DOHA, Qatar — What does it mean to wear a band on your arm? At the World Cup, this could mean provoking a clash of civilizations.
On the field, the tournament thrilled fans with chaotic matches, upsets and plenty of unconventional football powers reaching the knockout stage. But off the pitch, the World Cup, the first to be staged in the Middle East, was the scene of a fiercer contest between the moralizing West and the increasingly resentful Qatari hosts and their Arab brethren.
Western governments, particularly those of a group of European nations participating in the tournament, and the media viewed the event and the oil-rich kingdom that convened it with suspicion. They raised objections about human rights and the lack of protection for workers, citing abuses carried out in the shadow of the emirate’s massive World Cup construction projects. And despite efforts by FIFA, soccer’s controversial governing body, to curb political gestures at the tournament, they have staged some protests.
This included German Interior Minister Nancy Feiser in Qatar wearing the “One Love” armband in support of LGBTQ rights, which the captains of the United States and a number of European teams eventually refused to wear for fear of facing a FIFA sanction. Fazer’s gesture drew eyebrows and jeers in Qatar and the region, with some prominent commentators interpreting the move as less of a comment on the threats LGBTQ minorities face and more an act of overbearingcut off from the living reality of these societies.
Germany’s national team also staged their own protest, posing for a pre-match photo with their hands over their mouths, an apparent message to FIFA authorities who will be gagging them. But the team’s early exit then kicked in rage of mockery on Arab social media and television.
Families of migrant workers who died in Qatar are waiting for answers
The heated rhetoric exists on other fronts as well. Halfway through the tournament, social media is still abuzz with comments about what has been described as the “modern slavery” that underpins Qatar’s glitzy stadiums and new infrastructure. For many years, rights groups and labor organizations have described the shortcomings and abuses prevalent not only in Qatar but also in the wider Gulf region, where millions of migrant workers eke out a living, sometimes in squalid conditions and vulnerable to predation by exploitative employers and tenants.
But the screeds against the Qatar World Cup almost seem to portray the emirate’s authorities as vainglorious pharaohs driving real estate to build their glittering pyramids. The death toll has spread, with thousands of deaths attributed to Qatari prep workers – figures that Qatari authorities have strongly rejected as grossly inaccurate and misleading, and which have not been confirmed by the UN’s International Labor Organisation.
“Qatar has disputed the death toll, in part by insisting that infrastructure work, other than World Cup stadiums, is unrelated to the tournament,” my colleagues reported last month in a story that featured the story of an Indian man who died after working on construction sites sites of Qatar. “It has also taken measures that labor and rights groups say are significant and will better protect workers if fully implemented.”
These reforms include a new centralized electronic system to oversee payments between private companies and their migrant workers, wage increases and other steps to provide greater mobility to workers whose status in the country is tied to the whims of their employers. There are signs of progress.
“Tangible changes include lifting requirements for workers to obtain exit permits to leave Qatar and obtain no-objection certificates before changing employers,” explains The Post’s Monkey Cage blog. “According to ILO data, more than 300,000 foreign workers changed jobs between September 2020 and March 2022. In addition, 13 percent of Qatar’s workforce saw an increase in their basic wages following the introduction of the non-discriminatory minimum wage in 2021 New legislation in 2021 reduced the number of hours employers could assign outdoor work during the summer months, a further move to protect worker health and safety.
Putting the World Cup in little Qatar
Rights groups say much more needs to be done to protect workers from exploitation and ensure new policies are adequately implemented in the country’s largely privatized labor sector. But according to Zahra Babar, associate director of the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University’s Qatar campus and a longtime researcher on migration issues in the Persian Gulf, the polarizing conversation surrounding the World Cup has done little to advance a true understanding of the complexities of what migrants in the region face and what kind of life they lead. (You can get a snapshot of this complexity in a podcast series produced by Babar’s program featuring the voices of migrants in Qatar.)
“The narrative of heroes and villains has not really helped,” Babar said, adding that the tone of Western criticism may even harden the attitudes of local Qataris towards the many migrants in their midst.
In Doha, there is talk of hypocrisy and double standards of the West. In conversations I had with Qatari officials and other Arab commentators, I heard mention of how Europe looked away as thousands of would-be migrants drowned in the Mediterranean; of the documented abuses in the US program to employ low-skilled agricultural workers on American farms; to the indifference of the West when faced with its own legacy of imperial exploitation and later support for various dictatorial regimes in the developing world; for the disrespect of European officials who publicly condemn Qatari society and mores while privately pursuing their economic interests with Doha – including major gas deals.
When I suggested that some of these arguments could be construed as “what sadness,” one official pushed back, insisting that this was the appropriate context for considering Qatar’s place in the world and its own struggles to keep up with the pace of change. The tiny country’s population has more than quadrupled in less than two decades, much of it involving a large influx of new migrant workers.
According to Babar, existing systems around the world – not just in Qatar – for low-skilled migrant labor are “aimed at exploiting and abusing a devalued cadre of workers whose lives are constantly plagued by insecurity.” Despite the special focus on Qatar during the World Cup, conditions for migrants here are not so unique, she argued.
Besides trying to reform its labor sector, Qatar also sees this World Cup as an opportunity to attract a different type of tourist. While nearby Dubai has become a playground for Westerners, Doha can be an attractive destination for visitors from the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Around 1.5 million people are expected to visit Qatar during the World Cup. After the tournament, Qatar will offer visa-free entry to people from over 95 countries. This is a much more generous regime than that provided by the United States or the Schengen countries of Europe.
“Qatar has long been a global tourism hub connecting East and West, which has made the tournament accessible to many fans who have never had the opportunity to attend a FIFA World Cup before,” said Ali Al-Ansari, Qatar’s media attaché in the United States .
The ease of entry and access – flights to the Persian Gulf, a major air transport hub, are quite accessible from parts of Asia and Africa – came up in my conversations with a group of Ghanaian fans before they set off to watch their nation crumble from the tournament against Uruguay on Friday.
“It’s very easy to come here. Qatar is the perfect place to host the World Cup,” said Joe Mensah, an electrical engineer from the city of Kumasi.
Mensah’s colleague, John Appiah of Accra, said he arrived in Qatar with “certain notions” about Arab racism and mistreatment of foreigners. “But my attitude here was superb.”
Appiah added that he would like to visit the United States for the 2026 World Cup, but said he thought obtaining a visa might be difficult. “I don’t know if they would want me to come,” he said.