Is Qatar Being Unfairly Maligned?
In a matter of days, Qatar will become the first Middle Eastern country to host the World Cup when it welcomes fans to its capital city of Doha.
The country, which has spent more than $300 billion in the twelve years since it secured the rights to host the globe’s premier soccer tournament, has constructed environmentally friendly and architecturally impressive facilities and readied itself with unparalleled capital investments.
For Americans in attendance, as well as those tuning in from afar, it’s an exciting occasion to take in one of the most watched sporting events in the world and to grow familiar with athletes that seldom feature in U.S. newspapers.
But many in the Arab world see something more profound – a unique opportunity for the Middle East to cast itself as fresh and exciting, and to be viewed through a new lens.
Spotlights nevertheless bring scrutiny and attention which isn’t always desirable. Indeed, since its bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup was secured in 2010, Qatar has faced a barrage of fierce, unrelenting, and often unjustified criticism.
“Since we won the honor of hosting the World Cup, Qatar has been subjected to an unprecedented campaign that no host country has faced,” Qatar’s ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani said in a recent speech. “But it soon became clear to us that the campaign continues, expands and includes fabrication and double standards, until it reached a level of ferocity that made many question, unfortunately, the real reasons and motives behind this campaign.”
One of the attacks which Qatar was subjected to had to do with the country’s treatment of its foreign labor force. Critics argue that workers’ wages are too low and conditions too difficult.
Naturally, there are two sides to every story.
The fact of the matter is that significant reforms focused on worker rights and social laws were implemented to protect the foreign-born labor force, ensure they were paid a fair wage, and ensure their safety.
In 2020, Qatar abolished the “kafala” – or sponsorship system – wherein workers were unable to change jobs without their employer’s permission and required an exit permit to leave the country. At the same time, the government announced a national increase in the monthly minimum wage and implemented laws to protect workers from high outdoor temperatures.
Speaking to the Qatar Economic Forum earlier this year, Hassan Al-Thawadi, Secretary General of the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, said, “Our commitment to the human rights of our workers over the last 12 years has been unwavering. Through the labor reforms we have made, we have set the benchmark in this field for the region. The experts have recognized this, and I am happy to see that the World Cup’s legacy is being delivered before the tournament kicks off.”
Guy Ryder, the director general of the United Nation’s International Labor Organization, remarked: “By introducing these significant changes, Qatar has delivered on a commitment, one that will give workers more freedom and protection, and employers more choice.”
With more than 1.2 million visitors anticipated in Doha during the month-long tournament, it’s reasonable to expect that the country’s 2.8 million inhabitants will face logistical hurdles.
But these will pale in comparison to the challenges that have already been overcome.
Consider, for example, the investments in human capital necessary to pull off Qatar’s ambitious infrastructure development. There was virtually no room for error. In addition to the elaborate stadiums constructed for four weeks of play, the nation established a new rapid transit system with 37 railway stops consisting of underground and elevated tracks, invested in highway and airport expansions, and built new hotels, residential high-rise buildings, bridges, and water treatment plants.
It wasn’t easy.
Bloomberg reported in September that construction has been particularly chaotic in Doha’s West Bay district in the months leading up to the World Cup because “Developers were also limited by new rules that went into effect last year to ensure better treatment for more than 1.3 million migrant workers.”
The criticism assigned to Qatar – much of it unwarranted – and its handling of the epic task of building a city to host a sporting event may continue.
But here’s a prediction: When the referees blow their whistles shortly after sunset on November 20, 60,000 spectators in Al Bayt Stadium will join 3.5 billion excited soccer fans in 200 countries around the world.
At that point, Doha’s detractors will rightly have a difficult time breaking through the noise.