The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Qatar’s glittery World Cup disguises a dark reality

Children stand next to the official countdown clock showing remaining time until the kickoff of the 2022 World Cup, in Doha, Qatar, on Nov. 25, 2021. (Darko Bandic/AP)

Natasha Iskander is an associate professor of urban planning and public policy at New York University and the author of “Does Skill Make Us Human?: Migrant Workers in 21st Century Qatar and Beyond.”

Qatar is hosting the most expensive FIFA World Cup ever, with ticket prices nearly 50 percent higher than the previous games, in Russia in 2018. The lowest-priced ticket on sale internationally costs $302, and the cheap seats for the final will set you back $604.

The cheap seats will be hard to come by — there are 60 percent less than at the last World Cup. But if you can get one, the stadium you’ll be sitting in will be state-of-the-art. The eight new stadia clustered around Doha are dazzling feats of architectural design and engineering, all of them fulfilling Qatar’s World Cup initial slogan of “Expect Amazing.”

Meanwhile, the workers who built the stadia where the games will be held — who perhaps even installed the seat you’ll be sitting in — generally don’t make enough in a month to buy a ticket. The minimum wage for a construction worker in Qatar, which only came into force in 2021 after a sustained campaign for workers’ rights by international human rights organizations and labor unions, runs a few cents short of $275 a month. For less than the price of a seat to watch one game, migrant workers broke their bodies, endured extreme heat, and faced degrading working conditions to build the sporting and tourist infrastructure for the World Cup.

Over the past 10 years, hundreds of thousands of men have traveled to Qatar to build these structures. Migrants from all over the world — from Mozambique to Nepal, from Egypt to the Philippines — worked hard 10-hour days, six days a week, to raise stadia out of the desert, but also to build luxury residential developments, construct museums and cultural spaces, and lay down new geometric islands in Qatar’s glistening bay.

Day after hot day, scaffolders hauled tons of scaffolding pipes, planks and clamps up the lattice structures they fixed together. Cladders and rope artists craned huge panes of aluminum and glass into the air and then balanced off the edges of buildings to attach the panels. Welders torched metal to create the curved joints of buildings, wrapping their workspaces in fire retardant tarps against the desert wind and enclosing themselves in an excruciating whirlwind of fire and sparks. Workers tore up the ground to excavate deep foundations for towering high-rises or to bore tunnels for Doha’s new metro network, which aims to be the fastest driverless system in the world.

The men who built Qatar’s World Cup were brave. I know because I spent a year on construction projects in Qatar interviewing them and shadowing them on-site. They described the fear that stalked them as they scaled the skeletons of buildings. They spoke about the way the extreme heat — averaging highs of more than 105 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer months — seemed to melt the air and made them feel as if they were drowning. They recounted the rage they swallowed at being asked, under threat of deportation, to do things that violated their company’s safety regulations and that they knew would put them at risk of injury.

During their time in Qatar, they also became highly skilled. Most migrants arrived with minimal construction experience, if any, but they worked hard to learn the advanced construction techniques required to build the stadia and museums that international star architects had imagined. Construction workers in Qatar became experts in their trades, among the most highly specialized in the world. All for $275 a month.

At the end of their shifts, they were bused back to their cramped and often squalid labor camps, banned from the structures and spaces they spent their days building. Qatari law is applied to effectively prohibit construction workers from most of Doha, confining them instead to barracks in the desert. The government runs periodic police sweeps to detain or scrutinize workers caught in Doha’s public spaces. But World Cup spectators need not worry about these things: The parks, malls, museums, hotels, and, of course, stadia around Doha were all built with them in mind.

In the first 24 hours after the lottery to purchase tickets went live last week, fans requested 1.2 million. Those tickets won’t go to migrant construction workers, many of whom will tune in to the games from their homes in Indonesia or Bangladesh or Kenya, or from elsewhere in the world. Others will watch from labor camps outside the gleaming, cheering city of Doha, on their phones or on televisions they pooled their wages to buy.

Yet, no matter who is watching the World Cup — whether it’s a fan who splurged for a ticket to the final or a worker fighting off sleep after a grueling day — all will be watching Qatar’s transformation of the beautiful game into one that uses the labor, bravery and skill of the poor to build thrill and pleasure for the rich.