Almost every country wants to host the World Cup. The competition for hosting rights, however, is corrupt. How else does one explain that this year’s World Cup kicked off last month in Qatar after more than a decade’s worth of controversy?
The questions about Qatar, a Persian Gulf emirate smaller than the state of Connecticut, have very little to do with what the world calls “football.” Instead, inquiry focuses on a global corruption scandal in which Qatar is alleged to have paid bribes for the award of hosting rights, the sky-high price tag Qatar spent to build facilities to host the event, serious human-rights concerns about Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers and outrage over Qatar’s treatment of women and LGBTQ people.
Qatar, of course, denies the allegations of bribery. But according to the U.S. Department of Justice, multiple officials of FIFA — the governing body of the World Cup — received bribes to vote for Qatar as the host of the tournament. And a simple analysis of the Qatar bid shows how weak the application was. For example, at the time of its bid in 2010, Qatar didn’t have sufficient stadiums to host the World Cup or places to house the million-plus fans who would come to watch the games. Since then, Qatar has built seven new stadiums and renovated an eighth; accelerated the building of an entire new city and a subway system to support it; expanded its airport; and constructed a massive number of new residential buildings and hotels. The cost incurred by the Qatar (exclusive of bribes) is estimated to be in the range of $300 billion — more than all the previous World Cups and Olympics combined.
Qatar has a population of 3 million, only about 300,000 of whom are Qatari citizens. The rest are foreign workers, and it is they who do the hard and dangerous labor in the emirate, including construction for the World Cup. Human-rights groups accuse the Qataris of using forced labor under abusive conditions and report that 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka died in Qatar since 2010, mostly in service of the World Cup construction projects.
Qatar has the world’s third-largest natural-gas reserves and is one of the top oil producers. Qatar hopes to use the international visibility of the World Cup to help grow its non-energy economy, with ambitions to become a regional business and tourism hub.
In the euphoria of the soccer competition, we hope that Qatar’s record of human-rights abuse and mistreatment does not get lost. In addition to its migrant worker victims, Qatari women are denied by the country’s male guardianship rules the right to make key decisions about marriage, choice of work opportunities, travel abroad and reproductive health care. The country’s laws also criminalize all forms of sex outside marriage, including sex suffered by rape victims. Sex between men is punishable by up to seven years in prison.
We worry about the “split screen” on which fans watch this year’s World Cup — as they celebrate the sport they love and a tournament that has meaning — being played in a country that has built the games on corruption, exploitation and human suffering.