This week in four years’ time will have such a distinctly odd feel that, right now, it’s a little hard to envisage. The first ever December World Cup final will be on our screens, and for the first time in history the biggest football match in the world will be played out in a giant neon bowl in the Middle East. It will be unique and historic, and although only time will tell its true legacy, there is every chance it will be infamous too.
The 2022 World Cup has already become perhaps the most controversial sports mega-event since the 1936 Berlin Olympics in Nazi Germany. Ever since Qatar – a tiny gulf state with limited sporting infrastructure – beat England, the United States of America, Australia, Spain-Portugal, Netherlands-Belgium, South Korea and Japan to the right to host the tournament, the country has been hit by a deluge of negative press.
It began with allegations that Qatar bribed Fifa officials for votes after suspicious payments worth millions of dollars were uncovered, and accusations of running a black-ops campaign to smear rival bids. There were also deep concerns about a World Cup host with strict laws forbidding homosexuality, and the state’s efforts to censor media on the subject.
Then there was the exploitation of migrant workers, toiling in 50C heat, their passports taken away, living in squalor and stripped of basic human rights. One estimate suggested that 4,000 workers, who travelled largely from India and Nepal on a one-way ticket full of false hope, will have died by the time a ball is kicked. As the leader of Norwegian trade unions Hans-Christian Gabrielsen put it recently: “If we were to hold a minute of silence for every estimated death of a migrant worker due to the constructions of the Qatar World Cup, the first 44 matches of the tournament would be played in silence.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the global media’s pessimism stunned some of Qatar’s most powerful figures, who failed to anticipate the depth of scrutiny their country would face. Some of the tournament’s organisers initially thought the adverse attention was a necessary consequence of hosting the World Cup, something which would help bring about much-needed change; yet Qatar’s image has been so badly damaged that you wonder what it now hopes to gain from hosting the tournament.
Qatar has been open about its goal of using the World Cup to increase its ‘soft power’ – a strategy for international relations based on attraction rather than coercion. For a young, small country without any military defence, financial muscle is its only weapon, but this can only be effective if the world will do business. So Qatar wants to put itself on the map, to prove its effectiveness as a micro-state, to show off its cutting edge design and technology via eye-catching arenas with pioneering cooling mechanics. It wants to overcome its own invisibility, and there is no better way to introduce itself to the international neighbourhood than to throw a great big party and invite the world.
Except perhaps that is no longer the case. Hosting sports mega-events like the World Cup and the Olympics has become increasingly unpopular in recent years as the financial outlay has gone up and up and the tangible benefits have become less clear. The reality of advantages like ‘legacy’ are in doubt. Images of expensive facilities laid to waste vividly show the cost of hosting. And in addition to the extraordinary financial strains, there is the potential damage to a country’s status when things go wrong. Qatar has spent an eye-watering amount of money – its World Cup bill is expected to reach £90bn – yet its reputational debt might be even harder to repay.
An academic at Manchester Metropolitan University, Dr Paul Brannagan, and his colleagues have coined the term ‘soft disempowerment’ to describe the phenomenon when an attempt to gain soft power backfires, alienating the global community which was meant to be seduced. “What mega events can do for smaller countries is to throw them on to the world stage, but what comes with the world stage is a spotlight,” says Dr Brannagan, an expert in the global politics of sport who has interviewed senior Qataris organising the World Cup.
“Governments tend to think that if you just host an event it’s going to benefit your image, and it’s just not the case at all. The 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi were criticised quite rightly for using child labourers, which ruined India’s hopes of hosting the Olympics. Before the 2008 Games there was China’s heavy-handed approach towards Tibet. Before Brazil, the riots. Before Russia, a focus on homophobia and racism. There were even calls for political leaders to boycott the event.
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“Of course it can work: London 2012 was a great Games, and the idea was that a lot of people saw us as boring, snobbish, so what do you do – you get the Queen skydiving with James Bond. Germany in 2006 was a really great World Cup that helped overcome lingering negative stigma. So it can work, but you have to have your house in order.”
For Qatar, it comes down to a grim balance of pros and cons. Will the 2022 World Cup’s negative connotations of corruption and exploitation eventually be outweighed by the visibility and prestige of hosting a successful football tournament?
Amongst the negativity, Qatar has spotted an opportunity here to address criticism and redraw its image. The state introduced new labour laws with an impressive pledge to dismantle the controversial Kafala system that enables the abuse of workers. The proposals were hailed in some quarters as a major breakthrough for workers’ rights, but have been questioned by others including Amnesty International. Gulf researcher Nicholas McGeehan is concerned Qatar will be slow to fully implement these plans. “Has anything materially changed? No,” he tells The Independent. “How many are dying? They don’t release the numbers, so we don't know. How are they dying? They don't carry out autopsies, so we don't know. Fundamentally, the question is ‘can a worker change jobs?’ The answer is still no.”
McGeehan believes a successful World Cup for Qatar will mean the country coming out the other side with its profile raised and with its labour laws only superficially altered. Genuine reform of worker rights is the one thing the Qatari regime fears most: it would disrupt an economy built on the labour-intensive oil and construction industries, and it would shift power away from the royal family towards its vast migrant worker population. It is a country segregated along lines of race and worker status, and the state would prefer to keep it that way.
So in four years’ time, Qatar will open itself up for one month only. It will create areas for drinking alcohol and temporarily loosen its stance on homosexuality as it attempts to encourage fans and tourists to visit, and tries to dissuade them from staying in nearby Dubai and taking the half-hour flight across for matches – one of the organising committee’s biggest fears. The world will visit, and watch, and probably enjoy the show. Only time will tell the tournament’s true legacy, and what implications it has for the image of the country and the wider region. What we do know is that by the time 2022 World Cup is over, Qatar will no longer be invisible.