Ever since 2010, when Qatar was awarded the 2022 FIFA World Cup, it has served as a microcosm of Doha’s abusive state policies, foreign and domestic. With the advent of the crisis around the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), these state practices could lead to broader instability.
In the foreign realm, the 2022 World Cup is notable for Qatar having used bribery to win the right to host the competition in the first place, an example of Qatar using its immense state wealth to sow corruption and chaos in the international system, which has been seen elsewhere in Doha’s sponsorship of Islamist extremist and terrorist groups. There have been new revelations recently on both of these points.
Given FIFA’s reputation, when The Times of London reported in March 2019 that Qatar had channelled nearly a billion dollars to FIFA in a manner that “was a clear breach of FIFA’s own anti-bribery rules”, the most surprising element to many was that FIFA had anti-bribery rules. What Qatar had done, according to The Times, was to use its state-controlled media channel, Al-Jazeera, infamous as a propaganda station for Islamist and sectarian extremists, including at various stages Al-Qaeda and a continuing platform for the Muslim Brotherhood, as a deniable intermediary to pay FIFA an excessive amount for the television rights to the World Cup, with a further $100 million promised only if Qatar was the host, and several years later a similarly unjustifiably-large contract was signed “shortly before FIFA cut short its long-running investigation into corruption in the bidding process and suppressed its findings”.
It had been shown earlier that Qatar’s FIFA representative, Mohamed bin Hammam, a construction magnate, had been distributing bribes at FIFA to sway their decision in 2010. Hammam was credibly accused of paying African delegates to support Qatar’s bid for the 2022 competition, to have assisted in the appointment of FIFA president Sepp Blatter who later awarded Qatar the competition, and in general of “acting like the head of a crime organisation”, as one observer put it.
Not leaving matters to chance, Qatar also ran a sophisticated “black operations” campaign to damage the bids of its rivals. A key requirement of a World Cup bid is that it be popular domestically in the countries applying. Qatar’s main rivals in 2010 were the United States and Australia. To tip the scales, Qatar recruited former CIA officials to run a messaging campaign that suppressed the public desire in America and Australia by highlighting all the costs associated with running a World Cup. The effect of Qatar’s dirty tricks seems to have been particularly marked in the U.S., where President Barack Obama—then at the height of his global popularity—had gotten personally involved in trying to bring the World Cup to the U.S. in 2022.
The U.S. Department of Justice finally made this common knowledge official on 6 April, with prosecutors releasing three indictments that implicate the governments of Qatar and Russia in paying bribes to FIFA officials. Doha, of course, rejects these allegations.
Domestically, there have been persistent reports about Qatar’s mistreatment and exploitation of migrant workers who are responsible for creating the infrastructure for the tournament, despite claims from the Qatari government that it has resolved this matter.
Qatar has tried to burnish its human rights image internationally by announcing that Israelis and homosexuals will be permitted to attend the World Cup, despite Doha not having formal diplomatic relations with Israel and homosexuality being illegal under the form of Islamic law that governs Qatar. But this cannot obscure the appalling record of in effect forced labour and human trafficking with foreign migrant workers in Qatar, which has led to several dozen deaths.
In 2015, Amnesty International released a report on conditions for immigrant workers in Qatar. Amnesty had previously documented systematic “labour exploitation” in Qatar, with workers not being paid, having their passports taken under the kafala system so they could not leave or even move to another job (thereby distorting the usual market pressures that keep employers in check), dangerous working conditions, inability to form trades unions, discrimination in access to the justice system, and the non-enforcement of Qatar’s own labour laws. In May 2014, Doha claimed it was implementing reforms. By the time of the Amnesty report a year later, there had been “little progress” on the most important issues and “limited progress” on some of the others.
Things had hardly improved by 2019, despite constant Qatari promises of reform, and a new report by Sophie Cousins in Foreign Policy highlights that with the outbreak of the coronavirus all of the vulnerabilities inflicted on the largely South Asian workers in Qatar are magnified. The “migrant workers’ cramped living quarters and lack of access to health care, proper sanitation, and nutritious food imperils an already highly vulnerable group of people”, writes Ms. Cousins.
“Social distancing” is impossible in the conditions the migrant workers in Qatar are forced to live under, described by Amnesty as “notoriously overcrowded”. This week, The New York Times reported that, after Qatari authorities found hundreds of cases of coronavirus among migrant workers in a construction zone for the World Cup, “Qatar has locked down tens of thousands of migrant workers in a crowded neighborhood, raising fears it will become a coronavirus hotbed.”
The true scale of the coronavirus outbreak in Qatar is difficult to judge because, as Ms. Cousins describes, not only does Doha have an interest in playing down the crisis, but the migrant workers do not wish to get tested since testing positive for COVID-19 will likely lead to deportation.
Two weeks ago, a coalition of sixteen non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and trades unions wrote an open letter calling on Qatar to ensure that migrant workers had proper and timely access to healthcare, including testing, during the coronavirus crisis, not only as an issue of human rights but as a public health matter.
The mistreatment of migrant workers in Qatar is, therefore, not an internal affair. Without proper testing and counter-measures to the virus, there will be an explosion of disease among the migrant population in Qatar that outnumbers the native population more than seven-to-one and it is unlikely that can be contained within Qatar’s borders. The Qatari government’s human rights abuses now risk destabilizing the region.