While the world’s eyes were on Brazil with the draw for next year’s FIFA World Cup, the controversy surrounding the choice of Qatar as the event’s 2022 host continues to simmer.
The Qatari regime has promised a report investigating the rampant abuse of migrant workers in the country. However, it refuses to specify exactly when and there is growing suspicion over just how thorough or independent such a report will be.
DLA Piper, an Anglo-American multinational law firm heading the “independent review,” is reported to have received more than $300,000 in lobbying fees this year from Al Jazeera America, a television network owned by a member of Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family.
As reported by London’s Daily Telegraph, DLA Piper was paid to help establish the new network as its carriage met much resistance from American cable and satellite service providers. Al Jazeera America officially launched on August 20, and is available in about 55 million homes, about half of U.S. television households.
“Qatar could have chosen any international law firm to launch this investigation,” David Weinberg, who specializes in gulf affairs for a Washington think tank, told The Telegraph, “but instead chose the same firm that has been paid handsomely to lobby for Al Jazeera America. This choice risks sullying the Qatar brand and makes them look more interested in a World Cup cover-up than in fighting forced labor.”
The image of Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers took another hit when it was revealed that French-Algerian soccer player Zahir Belounis was practically held hostage in the country because of a legal dispute with his Qatari club. Without an exit visa, Belounis languished for 19 months in the gulf state until he was finally released in late November.
Just how genuine is the Qatari regime’s interest in improving the deplorable working conditions for its migrant workers? Ever since the original Guardian report surfaced this past summer, Qatar’s primary goal appears to be fending off the growing pressure on FIFA to move the event elsewhere.
Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who became the emir at the age of 33 when his father decided to hand over the reins in June, was the driving force to increase Qatar’s profile through the hosting of major international sporting events. A graduate of Britain’s prestigious Sandhurst Military Academy, Sheikh Tamim landed the 2022 World Cup and the 2014 FINA World Swimming Championships and headed Doha’s failed 2020 Olympic bid.
Sheikh Tamim has spared no expense for the World Cup, expecting to spend $220 billion to host the tournament, roughly 70 times the amount South Africa spent to put on the 2010 event. A recent Newsweek report also alleges that the emir – then the crown prince – made several moves that bordered on influence-peddling to secure the bid for the micro-state in 2010.
There are those in Qatar who genuinely believe that staging the World Cup, among other major events, would afford the country an opportunity for positive change. Some have called for a naturalization process for migrant workers as the first step toward establishing some basis for equality and social justice.
The revelations of the abuses and the subsequent outrage may have already done some good. In a follow-up report in The Guardian, a Nepalese worker says he has noticed a change in the behavior of his foreign supervisors.
“… [T]he bosses are worried. They feel the eyes of the Qataris for the first time,” he said. “Our bosses are not from here. They are Indians, or Arabs from Jordan, and Lebanon. They are the middle-men. They have been out of control, but now they are scared.”
But with the event still nine years away, much uncertainty still lingers around the 2022 World Cup. What could force FIFA’s hand might ultimately have more to do with Qatar’s weather than its human rights record. There seems little doubt that if the event is indeed held in Qatar, it will have to be played in the winter, wreaking havoc with established international club schedules.
So far, Sepp Blatter and Co. have responded to every problem by kicking the can down the road – a committee is tasked to study the feasibility of playing the 2022 World Cup in the winter. But with calls for a boycott already being sounded by human rights groups and the world players’ union, FIFA might find it increasingly difficult to simply sweep everything under the rug and act as if it’s business as usual.
Samuel Chi is the Editor of RealClearSports and RealClearWorld. His column on world sport appears every Thursday in The Diplomat.