The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What gets missed in the angry debate over Qatar’s World Cup

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DOHA, Qatar — What does it mean to wear an armband? At the World Cup, it could mean provoking a clash of civilizations.

On the field, the tournament has thrilled fans with chaotic matches, upsets and a surfeit of nontraditional soccer powers reaching the knockout stage. But off the field, the World Cup, the first to be staged in the Middle East, has been the site of a more rancorous contest between a moralizing West and increasingly indignant Qatari hosts and their Arab brethren.

Western governments, particularly those of a clutch of European nations participating in the tournament, and media have looked suspiciously at the event and the petro-rich kingdom convening it. They lodged objections over human rights and the lack of protections for workers, pointing to abuses that took place in the shadow of the emirate’s mammoth World Cup construction projects. And despite efforts by FIFA, soccer’s controversial governing body, to restrain political gestures at the tournament, they carried out some acts of protests.

That included German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser in Qatar wearing the “One Love” armband in support of LGBTQ rights that the captains of the United States and a number of European teams ultimately declined to wear out of fear of facing FIFA sanction. Faeser’s gesture triggered eyerolls and derision in Qatar and the region, with some prominent commentators interpreting the move less as a comment on the threats facing LGBTQ minorities and more an act of imperious grandstanding, disconnected from the lived reality of these societies.

Germany’s national team also performed its own protest, posing for a prematch photo with their hands over their mouths, an apparent message to the FIFA authorities who would muzzle them. But the team’s early exit then triggered a frenzy of mockery on Arab social media and television.

Families of migrant workers who died in Qatar are waiting for answers

The heated rhetoric exists on other fronts, too. Halfway through the tournament, social media still abounds with commentary about what’s been described as the “modern-day slavery” that undergirded Qatar’s glitzy stadiums and new infrastructure. For many years, rights groups and labor advocacy organizations chronicled the shortcomings and abuses prevalent not just in Qatar but the wider Gulf region, where millions of migrant laborers eke out livings, sometimes in miserable conditions and vulnerable to the predations of exploitative employers and recruiters.

But screeds against Qatar’s World Cup almost seem to cast the emirate’s authorities as vainglorious pharaohs, driving chattel to build their gleaming pyramids. Death tolls circulated pinning multiple thousands of worker fatalities on Qatar’s preparations — figures Qatari officials roundly dismissed as grossly inaccurate and misleading, and which were not corroborated by the U.N.’s International Labor Organization.

“Qatar has disputed the death toll, in part by insisting that work on infrastructure apart from World Cup stadiums was not related to the tournament,” my colleagues reported last month, in a piece that surfaced the story of an Indian man who died after working in Qatar’s construction sites. “It has also carried out measures that labor and human rights groups say are significant and will better protect workers if they are fully implemented.”

Those reforms include a new centralized electronic system to oversee payments between private companies and their migrant workers, increases in wages and other steps to grant greater mobility to laborers whose status in the country is bound to the whims of their employers. There are signs of progress.

“Tangible changes include lifting the requirements for workers to obtain exit permits to leave Qatar and obtain no-objection certificates before changing employers,” explained The Post’s Monkey Cage blog. “According to ILO data, more than 300,000 foreign workers changed jobs between September 2020 and March 2022. In addition, 13 percent of Qatar’s workforce saw their basic wages rise after the nondiscriminatory minimum wage was implemented in 2021. New legislation in 2021 reduced the number of hours in which employers could assign outdoor work during the summer months, a further move to protect workers’ health and safety.”

Fitting the World Cup into tiny Qatar

Rights groups argue that much more needs to be done to shield workers from exploitation and ensure new policies get adequately implemented in the country’s largely privatized labor sector. But to Zahra Babar, an associate director of the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University’s Qatar campus and a longtime researcher on migration issues in the Gulf, the polarizing conversation surrounding the World Cup has done little to advance genuine understanding of the complexities of what migrants in the region face and the lives they lead. (You can get a snapshot of this complexity in a podcast series produced by Babar’s program, featuring migrant voices in Qatar.)

“The heroes and villains narrative has not really helped,” Babar said, adding that the tone of Western criticism may even harden local Qatari attitudes toward the many migrants in their midst.

Talk of Western hypocrisy and double standards is rife in Doha. In conversations I’ve had with Qatari officials and other Arab commentators, I’ve heard reference to how Europe looked away as thousands of would-be migrants drowned in the Mediterranean; to the documented abuses in the U.S. program to bring low-skilled agricultural workers to work in American farms; to the indifference of the West when it’s confronted with its own legacy of imperial exploitation and later support for various dictatorial regimes in the developing world; to the disrespect of European officials who in public denounce Qatari society and mores, and in private pursue their economic interests with Doha — including major gas deals.

When I suggested that some of these arguments could be construed as “whataboutism,” an official pushed back, insisting that it was the relevant context to view Qatar’s place in the world and its own struggles to reckon with the pace of change. The tiny country’s population has more than quadrupled in less than two decades, much of which involves major influxes of new migrant workers.

In Babar’s view, systems in place everywhere in the world — not just Qatar — for low-skilled migrant labor are “geared toward using and abusing a devalued cadre of workers, whose lives are constantly plagued by uncertainty.” For all the special focus on Qatar during the World Cup, the conditions for migrants here are not that unique, she argued.

Beyond its attempts to reform its labor sector, Qatar also sees this World Cup as an opportunity to woo a different type of tourist. While nearby Dubai has made itself into a playground for jet-setting Westerners, Doha may be an appealing destination to visitors from the Middle East, Asia and Africa. As many as 1.5 million people are expected to visit Qatar over the course of the World Cup. After the tournament, Qatar will offer visa-free entry to people from over 95 countries. It’s a far more generous regime than what the United States or countries in Europe’s Schengen zone provide.

“Qatar has long been a global travel hub bridging East and West, which has made the tournament accessible for many fans who have never had the opportunity to attend a World Cup before,” said Ali Al-Ansari, Qatar’s media attache in the United States.

The ease of entry and access — flights to the Gulf, a major air travel hub, are quite affordable from parts of Asia and Africa — came up in my conversations with a group of fans from Ghana before they headed to watch their nation crash out of the tournament against Uruguay on Friday.

“It’s very easy to come here. Qatar is a perfect place to host the World Cup,” said Joe Mensah, an electrical engineer from the city of Kumasi.

Mensah’s colleague, John Appiah from Accra, said he arrived in Qatar with “certain perceptions” about Arab racism and mistreatment of foreigners. “But my treatment here has been superb.”

Appiah added that he would love to visit the United States for the 2026 World Cup, but said he believed getting a visa could be tricky. “I don’t know if they would want me to come,” he said.

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