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Qatar and the World Cup: ‘International Farce, Moral Atrocity, Arab Tragedy’
Qatar is finally getting what it has long deserved: contempt.
By Hugh Fitzgerald
Fabulously wealthy little Qatar wanted to make a splash in the world, to become the cynosure of all eyes, however briefly, to be known for something other than its natural gas deposits and its bulging bank account. That is why, back in 2010, the Qataris went to work and bribed FIFA to let it host the 2022 World Cup in its capital, Doha. But that favorable attention Qatar was expecting from hosting the World Cup – well, it hasn’t exactly turned out that way. More on this anon.
The corruption, greed, and cruelty that have characterized both Qatar’s successful bid to host the games that began on November 20 (with Qatar’s welcome loss to Ecuador) and its gargantuan preparations for them, are discussed here: “Qatar’s World Cup is an Arab tragedy – opinion,” by Amotz Asa-El, Jerusalem Post, November 18, 2022:
Money’s conquest of sports has never been as sweeping, unabashed, corrupt, and inhuman as soccer’s World Cup became en route to the month-long tournament that opened on Sunday in Qatar, and which can be decried already as an international farce, a moral atrocity and an Arab tragedy.
QATAR’S VERY selection to host the World Cup, mankind’s most widely watched televised event, was absurd. For one thing, Qatar’s heat shifted the event, for the first time ever, to the winter, thus disrupting regular play in hundreds of leagues throughout the world. Even so, this technicality is the lesser of this anomaly’s many flaws.
In summer, Qatar has temperatures that range between 100 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit. To escape that intolerable heat, the World Cup games, that ordinarily take place in June and July, were moved to take place from November 20 to December 18. That is in the middle of the European soccer season, that runs from Fall to Spring. Thus all the players taking part in the World Cup would not be available for their regular season of play, so that “regular” soccer season was rescheduled for the summer. This caused massive disruption in league schedules. And that was only the first of the baneful effects of holding the World Cup in Qatar.
Having fewer than 400,000 citizens and therefore lacking the fan base and stadiums that hosting a World Cup demands, Qatar’s bid was woefully inferior to those of Australia, Japan, Korea and the US. Its bid’s victory thus raised heavy suspicions of major-league bribery.
Qatar, with a population of 400,000 Qataris, and another 2.6 million foreign workers, has a minuscule fan base; all of the countries that in 2010 were in the running to host the World Cup in 2022 had populations at least fifty times as great. They included Australia (26 million), Korea (52 million), Japan (125 million), and the US (335 million). Furthermore, Qatar at the time of the FIFA bidding had only one stadium, which held 60,000 people. The other countries competing against it had dozens of stadiums in the cities where the games might have been held. But Qatar promised that if it was chosen, it would have ready by 2022 seven new stadiums. And by the fall of 2022, it did, in fact, have all seven of those stadiums ready for World Cup matches. Despite the need to move the World Cup games from summer to fall to avoid the heat, despite the absence of a large domestic fan base, despite all the stadiums that would have to be built between 2010 and 2012 to accommodate more than 1.2 million visitors, Qatar was – to everyone’s astonishment – chosen to host the games.
Everyone now knows that Qatar was bribing FIFA, both the organization, and individuals working for it, to secure the right to host the World Cup games. The sums involved were enormous. In 2019, the Sunday Times reported that the state-run Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera offered $400 million to FIFA for broadcasting rights, just 21 days before FIFA announced that Qatar would hold the 2022 World Cup. The paper also documented a secret TV deal between FIFA and Al Jazeera, that $100 million would also be paid into a designated FIFA account, but only if Qatar won the World Cup ballot in 2010. An additional $480 million was also offered to FIFA by the Qatar government, three years after its initial offer in 2010, to make sure there would be no reconsidering the deal — which had been scathingly criticized — by FIFA. This brought the total amount offered by Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup to $980 million. That’s why FIFA decided in 2010 to award the 2022 games to Qatar, and to stick with that decision despite all the charges, early on, of corruption in the bidding process.
A Wall Street Journal report in January 2011 said Qatar made dubious investments in “soccer academies” in voting executives’ home countries, and that it paid French soccer celebrity Zinedine Zidane $3 million to endorse its bid. Reports in the British press said that officials of FIFA (the governing body of world soccer) who voted for Qatar’s bid received millions of dollars.
Qatar had many ways of buying votes at FIFA. It spent tens of millions of dollars to set up “soccer academies” in the countries of those FIFA executives who were to vote on the bids. It paid celebrity soccer stars to endorse Qatar’s bid; just one player, Zinedine Zidane, was given $3 million to promote Qatar’s candidacy. How many others received similar financial enticements is not known. And after the vote was taken, those FIFA officials who voted for Qatar are known to have received millions of dollars as a secret thank-you from Doha.
With the World Cup games safely awarded, Qatar went on a tremendous spending spree:
Qatar bought eight (seven of them new, one refurbished) stadiums along with imported lawns and massive air-conditioning systems. It bought practically the entire workforce that this mammoth undertaking required. And it now turns out that Qatar also bought fans, paying for their travel, accommodation and game tickets to fill the stadiums that the other bidders for the event would easily have filled to capacity. Qatar even imported much of its national squad’s players, until foreign criticism forced it to reduce their number.
Qatar brought in 30,000 migrant workers from South Asia to build the seven new stadiums that the World Cup games would require, in order to handle all of the matches going on simultaneously. These construction workers also built the new airport, new hotels, a new metro system, and new roads to accommodate the estimated 1.2 million visitors. But those workers lived in unsanitary and squalid dormitory housing, were served food they described as often “rotten,” worked 80-90 hours each week, and had to work through the stifling heat of Qatari summers. They were subject to immediate expulsion from the country, without final wages being paid, if they complained, and many who did not complain were nonetheless expelled without having their back wages paid. It has been estimated that the total that was owed to the workers but was left unpaid came to $440 million. Working conditions were such that at least 6,500 workers died on the job. Some died from being forced to work in 100-120 degree weather during the Qatari summer. Some died from simple exhaustion after being required to work 80-90 hours each week. Their families, mostly in Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, received no compensation for their deaths. This was the hideous reality behind all that glitter and swank – stadiums, hotels, airport – that the Qataris were so eager to display to the world.
Despite the Qatari government and private contractors going to great lengths to prevent outside inspectors from talking to the workers, some of their stories of mistreatment have been heard. NGOs have been interviewing workers and collecting data. “Migrant workers were indispensable to making the World Cup 2022 possible, but it has come at great cost for many migrant workers and their families who not only made personal sacrifices, but also faced widespread wage theft, injuries, and thousands of unexplained deaths,” said Rothna Begum, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
To the Qataris’ horror, those exploited workers’ stories have been widely reported, and disseminated on social media; they’ve become the focus of worldwide indignation. Now there are calls for Qatar to set aside a half-billion dollars to compensate those workers who did not receive their full wages, or were subject to horrendous mistreatment, and also to provide support for the families of workers who died on the job. Qatar is resisting this request, which has only increased disgust with the rapacity and cruelty of the “World Cup” nation.
While Qatari employers, and the government itself, withheld wages due its migrant workers, it provided money to 1,500 foreigners to come to Qatar for the games; the government paid for their travel, their month-long stays, their tickets to the games. Their task was to flood social media round-the-clock – and in different languages — with constant praise for Qatar and for the games.
Sitting atop the world’s largest mineral deposits per capita, money was never a problem. Qatar spent an astronomical $220 billion – almost 10 times Israel’s annual defense spending – on a one-month event.
Was the attention Qatar will have reaped as a result of hosting the 2022 World Cup games have been worth $220 billion? It’s hard to see how. Qatar won’t now become a world destination for tourists, who instead will have been repelled by its conduct in winning the Games through bribery, and in its exploitation of the foreign workers who built the stadiums and other infrastructure.
Once the games are over, what does Qatar have to offer? No world-class art museums, archeological sites, theatres, or orchestras; no beautiful landscapes, but only endless sand and gaudy skyscrapers. Of the seven stadiums Qatar had built, how many will be needed even a month from now? It is already clear to most of us that Qatar has massively miscalculated about the kind of media coverage it expected. The story of the 2022 World Cup games will not be about how splendid was the setting, or how enthusiastic the crowds, but instead about only two things. First, the media are continuing to focus on all the money Qatar spent to corrupt the bidding process and assure its win. There are hundreds of stories about the amounts of Qatari money that have gone to FIFA as an organization, and to individual FIFA executives in order to buy their votes, or reward them after they had cast their votes for Qatar. Search for “Qatar” and “bribery” and you will get 9.4 million hits.
Second, the other great focus of the World Cup-Qatar coverage is the mistreatment of the 30,000 migrant workers brought in to build the seven new stadiums, as well as roads, hotels, a metro, and an airport. Their squalid living conditions, the substandard food described as “rotten,” the 80-90 hour work weeks, the unendurable summer heat in which they were forced to work, the withholding by some Qataris of wages owed to their workers, the expulsion of any workers who complained about their treatment — now the whole world has learned about the very things Qatar assumed it could hide.
Fortunately, Qatar used some of that fortune to build hotels, roads, an airport and a metro system that will serve it for many years. Unfortunately, it did all that at a morally intolerable price….
Some of that infrastructure which Qatar spent $220 billion to build will likely continue to be useful once the games are over. The new metro system, and the new airport, were both worthwhile investments. But what about the hotels built to accommodate the 1.2 million soccer fans who have been flying in from all over the globe to view the games? Once the games are over, how many tens of thousands of hotel beds in Doha will never again be needed, and will remain empty? And it’s hard to imagine what use Qatar will have for the seven gigantic stadiums it built just for the World Cup games. When the tide of tourism recedes to pre-World Cup levels, Qatar will almost certainly be left with lots of white elephants.
Qatar had no interest in hiring other Arabs to be part of its foreign workforce of 30,000. It would not have been able to exploit fellow Arabs as easily as it has the South Asia workers, from India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, that it did hire. Other Arab governments would be ready to pressure Qatar to treat their workers fairly, to bring up any mistreatment of their nationals at a meeting of the Arab League. The poor of South Asia are more desperate, and thus easier for Qatar to exploit, than the Arab poor of the Maghreb.
Selfishness underpinned Qatar’s conduct no less than cruelty, extravaganza, and greed, all of which produced a metaphor for Arab oil’s economic misuse and moral abuse over the better part of a century – the Arab Century of squandered treasure, fallen dignity and lost hope.
Qatar’s “cruelty, extravaganza, and greed” have certainly been on full display during this saga of the World Cup. The cruelty has been demonstrated in the horrific mistreatment of 30,000 migrant workers brought in to build the stadiums and other infrastructure. The extravaganza of this new Xanadu-in-the-Desert was meant to show off to the world Qatar’s putative greatness, but no one now thinks Qatar is great. All that these buildings show, like the Saudi Crown Prince’s four megacities that are part of his one-trillion-dollar “Vision 2030,” are the staggering unearned riches of these Arab oil states and their ability to squander so much of it on projects that will soon become white elephants.
The greed is everywhere on display, but especially revealed in the stiffing by Qatar of the 30,000 migrant workers, some 6,500 of them now dead, who gave their all to have the seven stadiums and other buildings ready by the time the World Cup games were to start. Treated like modern slaves, often not given the wages due to them, they are a standing reproach to the Qatari millionaires and billionaires who have so mistreated them.
On the first day of the games, Qatar lost its first soccer match, to Ecuador. And it has lost much more, during the run-up to, and during, the games, in the world’s eyes. Qatar has lost any residual respect, any affection or esteem, that it might once have possessed. It is getting instead what it has long deserved: contempt.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons