Despite the high number of workers killed during the construction of the stadiums and the human rights situation in the country, Qatar is consolidating its position as a regional power thanks to its commitment to sports

Qatar's World Cup: a propaganda and soft power tool

photo_camera AFP/DAVID GANNON - According to an investigation by The Guardian, at least 6,500 migrant workers died in Qatar between 2011 and 2020.

Qatar has invested in sports, especially football, to try to improve its image abroad.

The 2022 World Cup kicks off this Sunday. For the first time in history, the host of the competition will be an Arab country. Qatar was the nation selected in 2010 to host the sporting championship, beating other countries such as the United States, South Korea, Japan and Australia. However, since its selection, Qatar's bid has been surrounded by controversy. The accusations of corruption and bribery have also affected FIFA, Joseph Blatter - then president of the organisation - and Michel Platini, president of UEFA. 

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In recent months, coinciding with the countdown to the start of the World Cup, different human rights NGOs and international organisations have once again warned about the human rights situation in Qatar, as well as the appalling working conditions of the foreign workers who have built the stadiums where, from Sunday, fans from all over the world will begin to arrive to cheer on their national teams. 

According to an investigation by The Guardian, at least 6500 migrant workers died in Qatar between 2011 and 2020. The British newspaper pointed to "forced labour" or "forms of modern slavery" as the causes of death of the workers. Another study by Cardiology reveals that many of them lost their lives because of the country's high temperatures. The paper - Heat Stress Impacts on Cardiac Mortality in Nepali Migrant Workers in Qatar - also notes that as many as 200 of the 571 deaths from cardiovascular disease between 2009 and 2017 could have been avoided if the necessary labour measures had been implemented. Due to the sweltering heat in the Gulf country at various times of the year, it is not advisable to work outdoors for long periods of time. However, several migrant workers have reported working for more than 10 hours at a time.

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Most of the migrant workers come from Asian countries such as India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal, which has lost more than 2,100 of its citizens to the World Cup construction site since 2010. According to official data collected by The New York Times, some of the deaths are due to cardiovascular problems (699) or traffic accidents (198), although there are also a high number of suicides (196).

Nepalese health workers quoted by the US newspaper have pointed out that many of the young workers who return from working in Qatar suffer from kidney failure and other health problems, causing them to die within a few years of returning home. On the other hand, those who die in the Gulf country are returned to the country in coffins, without autopsies and described as "natural deaths". However, before travelling to Qatar and obtaining a work permit, migrant workers must undergo a compulsory medical examination.

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Carrying sacks of cement at 50 degrees: "he felt like he was about to die"

Ram Pateriya, a freelance journalist, had the opportunity to visit one of the 9 square metre rooms where 6 migrant workers from Bangladesh and Nepal were living. Peteriya tells Atalayar about the appalling conditions they faced. They paid 100 euros each, about 700 euros for the tiny space including food. "It smells bad because we hang our wet clothes inside and there are no windows," one of them pointed out to Peteriya. "When I was in Bangladesh, I dreamed of coming to Qatar and working hard so I could buy a house and a car, but the reality has been different. All my dreams have vanished, I am suffering pain that no one can understand," he lamented. 

The reporter also met a Kenyan-born worker who paid 1,500 euros to a recruitment agency for his visa and plane tickets. "The same day he arrived in Doha, he was taken to the construction site. He explained to me how hard it was to work in 50-degree weather carrying sacks of cement, he felt like he was about to die," explains Pateriya.

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Like the Asian workers, the Kenyan lived in a tiny room with five other migrant workers. The housing - provided by the agency - was full of plastic and rubbish and had no kitchen or fridge.

Numerous NGO criticisms of Qatar have prompted Doha to take certain measures, such as the creation of labour dispute resolution committees, which, according to Pateriya, has been one of "the most encouraging steps in Qatar's labour reform".

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The journalist also recalls the wage increase for workers. However, there are too many cases for too few judges, so workers wait months for their claims to be processed. "The labour court has 25 cases in one day, out of the last 2,000 complaints, only 69 have been processed," says Pateriya. The reporter also points out that new laws make it possible to convict companies, but in reality, "the persistent culture of impunity" continues.

Doha has sought to disassociate itself from the deaths and criticisms, claiming that all the accusations are part of "an unprecedented propaganda campaign". In an interview with AFP, Qatari Labour Minister Ali bin Samikh Al Marri said all the criticism was based on "racism". The former president of the Qatari National Human Rights Committee also questions the figures published by the media and NGOs.  "They don't want to allow a small country, an Arab country, an Islamic country, to host the World Cup," Al Marri said, referring to the World Cup's detractors.

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Sportwashing, national security and regional influence 

Qatar uses football as a tool of soft power. In addition to the World Cup, the Qatari state airline has sponsored teams such as Boca Juniors, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. The acquisition of Paris Saint-Germain by Nasser al-Khelaifi, who is close to the Qatari government, is also part of this strategy. Al-Khelaifi is also chairman of the Qatari broadcaster beIN Sport and a member of the UEFA Executive Committee.

For Qatar, sport, and especially football, is so relevant because "it moves the masses, fuels passions and mobilises feelings such as identity or acceptance," says political analyst Daniel Patiño Portillo. But he also stresses that Qatar's influence is not only limited to football. "They also own Harrods department store in London, part of El Corte Inglés, Tiffany Co., Wolkswagen and Brookfield, a luxury flat firm," he adds.

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On the other hand, as Juan Corellano, journalist for the Media Inglesa and director of the documentary 'Qatar: the World Cup at your feet', explains, sport gives "a more benevolent image to the outside world of what your regime really is". However, Corellano points out that this method is not new, mentioning the Olympic Games in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and the 1978 World Cup during the Argentine dictatorship.

In addition to propaganda, the journalist points out that this Qatari strategy responds to issues related to the national security of the small Gulf country. "Qatar is well aware that it is a tiny country and that its neighbour is Saudi Arabia, which is a great military power", Corellano points out. Doha has learned its lesson from the Iraqi invasion of neighbouring Kuwait in the 1990s. As a result, Qatar realised that the better known you are internationally and geopolitically, the less vulnerable you become. The director of 'Qatar: The World Cup at Your Feet' believes that through sport, this small Arab nation has made itself known to the world. 

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In addition to sport, Qatar has directed its investments to France, one of its key allies, but also a country with great geopolitical and military weight. "Qatar bought military planes after Sarkozy brokered Platini's vote for the World Cup to be held there, they have reached many agreements with many companies in what would be the French Ibex-35", says Corellano, who reiterates that Qatar's strategy "is not only to clean up its image, but also to ensure its future".

In addition to football, Doha is involved in Formula 1, paddle tennis and is a member of the International Olympic Committee. "You have to recognise that Qatar was one of the first countries to see the power of soft power, not only in sport, but also through the media, such as Al Jazeera," says the journalist. In addition to Al Jazeera, Qatar uses beIN Sports - one of UEFA's main clients - for the same purpose.

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Given the importance and influence of this media, during the blockade of Qatar, Saudi Arabia directly attacked beIN Sports, demonstrating the relevance of the channel for Doha and its interests. A Saudi pirate channel, beoutQ, began broadcasting Qatari media content illegally, damaging beIN Sport financially.

Subsequently, once the blockade on Qatar was lifted, Riyadh allowed beIN Sports to broadcast and a Saudi company became the exclusive advertising partner of the sports channel through a $150 million deal. In this regard, it is worth noting that Saudi Arabia - as well as the United Arab Emirates - will also benefit from the sporting competition to be played in its neighbouring country. Saudi Emirati airlines and hotels will play a key role in the travel and accommodation of fans attending the World Cup. 

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Qatar uses sportwashing to enhance its image and defend its national security interests, but also to gain regional relevance. "Sometimes sport can have a reach that politics does not. If Doha has a role in this, it will gain influence in the region," says Guillermo Calderón López, journalist and international analyst. Moreover, as Francesco Sicardi writes in the Carnegie Middle East Center, once the tournament is over, the Qatari government will set new international ambitions, such as balancing its position between China and the United States, solving Europe's energy crisis or becoming a regional green energy hub.

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Criticism is Doha's main challenge

But is it really achieving its goals? Since it was announced that Qatar would host the 2022 World Cup, criticism of the country has not ceased. In addition to the situation of migrant workers, international organisations have denounced the constant abuses suffered by women and members of the LGBTI+ community, as well as Qatar's financial support for extremist groups. Thus, while many recognise that Doha has done a great job of soft power, other analysts point out that the numerous criticisms are preventing the Al-Thani regime from achieving its goals.

"As the World Cup has approached, there has been more negative publicity about the competition. Soft power would then not be as effective as the emirate had hoped," says Calderón López. Corellano, for his part, recalls that "many people are talking about how they have already lost this World Cup, because it will always be remembered with a negative image on an international level". 

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Recently, as the start of the World Cup approached, the Qatari authorities themselves responded to the criticism levelled against their country, something that had not happened before. "We have seen that they have come out to defend themselves much more vehemently, even saying that they were criticisms that bordered on racism based on prejudices, so obviously they are upset with all the criticism," Corellano remarked, who recognises that this World Cup "has a lot of cultural shock". "It is the first World Cup to be held in an Arab country, which means a very different society with very different values", concludes the journalist.

However, Patiño Portillo considers that "the general public is not shocked by the fact that the World Cup is going to be played over the blood of thousands of workers killed during construction work". The analyst adds that, despite the numerous criticisms and boycott attempts, "the competition is going ahead, while PSG continues to play and sign". "There have been criticisms and statements of rejection, but none of them really relevant enough to shake the foundations of the operation to improve its image that this country has underway," he remarks. 

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In addition to the criticism, another challenge facing Qatar during this World Cup is security. For years, Doha has been linked to extremist groups in the region. "Qatar National Bank - the World Cup bank - was involved in financing the al-Nusra Front, the former al-Qaeda branch in Syria," says Calderón López. Senior Qatari officials have been accused of funding fundamentalist organisations, including men linked to the Qatari football federation. 

Rules during the competition

For months now, the Qatari authorities have been urging fans who want to attend the World Cup to respect national values and customs. This will mean that, during this World Cup, alcohol will be reduced compared to previous World Cups. Although the government had set up areas where the consumption of alcoholic beverages is permitted, it has recently been reported that workers have begun to move tents of Budweiser beer, one of FIFA's sponsors. On drugs, Doha will enforce its "zero tolerance" policy, deporting, fining and even imprisoning those who consume or deal in illegal substances. 

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The Qatari authorities also require both men and women to dress in accordance with national values, covering shoulders and knees. They have also warned against extramarital sex. In this regard, the situation of homosexuals is particularly sensitive. Same-sex relations are forbidden in Qatar and can face severe punishments and penalties.

World Cup ambassador Khalid Salman assured during an interview with German public television (ZDF) that anyone visiting the country during the World Cup "will have to abide by the rules". In addition to this warning, Salman described homosexuality as "mental damage".

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Like homosexuals, women will not be protected by the law if they are sexually assaulted or abused, as was the case with Mexican journalist Paola Schietekat, who was raped in Doha by another Colombian journalist. Schietekat was initially sentenced to seven years in prison plus 100 lashes, but was eventually acquitted of the charges. .

Because of the situation of women, homosexuals and migrant workers, players, coaches and even fans have expressed their rejection of the World Cup in Qatar. A few weeks before the start of the competition, several fans of different German teams have demonstrated against human and labour rights abuses, even calling for a boycott of the tournament. 

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Wearing an armband with the LGTBI+ flag is another measure taken by certain teams and players to show their disagreement with Qatar's homophobic laws. The "One Love" campaign consists of the captains of the national teams wearing the armband with the rainbow colours. England, Germany, Sweden and Norway are among the countries that will join the initiative, although others such as France have already announced that they will not. France captain Hugo Lloris has said that just as the French expect foreigners to follow the rules when they travel to the country, he will do the same in Qatar. 

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Despite Doha's attempts to show a friendly face during this competition, the country's authorities remain at the centre of controversy. A few days before the opening of the World Cup, Danish journalist Rasmus Tantholdt has denounced censorship by the security forces.

The reporter, who was reporting live for the TV2 Nyhederne channel, was interrupted by several Qataris who tried to cut the broadcast. "Will this happen to other media too?" Tantholdt asked on Twitter, just days before the ball starts rolling at the Al Khor stadium.

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