Nearly 12 years later, it stands as a moment that defies logic.
Former FIFA president Sepp Blatter stood at a podium in Zurich, Switzerland, and prepped the convened dignitaries for the second World Cup host announcement of the night. Moments earlier, Russia had been awarded the 2018 World Cup, with Blatter lauding it as something that would “do a lot of good for [that] part of the world.” Then he turned his attention to 2022. Blatter listed the candidates — Australia, Japan, South Korea, Qatar and the United States of America — before delivering the line that has been replayed endlessly in the decade-plus since: “The winner to organize the 2022 FIFA World Cup is Qatar.”
The decision was only more widely understood later, when the United States Department of Justice said FIFA officials took bribes to secure hosting rights in both Russia and Qatar. At the time, though, it was stunning. The most popular sporting event on the planet was headed to a tiny Persian Gulf state lacking a prevalent soccer culture and with torrid summer heat, minimal infrastructure and concerns about the country’s track record with human rights that seemingly should have served as immediate disqualifiers.
A peninsula that juts out from the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia into the Persian Gulf, Qatar occupies roughly the same amount of land as Connecticut. Its population of about 2.5 million people is comparable to that of Chicago. “We go to new lands,” said Blatter, beaming out at the crowd. “The Middle East was awaiting — and I would say the Arabic world was waiting for a long time to have the World Cup. Now you have it.”
– Stream the E60 documentary, “Qatar’s World Cup,” on ESPN+
Outside of its region, Qatar’s cultural relevance was essentially nonexistent compared with other countries in the Middle East, and even with the World Cup starting on Nov. 19, there is a compelling case that this remains true. For Qatar, more than anything, the next month is about changing that. It is the most significant opportunity as part of a decades-long strategy for the oil-rich nation to establish itself on the world stage, acquire soft power and jump-start the process of diversifying its economy.
So, what is this all about for Qatar? Is hosting the World Cup about so-called “sportswashing” — that catch-all phrase applied to any country or regime with questionable human rights records or autocratic rulers who wield their financial power to acquire prestigious roles and stakes within the sporting world — or are there more subtle and layered reasons for hosting?
Qatar’s myriad sporting investments
Europe is the powerhouse of global soccer, the continent boasting the world’s most prestigious clubs and most prestigious competitions. In Deloitte’s 2022 Football Money League, its table of the 20 clubs that generate the highest revenue in the game, all of the teams are from Europe. Only one club in the top six, Manchester United, has not benefited from significant financial backing from the Arabian Peninsula.
Qatar Sports Investments (QSI), a closed shareholding organization based in Doha that reinvests into Qatar’s sports and entertainment industries, owns the biggest club in France, Paris Saint-Germain, and has recently acquired about a 22% minority stake in Portuguese team SC Braga. Qatari sponsorship agreements stretch even farther around the globe in soccer and other sports.
– World Cup 2022: Full squad lists for all 32 teams
Their Gulf neighbors in Abu Dhabi took control of Manchester City in 2008 — a move that Amnesty International branded as “sportswashing” — while Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), which is chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is the majority owner of Newcastle United, another instance that has raised the issue of sportswashing. The PIF also funds LIV Golf, the newly launched tour that has brought huge controversy to the sport by persuading many of the world’s leading golfers to turn their backs on the PGA Tour and earn a fortune playing in the new competition.
Whether or not you consider these examples an attempt to deflect attention away from human rights abuses and a lack of freedom, the reality is that their links with sport have had the opposite effect, intensifying the spotlight on those issues across the region.
Gab & Juls preview Group A at the 2022 World Cup, which contains hosts Qatar, Netherlands, Senegal and Ecuador.
Qatar has arguably had the most uncomfortable ride. Unlike Saudi Arabia, whose human rights issues have long been established — and other well-known countries like Russia and China that have hosted the Olympic Games — Qatar had no global image to launder. The awarding of the World Cup 12 years ago was, in essence, the nation’s international introduction. Without the World Cup, the country’s issues with human rights, the treatment of migrant workers (an issue that existed in the country before the World Cup), the rights of women and the treatment of the LGBTQIA+ community might have gone unchecked.
Same-sex relations are illegal, and men convicted of having them can face seven years in prison, while other laws ban unmarried sexual relations, independent of orientation. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2021 Country Report on Human Rights, unwed women risk prosecution if they report pregnancies and “there were cases of hospitals reporting unwed mothers to authorities.”
– World Cup conversations: Workers, sports figures and fans talk candidly about Qatar 2022
Securing the right to host the World Cup was never about casting a veil over those elements of Qatar’s society. Instead, it was a calculated decision to expose itself to Western scrutiny to make gains elsewhere. For roughly three decades, Qatar has been working on a course toward where it is now, according to Chris Doyle, a director at the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding, a nonprofit organization that promotes human rights, conflict resolution and civil society in the Arab world.
“If you go back to when the previous emir [Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani] came to power in 1995, Qatar was sitting on a large gas field but not exploiting it,” Doyle told ESPN. “It was extremely conservative and hadn’t seen the explosion of construction that we’ve seen now.
“It was very closed to the outside world, one of the more conservative states in the Arabian Peninsula, and he attempted to change this in a number of ways. Al Jazeera [the 24-hour English news channel owned by Qatar] was a part of that, opening up the media space, also having the American [military] base at Al Udeid, but probably more important in this respect was the huge changes in education, bringing in western campuses to Qatar.”
– World Cup organizers move beer sales at venues
Al Thani was set on opening Qatar to the rest of the world, and hosting sporting events was a major part of that strategy. It had two main purposes: to help diversify the economy with expanded tourism and lead to more international collaboration.
“The emir wanted to … bring in trade, tourism, influence,” Doyle said. “Also part of this drive was Qatar Airways and creating the global hub at Hamad International Airport. In other words, he wanted to have Qatar as a rival to Dubai but also to bring people to Qatar.
“Very important in this respect was the ability to sell alcohol in the hotels, which wasn’t permitted before. So you saw a sort of a plan, albeit implemented sometimes with two steps forward and one step back.”
One of the most high-profile events has been the Qatar Tennis Open, which the country started staging annually in 1993, and the plan extends to many sports. Qatar hosted the Asian Handball Championships in 2004, the Asian Basketball Championships in 2005 and UCI World Cycling Championships in 2016, among other events.
“He wanted to open up to the outside world, so securing the World Cup could be seen as the apogee of that ambition,” Doyle said. “It wasn’t without internal critics, whether spending this huge amount of money on the World Cup was worth it or not, but it did fit into this pattern.”
– Marcotti: How FIFA, FAs can channel World Cup anger into meaningful change
Qatar’s geographical location is another key factor in its desire to open links to the West. It shares a gas field with Iran and a land border with its equally powerful and influential western neighbor, Saudi Arabia. To the south is the United Arab Emirates, and the two nations have a long history of rivalry and mutual suspicion, with Dubai (the UAE’s most populous city) well-established as a tourism destination in the region. To the northeast is Kuwait, a similarly tiny state made rich by natural resources and one that was invaded by a more powerful neighbor, Iraq, in 1990.
Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was a lesson of how dangerous things could be for a small state in the region and played a role in Qatar’s desire to acquire soft power, according to Georgetown University-Qatar professor Danyel Reiche, who co-authored the book “Qatar and the 2022 FIFA World Cup: Politics, Controversy, Change.” A term coined in the 1980s, “soft power” is an approach to foreign policy using culture, economics and diplomacy.
All of the above matter to Qatar, which is why security, in addition to sportswashing, is the driving force for wanting to host the World Cup.
“Football and sport serve for the protection of the country,” Reiche said. “Visibility, influence and international affairs, national security and also a form of branding to be interesting for tourists and investors. Also initiating a process of economic diversification, I think those are the reasons.”
Establishing Qatar on the world stage
Qatar’s foray into overseas soccer investments started around the same time it landed the World Cup. It served as a branding exercise and worked, in part, to establish the country as a travel destination.
From 2010 to 2013, FC Barcelona shirts were emblazoned with Qatar Foundation on the front before being replaced by the state-owned Qatar Airways until 2017. The timing was fortuitous or, perhaps, by design: Lionel Messi, arguably the world’s most visible athlete during that period of time, shared a close association with Qatar. Eventually, Barca didn’t renew sponsorship as it sought new sponsors for “social issues,” but not before the partnership with the airline earned the club an estimated $250 million from 2012-17.
Bayern Munich receive a reported $22.5 million a year from Qatar Airways in a five-year deal as shirt sleeve sponsors. Bayern have also been paid $10 million a year in a sponsorship deal with Doha’s Hamad International Airport.
The Bundesliga champions’ partnership with Qatar has led the club’s supporters and members to call on Bayern to not renew the deal when it expires in 2023, but chief executive Oliver Kahn was noncommittal to that request when speaking at Bayern’s annual general meeting last month. “There has been progress in Qatar on labor rights and human rights,” Kahn said. “Nobody suggested that Qatar is a country that meets European standards. But if you want to change and initiate something, you have to meet people, talk to them and exchange ideas instead of excluding them.”
Manchester City are owned and bankrolled by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi, and their shirts and stadium carry the name of Etihad Airways — the UAE’s international airline — for an undisclosed figure. Real Madrid’s principal sponsor is Emirates, Dubai’s international airline, which pays the European champions roughly $70 million a year to have its name on the club’s shirts.
Paris Saint-Germain are owned, funded and controlled by QSI. And even though Manchester United have not negotiated huge commercial deals with Qatar or the UAE, the club has previously earned $10 million a year from a sponsorship deal with Saudi Telecom.
USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter says he and his team will continue to push the team’s “Be the Change” message while in Qatar.
In short, even the most powerful football clubs rely heavily on money from the Arabian Peninsula, as do the major confederations. Qatar Airways was a leading sponsor of UEFA Euro 2020 and is listed as a partner sponsor of the FIFA World Cup. In 2021, Qatar Airways announced a multiyear partnership with CONCACAF, the confederation of North and Central America. Wherever a big football game is being played, there is a strong chance that it is going ahead with the help of a financial partnership rooted in the Arabian Peninsula.
“Football is quite reliant on money from the Middle East at the moment,” Chris Brady, professor of management studies and director of the Centre for Sports Business at Salford University in England, told ESPN. “But if that revenue stream was taken away, something else would replace it because it is football, a huge, global sport. Football could go down a more ethical route for finance.
“In the past, many sports had a similar reliance on money from tobacco sponsorship until it was outlawed in many parts of the world. But they survived, football survived.
“When American owners began to buy into the Premier League almost 20 years ago, I spoke to one of them and asked what the reasons were, and he said that no other business gets a billion viewers twice a week. He also said they were idiots for taking so long to realize the power of football. So while the game is reliant on Middle East money, it doesn’t always have to be like that.”
It might not have the century-old soccer culture that Europe and South America can point to, but soccer matters in Qatar and the Middle East. In many ways, the region has become football’s puppet master, learning how and when to pull the strings.
Defense, energy and education
Qatar’s chief rival to land the 2022 World Cup was the United States. They both reached the final round of balloting in 2010 before 14 of the 22 FIFA executive committee members voted for Qatar. It’s a process that, at least in part, contributed to the downfall of Blatter’s reign as FIFA president, which lasted nearly two decades — and one the U.S. Department of Justice determined had included bribery by the Qataris.
For those whose worldviews are filtered through the prism of sports, it’s possible those events depict an adversarial relationship between the countries, but from a geopolitical standpoint, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Diplomatic relations were established in 1972, a year after Qatar received its independence from the United Kingdom, and since then Qatar has become arguably the United States’ closest ally in the Middle East.
According to Timmy Davis, who was confirmed as the U.S. ambassador to Qatar in August, there are three major components to the U.S.-Qatar relationship: defense, energy and education.
“It has been a relationship built up over the last 50 years to be good and solid based on those three pillars,” Davis told ESPN. “But also we’re thinking about what’s next and how to expand the relationship and how to be supportive of their goals regionally and globally, all while this relationship is useful to us in the United States.”
American influence can be heavily credited for Qatar’s rapid transformation from economic lightweight to one of the world’s richest countries on a per capita basis. It is thanks largely to the domestic involvement of oil and gas behemoth Mobil — before its merger with Exxon — starting in the early 1990s. Mobil’s expertise in liquid natural gas was the catalyst for Qatar to become, at times, the largest LNG exporter in the world.
Qatar also spent more than $1 billion constructing Al Udeid Air Base in 1996, despite not having an air force at the time. The project was initiated with the American military in mind, as Qatar reasoned that hosting the U.S. would provide a layer of security it couldn’t provide for itself. It wasn’t until September 2001 that the U.S Air Force operated out of Al Udeid, doing so in secret as a staging location in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack. Now, at any given time, there are thousands of U.S. personnel at Al Udeid, which serves as the forward headquarters of U.S. Central Command, according to Davis.
“[Al Udeid] was important because it includes the command and control of the region. It’s the operational nerve center for our military,” Susan Ziadeh, who served as the U.S. Ambassador to Qatar from 2011-2014, told ESPN. “Once they hosted [the Air Force] they became invaluable to us and to our allies, either in the region or in Western Europe, Asia, etc.”
In March, President Joe Biden designated Qatar as a “major non-NATO ally,” which the U.S. Department of State calls a “powerful symbol of the close relationship” and which includes benefits related to defense trade and security cooperation.
Gab & Juls preview Group C at the 2022 World Cup, with Argentina expected to cruise into the knockout rounds.
A major facet of Qatar’s defense and soft power strategy has been to recruit foreign universities to set up branches in Doha’s Education City district. Eight foreign universities have a presence in the 12-square-kilometer development, including six from the United States: Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Georgetown, Northwestern, Texas A&M and Virginia Commonwealth. “So not only do we have the normal exchanges that we have between countries but there are U.S. universities educating the next generation of Qataris,” Davis said.
One byproduct of the close relationship has been the U.S. government’s involvement in the lead-up to the World Cup. Ziadeh took her post in Doha just after Qatar’s World Cup bid was granted. In her role, she advocated for the World Cup to rely on U.S. goods and services where possible. She admittedly didn’t know much about soccer but, along with a colleague, developed an idea to take members of Qatar’s World Cup organizing committee to the United States to expose them to American sporting infrastructure and facilitate contacts within the business community.
“I can’t speak to other countries, but I think we’re brilliant at the melding of sports, media and entertainment,” Ziadeh said. “How we bring all of those three elements together in a way that makes for a really grand, impactful event.”
On the West Coast, she led a contingent of about a dozen Qataris — including Hassan Al Thawadi, the secretary general for the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy — on a road show of Los Angeles; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle. In L.A., they toured the Rose Bowl and what was then known as Staples Center. In the Pacific Northwest, they spent time at Nike headquarters and visited Providence Park, home of the Portland Timbers and Thorns, and the training facility for the Seattle Sounders.
During a separate trip, they visited Miami and Atlanta. Part of the plan was for the Qataris to learn from Atlanta’s hosting of the 1996 Summer Olympics and from Miami’s hospitality scene. These trips were designed not just with the World Cup in mind, but with a focus on the future. Even though Qatar’s natural gas reserves are the third-largest in the world, the country knows it can’t remain as reliant on its energy exports. Economic diversity is a must, and an expanded tourism sector had been a priority long before the World Cup became a realistic possibility.
From the outside, the United States’ close diplomatic relationship with Qatar and its official support of the World Cup preparation can also point to an uncomfortable dynamic relating to human rights.
The 2021 U.S. Department of State report on human rights practices in Qatar, identified several “credible reports” of significant human rights issues. It highlighted the existence of restrictions on free expression; substantial interference with peaceful protests; restrictions on migrant workers’ freedom of movement; lack of investigations into gender-based violence; and criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct.
Then there was the State Department’s 2022 report on human trafficking in Qatar, which highlighted more problems. Although it acknowledged an increased effort by the Qatari government relating to the issue, it determined Qatar still does not meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. It cited examples of authorities arresting, detaining and deporting people for immigration violations, prostitution, or fleeing from their employers or sponsors, and it called for the prioritization of several reforms that would take the country closer to what the U.S. government deems an acceptable standard.
It all raises questions about what role the United States played — or should have played — in influencing change in these areas in the lead-up to the World Cup.
“We had been having this conversation with the Qataris for a long time,” Davis said. “They will tell you as part of their Qatar Vision 2030 — and their insistence on human dignity in that document — that, yes, there was some impetus [for change] because of the World Cup but that they believe they have a responsibility to ensure human dignity whether there’s a big event here or not.”
Meaningful change is taking time
Part of what made Qatar’s successful bid so shocking was that it called for the construction of seven new stadiums and the major renovation of another, as at the time of winning the World Cup bid, there wasn’t a single venue there considered suitable for the tournament. Beyond that, infrastructure needed in and around Doha to host potentially more than a million visitors for the tournament was possibly even more extensive.
The extent of the plan to rectify that situation was essentially: “We’ll build everything, we’re rich,” and for FIFA’s voting members, that was enough. If there was any concern about the working conditions and standards for the foreign workers who would be required to build the venues — let alone the rest of the necessary construction in and around Doha — it didn’t manifest in any meaningful way.
– World Cup worker who died was ‘suffering to survive,’ no help from Qatari government
“This rapid development could not have happened without blue- and white-collar workers from abroad,” Reiche said. “The domestic population is too small. It’s the largest reliance on foreign workers in the world, in Qatar. Only one out of 10 people in the country are citizens; the others are only residents.”
Most of the blue-collar workers arrived as part of the kafala sponsorship system, a longtime practice in the Arab world that functions to provide cheap, foreign labor. Through kafala, a sponsor is usually responsible for paying the travel and housing costs for individuals with the promise of earning more money than they would be able to make in their home countries. In Qatar’s case, many are from Nepal, Bangladesh and India.
Foreign workers are strongly associated with construction, but they also hold a large majority of the jobs in the service industry, and their presence is required for the country to function.
“When they were awarded the tournament, we did know the situation for the migrant worker population was a pretty desperate situation,” Nicholas McGeehan, a human rights advocate, told ESPN’s “E:60.” “They were held in virtual bondage by the kafala system.”
When “E:60” visited Qatar in 2014, it found many of these workers living in squalor. Their passports had been taken, and they were forced to work in unbearable heat with no recourse to change jobs or return home. Payment was inconsistent and, at times, nonexistent. As more similar reports surfaced — mainly from Western media and NGOs — FIFA and Qatar faced enhanced scrutiny.
It was a wholly predictable scenario. “Members of the World Cup Supreme Committee and others in the government had a very keen awareness that all eyes would be on Qatar. They understood this very clearly. They understood that they were going to be judged on a whole host of issues,” Ziadeh said. “They understood they were going to come under the microscope and they understood labor was going to be one of them. So early on they started to take steps to work within the government and other private sectors to figure out how to create a system that works better for them, works better for labor and is a better system overall.
“Many times you hear things where, ‘We pushed them to do this and we pushed them to do that,’ by different groups from the outside, and to an extent that’s true. Outside influences help, but that does not take away from the fact that there was a genuine understanding early on and genuine steps that were being taken to address many of these issues. I think that’s important to understand.”
Still, it took time for meaningful change to arrive. It wasn’t until August 2020 that a minimum monthly wage for new contracts was mandated, and it took until March 2021 for that to be applied to existing contracts. Even then, the minimum wage is oppressively low by Western standards: $275 for basic wages, $82 for food and another $137 for those who aren’t provided housing. According to the International Labour Organization, more than 400,000 workers — or 20% of the workforce — received an increased wage as a result of the change.
“I hope we see gradual increases to the minimum wage, but let’s also recognize that it’s the first minimum wage in the region,” Reiche said. “It improved the lives of many people from one day to another, and there have been other immediate changes. You can exit the country without approval from your employers; you can switch jobs; they extended hours where outside work is not permitted.”
During the first decade of World Cup preparation, the law prohibited laborers from working outdoors from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. from June 15 to Aug. 31 because of the intense heat. In 2021, that was extended to 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 15 days were tacked onto the time period on each end.
“I think the workers’ rights issue probably surprised [the Qatari organizers], and the ferocity with which it was followed,” Doyle said. “But if you look at where the issue was back when they got the World Cup, it’s really changed and there has been progress. It doesn’t mean it’s reached where I would like to see it, but it’s definitely changed. It’s far more than some sort of lip service to it.”
In a follow-up reporting trip to Qatar earlier this year for “E60: Qatar’s World Cup,” the show’s staff found significant changes from its visit in 2014 — findings that were echoed in interviews with leaders from the ILO and the International Trade Union Confederation. Sharan Burrow, the ITUC general secretary who eight years ago called Qatar “a slave state in the 21st century,” recognized efforts by the government to change.
“I can tell you now, the kafala system is dead. So you see a very different Qatar,” Burrow told “E:60.” “It’s not perfect because the challenge is implementation, but the laws are not the laws of exploitative modern slavery anymore.”
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based NGO that investigates and reports on abuse around the world, has a similar stance. The organization acknowledged “significant labor reforms” but noted they have “proven to be woefully inadequate in protecting workers’ rights and are poorly enforced.”
‘We will bridge the gap between East and West’
Over the next month, Qatar will be in the global spotlight in a way no nation of its size ever has. In May, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said he expected the tournament to be watched by 5 billion people around the world.
That’s partly why Qatar felt it was worth investing more than an estimated $220 billion to make it possible, despite knowing the short-term economic impact from the tournament wouldn’t come close to netting a positive return. Qatar never saw the World Cup as an end game. Its potential value is in what it could lead to after the trophy is hoisted on Dec. 18.
Part of that was supposed to be about changing the perception of the Middle East outside the region. In Reiche’s book, he and his co-author, Paul Michael Brannagan, documented an appearance from Al-Thawadi at a sports diplomacy conference at Oxford University in 2018.
“In 2022, fans from across the world will visit Qatar, with the vast majority visiting an Arab and Middle Eastern country for the first time,” Al-Thawadi said. “I’m confident that through football, people will see our country and region in a positive light. Negative stereotypes will be dispelled and — thanks to football — we will bridge the gap between East and West.”
To this point, that hasn’t happened — and it’s not yet possible to forecast to what degree the actual tournament will make a difference. Especially with the strong possibility that protests and criticism could ramp up to coincide with its outset.
“There are ways in which the last 10 years for the Qataris have been breakneck speed on some of these things,” Davis said. “Our job is to make sure that these things continue to grow and expand. But the way they got here in the last decade is, I think, an example of the kind of progress that can be made in a region that has sometimes been slow to progress on these issues.”
The dilemma many face is how to reconcile the significant progress related to human rights with the issues that still exist.