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At Qatar’s World Cup, Biden’s envoy balances firmness and flattery

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, center, attends the United States vs. Wales match at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Doha, Qatar, on Tuesday. (Francisco Seco/AP)

DOHA, Qatar — Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday rejected criticisms that his World Cup appearance in Qatar contributed to indifference about human rights, as some activists denounced the Persian Gulf state’s treatment of migrant workers and LGBTQ people.

Blinken, an avowed soccer fan, said his visit meant the opposite. It resulted, he said, in deeper U.S. cooperation with Qatar on human rights, labor standards and counter-human trafficking efforts while serving as an opportunity to root for the U.S. national team, whose opening match against Wales ended in a 1-1 draw.

“I make no bones about having the pleasure to actually come and cheer on Team USA,” Blinken said during a news conference, when asked by reporters how he justified the trip. Members of Congress, including Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), also attended.

Blinken’s visit represents the Biden administration’s difficult balancing act with regard to Qatar, which is fast emerging as one of Washington’s most valuable partners in the Middle East despite its policies toward migrant laborers and LGBTQ people. The secretary made pointed statements about both issues.

For Qatar, the World Cup is a high-stakes test and a show of clout

The gas-rich state in the Persian Gulf has transformed itself to become the first Middle Eastern country to host the World Cup, spending $220 billion to build seven stadiums, renovate an eighth, and erect a network of roads and railways to connect fans to the matches.

To complete the transformation, it employed hundreds of thousands of workers from poor countries such as Pakistan and India but faced criticism for hazardous working conditions that resulted in an unknown number of migrant deaths.

In response, Qatar implemented labor reforms that some independent analysts have praised and Blinken pointed to on Tuesday. “We appreciate the work that Qatar has done to improve labor practices,” he said, noting efforts to investigate, prosecute and convict human traffickers. “Our hope and expectation [is] that some of the progress that’s been made continues and expands after the World Cup is over.”

During Qatar’s mad-dash development, it has also provided crucial assistance to the United States during the most challenging chapters of President Biden’s tenure.

Its massive Al-Udeid Air Base, which hosts several thousand U.S. troops, was a central node in the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, evacuating more Americans and Afghan civilians than any other base in the world. Qatar’s ambassador to Afghanistan personally rode in buses carrying fleeing Americans, negotiating their passage across Taliban checkpoints.

“The U.S. owes Qatar a lot and that trumps widespread criticism of its mistreatment of foreign workers right now,” said David Ottaway, a gulf expert at the Wilson Center.

Biden’s ‘consequences’ for Saudi Arabia are reaping quiet results

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it supported the U.S. push to isolate Russia diplomatically and helped stabilize the liquefied natural gas market in Europe.

Unlike Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates or Israel, “Qatar has taken a clear political stance on Ukraine and, while this has not translated into actively working to weaken Russia in the gas market, it has translated into giving high-profile platforms to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, for example,” said Cinzia Bianco, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“Blinken’s presence in Qatar is an acknowledgment of these efforts and his high-level presence is very important as this World Cup has been marred by controversy,” she said.

Qatar’s steadfast support for U.S. interests in the Biden era stands in stark contrast with relations with other Middle East allies.

Saudi Arabia, for one, enraged U.S. officials in October by announcing a decision to cut its oil production weeks ahead of the midterm elections. Israel has openly defied Biden’s desire to reopen a consulate in Jerusalem for the Palestinians, and relations are expected to dip further with the return of right-wing firebrand Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister. The UAE, meanwhile, has meddled in U.S. politics in recent years, sparking fears among the U.S. intelligence community about its clout in Washington.

“Qatar stands out as the most reliable Arab partner the U.S. has today and remained relatively free of congressional criticism even though it has refused to establish diplomatic ties to Israel as the UAE and Bahrain have,” Ottaway said.

U.S. intelligence report says key gulf ally meddled in American politics

But Blinken’s visit hasn’t been all compliments.

The diplomat sharply criticized a decision by FIFA, soccer’s governing body, to punish World Cup players with yellow cards if they wear “OneLove” armbands in support of diversity and inclusion.

“It’s always concerning from my perspective when we see any restrictions on freedom of expression; it’s especially so when the expression is for diversity and for inclusion,” Blinken said at a news conference alongside Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani. “No one on a football pitch should be forced to choose between supporting these values and playing for their team.”

Many of the scores of fans who poured into the Qatari capital to watch the games said economic and social issues should take a back seat to the sports on display.

Chris Wixson, who along with his wife and son flew from Colorado to Qatar for the World Cup, said he was glad the secretary came to support the U.S. team despite the controversy.

“It’s the type of thing you’d hope to see, right? A team like this should bring everyone together, but everything’s so damn divisive,” he said.

Not everyone felt the same.

Michael Page, a Middle East expert at Human Rights Watch, said he wished Blinken would have used his public remarks to advocate more forcefully for migrant workers. “It’s disappointing Secretary of State Blinken has chosen to ignore widespread demands from migrant workers and their families as well as soccer players and fans to publicly call for FIFA and Qatari authorities to establish a compensation fund for workers who faced serious abuses.”

World Cup in Qatar

USMNT: The United States faced England in its second World Cup game Friday. The match ended in a 0-0 draw, leaving the United States feeling good about its performance but also leaving Group B wildly unsettled heading into Tuesday’s finales.

Political protest: The looming backdrop to Iran’s World Cup campaign is a nationwide protest movement back home targeting its clerical leadership, and the tensions, inescapable and persistent, are spilling onto the field.

Perspective: The beautiful game is fine. Suitcases full of cash are better. Read Sally Jenkins on the human rights controversy in Qatar.