Sports washing is a term used to describe countries using big sports events to move attention away from the human rights issues within it. There have been several claims that the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is doing the same. From labour conditions to laws on sexuality, the choice of host country has been met with much controversy.
Qatar will be the first middle eastern country to host the World Cup and this means that the games will be very different to what fans are used to. Notably, the change in dates. Due to the extreme hot weather in Qatar, the World Cup has been rescheduled to begin on the 21st November and end on the 18th December, opposed to the usual summer period. And the change in dates won’t be the only difference.
Since Qatar is a Muslim country, there are different laws and values held than in some western countries. This will affect the way visiting fans will be able to watch the games. Some distinctions include wearing modest clothing, limiting pda and alcohol being forbidden. Nevertheless, it has been established that within certain hotels and in designated fan zones, there will be alcohol available for purchase, as well as fans being able to act and dress more freely. This in itself raises questions on whether or not we should expect countries to accommodate fans in this way or if it would be better and more inclusive to follow the culture of that particular nation.
Qatar has spent a record sum of $300 billion on infrastructure projects, ranging from stadium building to road laying, in order to sufficiently host these games – the most spent by a hosting country to date. They have built 7 stadiums to accommodate the games which meant that thousands of migrant workers have travelled to Qatar to help build them. However, not all have been able to return home. The Guardian reported that within the time that Qatar was given the hosting rights to the World Cup in December 2010 to 2020, 6,500 migrant workers have died. While Qatar claims these statistics are average, reports of workers doing heavy labour in extreme heat for long hours have attributed to investigations of these numbers. Many of the deaths that have been reported thus far have been due to heart and respiratory failure, despite family’s claims that their relation was fit and healthy before, leaving them confused and blaming the working conditions in Qatar for the deterioration of their relation’s health. It is important to note however, these figures include all deaths, such as death due to illness as well as including deaths on the job, therefore not all can be equated with poor labour conditions
Due to such poor working conditions and the lack of workers’ rights under the Kafala law in Qatar, for example a letter from the employer is still needed to give permission for the employee to open a bank account, there have been calls for change in these laws or boycotting will ensue.
While boycotting has many advantages such as imploring and advocating for substantial change, some people claim it is not the most effective solution. Even if some teams do boycott the games, people are still likely to watch it via television, not to mention the sacrifice of players’ careers. Qatar has already made some changes to the Kafala law such as making it illegal for employers to confiscate workers’ passports, but there are still other laws such as homosexuality being illegal that raise serious concern.
Despite claims that the law is rarely enforced, it is not enough for many LGBTQIA football fans to feel safe attending the games in Qatar. When face with a similar situation, United with Pride fans group worked with the Saudi-backed owners that took over Newcastle United in 2021, to exert “positive influence to improving the conditions for the LGBTQ+ community in Saudi Arabia.” Although this could be viewed as a naive point of view, it could be pragmatic too. The World Cup being hosted in Qatar could raise awareness of the human rights issues continuing in Qatar, increasing the pressure on Qatar for effective change.
Overall, big sports events have historically been politicised and this World Cup is no different. While compromises have been made by Qatar such as changes in the Kafala law, I question whether this is enough.
– Rachel McEwan
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