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Exploring the Darker Side of Everything

The Qatar World Cup: A Story of (Alleged) Bribery, Corruption, and Human Rights Violations

Written by Dave Page

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Over the next several weeks, billions of people will be tuning in to watch the most eagerly anticipated event in the footballing calendar. From the 20st of November, 64 matches will be played between 32 teams over a period of 29 days with the final victors being declared the winners of the Qatar world cup.

This particular tournament is imbued with extra significance as it is the first to be held in the middle east, something that many campaigners have said has been too long coming. However, ever since Qatar’s bid was accepted in 2010, beating out rival bids from Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the United States, the decision has been marred with controversy. So exactly how did this tiny country, a country with very few football stadiums, very few hotels and limited transportation links and infrastructure manage to successfully land the biggest football tournament in the world? Today we will find out as we take a deep dive into not only Qatar’s original winning bid but also some of the alleged bribery, corruption and human rights violations that surround the entire tournament.

A little bit about Qatar.

Seeing as, before their World Cup bid, the majority of football fans did not even know that Qatar even existed and, of those who did, very few could have successfully located it on a map, A fact that was made evident by the huge spike in Google searches during the bidding process regarding its location, we feel that it will be beneficial to include a little bit of backstory.

Located in western Asia, the small peninsula of Qatar borders Saudi Arabia on the coast of the Persian Gulf and covers an area of approximately 4480 square miles or 7210 square kilometers.

It has a population of just under 3 million people with 80% of those living in its capital city Doha. Interestingly, out of those 3 million people, only about 15% or 450,000 are natives with the remainder being made up mostly of migrant workers. This fact will be important later.

Until 1940, Qatar’s economy was mainly based on fishing and pearl diving. However, upon the discovery of vast reserves of oil and natural gas, the economy exploded and, today, Qatar has the fourth-highest GDP per capita in the world, whilst also possessing the third largest reserves of proven natural gas and the 13th highest reserves of proven crude oil.

It is the third highest exporter of natural gas, with first and second place going to Russia and Iran respectively. All of this might, understandably, lead you to believe that Qatar be an excellent place to live and, for a small percentage of people, the richest and most influential, this is undoubtedly the case. Sadly, restrictions placed on the average individual by the government can make life very arduous.

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Government control and human rights concerns

As previously stated, life for the average person living in Qatar is subject to many restrictions and it is these restrictions that have led to controversy with regards to the country being awarded the World Cup.

Firstly, Qatar has very strict laws which outlaw the LGBT community.

Same sex relationships are forbidden in Qatar and, anybody who is suspected of engaging in such relationships can face a maximum of seven years in prison. In addition, anybody who is convicted of “zina” – sex outside of marriage – can face the same amount of prison time. For practising Muslims, the punishment can be much more severe and can include public flogging or even the death penalty. There are many accounts of people receiving harsh, brutal treatment from security services, for no other reason than being part of the LGBT community.

In this account from a Qatari bisexual woman, she describes what happened to her when her sexuality was discovered.: “[Preventive Security officers] beat me until I lost consciousness several times. An officer took me blindfolded by car to another place that felt like a private home from the inside and forced me to watch restrained people getting beaten as an intimidation tactic.”

Another account from a transgender woman tells of similarly appalling treatment after she was arrested in the street simply for wearing make-up:

“They gave me hand wipes and made me wipe the makeup off my face, they used the makeup-stained wipes as evidence against me and took a picture of me with the wipes in my hand. They also shaved my hair.” 

As a condition of her release, she was forced to sign a pledge promising that she would not wear make-up again.

A further source from a Qatari transgender woman, arrested by Preventive Security in public in Doha, said: “They [Preventive Security] are a mafia. They detained me twice, once for two months in a solitary cell underground, and once for six weeks. They beat me every day and shaved my hair. They also made me take off my shirt and took a picture of my breasts. I suffered from depression because of my detention. I still have nightmares to this day, and I’m terrified of being in public.”

With FIFA or “Fédération Internationale de Football Association” the Global governing body of football claiming to stand behind the LGBT community, many people who question why they awarded the World Cup to Qatar in the first place.

Despite a tremendous wave of pressure from human rights groups and celebrities for “FIFA” to Strip Qatar of the World Cup, they refused to do so, instead saying that they would use the tournament to highlight the plight of  LGBT people.

However, there seems to be little to no evidence that they are doing anything of the sort.

In fact, they appear to be blocking attempts by competing teams to raise awareness.

Several teams, including those of England and Wales, had originally planned to wear a pro-inclusivity armband during their matches but they have been prevented from doing so by FIFA.  The governing body has allegedly said that anybody wearing the OneLove armband risked starting the match with an immediate yellow card. Directly after this decision, seven European teams, including England and Wales, released a joint statement on the matter. Part of the statement reads:

“We are very frustrated by the FIFA decision which we believe is unprecedented – we wrote to FIFA in September informing them of our wish to wear the OneLove armband to actively support inclusion in football and had no response.”

It’s not difficult to understand why some critics believe that FIFA are going back on their word.

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Conditions for migrant workers.

One of the other major concerns that have been brought to light during the buildup to the World Cup is the horrendous conditions under which those who helped to build stadiums, hotels and general infrastructure had to work.

Although, back in 2010, when Qatar was awarded the World Cup its government promised huge and sweeping reforms when it came to working conditions for the thousands of migrant laborers who would actually make the event possible several reports, including one by Human Rights Watch that, in reality, very few of these changes actually came to pass or, if they did the resultant rule changes were not in force.

Until 2017, most employers took on workers under the “kafala” system. According to the Council on Foreign Relations: “The kafala or sponsorship system gives private citizens and companies in Jordan, Lebanon, and most Arab Gulf countries almost total control over migrant workers’ employment and immigration status.”

What that meant in practice was that, once someone had signed up, they were almost literally owned by their employer.

Although the employer technically had a duty of care towards the individuals they employed, with no legal minimum wage or restrictions on working hours, it was often no better than slave labor. On top of that, anybody employed under this system could not exit their contract without the permission of their employer nor could they seek alternative employment or leave the country.

On top of all that, anyone who attempted to leave and was caught would be returned to their employer even if they claimed to be trying to escape abuse. Although, after tremendous international pressure, the government of Qatar finally abolished this system in 2017 whilst also bringing in health and safety reforms and introducing a minimum wage, it is alleged that this was done more to improve the country’s international image than to actually benefit workers.

According to Rothna Begum, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch:

“Authorities have made significant reforms, but implementation has been quite weak and come too late for many workers who faced wage abuses, death or injury with no compensation.”

But perhaps even more concerning are the alleged deaths.

In 2021, the Guardian newspaper reported that in the decade leading up to the World Cup, 6,500 migrant workers had died, many of whom were involved in infrastructure projects. According to Amnesty International UK’s chief executive Sacha Deshmukh: “There have been thousands of unexplained deaths of migrant workers in Qatar during the last decade.”

According to one as yet unsubstantiated report, many of these deaths were caused by inadequate health and safety procedures and heat stroke. In stark contrast to the reports presented by trusted international human rights organizations, both FIFA and the Qatari government claim that only 37 deaths can be linked to construction.

Whilst it is likely that the true number is somewhere in between, the many firsthand reports of appalling working conditions coupled with the Qatari government’s reluctance to investigate the thousands of deaths that are reported as unexplained, suggest that the higher number is more likely to be closer to the truth.

So, at this point you might be wondering, just exactly why would FIFA award the World Cup to this country? Why was Qatar chosen over Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the United States? A decision which, incidentally, resulted in the entire tournament having to be rescheduled due to the brutal temperatures that Qatar experiences during the summer months. 

Whilst here, at Into the Shadows we have formed no opinions on this matter, fortuitously, many other people have done. So, we shall share some of those opinions with you before leaving you to make up your own mind.

The first widely held belief we will look at is that, for FIFA, Qatar offered the greatest opportunity for brand expansion.

Countries such as Australia, South Korea and even the United States are already invested in football so opportunities to grow the brand further would be fairly limited whereas, holding the World Cup in Qatar would allow, and indeed in courage, football mania to spread through the comparatively unsaturated middle east.

Another popular theory which, we must reiterate, cannot be proven involves a Qatari and former president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), Mohamed bin Hamman and former FIFA president Sepp Blatter, a man who has found himself embroiled in more than one controversy over the years.

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So here are the facts:

In the run-up to the FIFA presidential election in 2011, bin Hamman entered into the contest. This placed him in direct competition with the then president Sepp Blatter who was attempting to secure another term. However, in August 2010, bin Hamman unexpectedly withdrew from the race telling reporters:

“Let me be very clear. I will not run against Sepp Blatter. I will be backing him to remain in office for a new mandate. He is my very good friend.”

In 2011, bin Hamman was banned from football for life following an investigation by FIFA’s ethics committee. The ban would subsequently be mysteriously quashed one year later. Not only have some people speculated that these incidents maybe inextricably linked, but David Hills of the guardian also went as far as to say:

“That act of friendship, if it can be termed as such, likely had more than a thing or two to do with Qatar’s bid wiping away the competition three months later.”

The implication, allegedly, being that Sepp Blatter campaigned for the Qatar World Cup as a thank you gesture to bin Hamman for not standing against him.

Another proposed explanation is that it is simply easier for FIFA to do business with authoritarian states than those that are more democratic. Qatar is an absolute monarchy and a single bloodline has been in power since the founding of Qatar in 1850. The monarch has the power of veto over all decisions in the country and, as such, is well placed to get things done quickly.

Jerome Valcke, FIFA’s secretary general, previously made the organisations views on this matter perfectly clear during an interview with the BBC in which he talked about the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2022 world cup in Qatar.

“i will say something which is crazy, but less democracy is sometimes better for organizing a world cup,” he said. … “when you have a very strong head of state who can decide, as maybe Putin can do in 2018 … that is easier for us organizers than a country such as Germany, where you have to negotiate at different levels.”

So, it is possible, unlikely but possible, that awarded the world cup to Qatar as a purely redtape minimising exercise.

The last explanation that we will look at today is perhaps both the simplest and the most likely. And that’s simply money. The amount of money that Qatar was prepared to throw into its bid was truly astronomical. Whilst the United States spent about $5 million on their world cup bid and the Australians approximately $48 million, Qatar is estimated to have spent somewhere in the region of $200 million. With that amount of money, almost anything is possible and it certainly goes someway towards explaining why the country with the least appropriate infrastructure was successful.

Ultimately, it is highly unlikely that we will ever know the entire truth behind this dark, shady event in footballing history but, there are a few things that we do know.

FIFA awarded the world cup to Qatar in 2010 carrying out little to no due diligence research with regards to human rights. Also, they neglected to obtain any assurances with regards to the safety of workers be that physical or financial.

Finally, we will leave you with these words taken from the last report by Human Rights Watch: “FIFA failed to impose strong conditions to protect workers and became a complacent enabler to the widespread abuse workers suffered, including illegal recruitment fees, wage theft, injuries and deaths.”

It is, of course, unknown whether or not Qatar will remain a marginally better place for its workers once the world cup has finished but one thing is certain: This entire episode has cast a shadow over fifa and over football as a whole.

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