reforms will be rolled back”.
McGeehan also points to the lack of investigation into the deaths of at least 6,500 Southeast Asian migrant workers in Qatar since 2010 as another reason to be skeptical of claims that the country has fundamentally changed. “Families still don’t have answers as to how these workers died because no one took the time to investigate,” he says. “They also excluded their access to compensation. I think it is inexcusable. And I hope the players taking part in the World Cup will agree.
What about freedom of expression? Qatar is certainly more open than most countries in the Middle East, Reporters Without Borders noting that “the outspoken Qatari television channel Al Jazeera has transformed the media landscape in the rest of the Arab world”. But Qatar is ranked 128th out of 179 countries in the press freedom rankings. In 2010, when he won the right to host the World Cup, he was 121st. “Qatar was already leading the way in media freedom in the region,” said McGeehan. “It is an exaggeration to say that he has become more liberal in the last decade.”
An equally complex story emerges when it comes to LGBT rights. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, but authorities insist gay fans are welcome at the World Cup, as long as they act conservatively. This promise appears to be genuine. When Paul Amann, the founder of Liverpool LGBT group Kops Out, traveled to Qatar for the Club World Cup in 2019, he was pleasantly surprised. “It’s not a country I would choose to live in,” he says. “But I wouldn’t mind seeing him again. My husband and I went to the Corniche, the museum and the souk at night, and we felt totally safe.
Again, however, there are some important caveats. As McGeehan points out, LGBT people living in Qatar face a very different experience. “The laws remain deeply discriminatory,” he says. “And if you are gay, you are excluded from society. It takes terrible work for LGBT people in Qatar. It ruins their lives. Football won’t change that. This change will come from within Qatari society.
Have there been any real changes since the country won the right to host the World Cup? Sure. On the infrastructure side, it has changed. And when academic Joel Rookwood traveled to Qatar for the Club World Cup in 2019, he noticed that there were a lot more female fans than when he had researched during the FIFA World Cup. ‘Asia in 2011. At the time, he had only seen six women in 14 games. “It wasn’t just that there were a lot more women in 2019,” he says. “It’s because they went unnoticed. They have been accepted. I think this is a very big change.
Even so, it’s hard to argue that Qatar has become much more liberal and open since 2010. Yet for many football fans, it probably doesn’t matter.
A few years ago, when Rookwood interviewed supporters traveling to the World Cups about the 2022 tournament, for example, he found that “the overwhelming majority … made little reference to the human rights violations in Qatar, which were discussed. permanently through media sources and non-governmental organizations ”. As one fan told him, “You don’t really think of workers. I know it sounds bad, but… once you’re there, it’s party time.
Such attitudes do not surprise McGeehan. When asked about the tournament’s potential legacy, McGeehan is blunt. “The hosting of the World Cup has greatly benefited the reputation of Qatar. It is now identifiable on the world stage. And while that comes at a cost over one or two issues, for every fan concerned about migrant workers and LGBT issues, there are probably 40 or 50 other people who uncritically consume public relations content that portrays Qatar as one. luxury destination with five-star hotels and camel rides.
Remind me, how do you say sports wash in Arabic?