Qatar’s World Cup PR drive deserves to be treated with scepticism | Sean Ingle

Imagine the scene in Qatar, a year from now. Across the Corniche, the palm-fringed boulevard which runs along Doha’s seafront, thousands of football fans of different nationalities and religions are smiling, swaying, having fun. And that sound you hear? Not bottles being smashed, but stereotypes. Against expectations, the first Arab World Cup – and the first Muslim World Cup – is not only building bridges between East and West but changing perceptions of the country itself.

The other hero in this rose-tinted story? The power of sport itself. Over the weekend Gianni Infantino, the Fifa president, praised Qatar for taking “real steps” since winning the right to host the World Cup, “particularly in relation to human rights and workers’ welfare”. It followed a promise by Hassan Al-Thawadi, the secretary general of the Qatar 2022 supreme committee, that the tournament would “set new benchmarks for social, human, economic and environmental development … and will forever be remembered as innovative, sustainable and transformative”.

But will the World Cup really change Qatar – or merely alter perceptions of the country? As usual, it pays to be sceptical.

Qatar, of course, insists it has made fundamental changes – in particular the abolition of the kafala system in 2020, which stopped migrants from changing jobs or leaving the country without their employer’s permission. “The abolition of kafala, the liberalisation of the job market and implementation of a national minimum wage would have happened in time,” says one insider. “But has the World Cup been a catalyst? Unquestionably.”

But there are caveats and asterisks. Last week Amnesty International said that the new laws were not yet being implemented by all employers, leaving migrant workers still facing “widespread exploitation”. That sentiment is echoed by Nicholas McGeehan , of the human rights organisation FairSquare, who warns there is “genuine concern that as soon as the spotlight is taken away after 2022, these reforms will be rolled back.”

McGeehan also points to the lack of investigation into the deaths of at least 6,500 migrant workers from south‑east Asia in Qatar since 2010 as another reason to be sceptical about claims the country has fundamentally changed. “The families still have no answers as to how these workers died, because no one took the time to do the investigations,” he says. “They’ve also ruled out their access to compensation. I think that’s inexcusable. And I would hope the players who participate in the World Cup agree.”

What about freedom of speech? Qatar is certainly more open than most countries in the Middle East, with Reporters Without Borders noting that “the outspoken Qatari TV broadcaster Al Jazeera has transformed the media landscape in the rest of the Arab world”. But Qatar is ranked 128 out of 179 countries in the Press Freedom Index. In 2010 when it won the right to host the World Cup its position was 121st. “Qatar was already leading the way on media freedoms in the region,” McGeehan says. “It is a stretch to say it has become more liberal over the past decade.”

A similarly complex story emerges when it comes to LGBT rights. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, but the authorities insist that gay fans are welcome at the World Cup – providing they act conservatively. That promise appears to be genuine. When Paul Amann, the founder of the Liverpool LGBT group Kops Out, visited Qatar for the Club World Cup in 2019, he was pleasantly surprised. “It’s not a country I would choose to live in,” he says. “But I wouldn’t mind revisiting it again. My husband and I went to the Corniche, museum and souk at night, and we felt entirely safe.”

Gianni Infantino at the presentation ceremony of the Fifa Club World Cup in Doha earlier this year
Gianni Infantino at the presentation ceremony of the Fifa Club World Cup in Doha earlier this year. Photograph: David Ramos – FIFA/Getty Images

Again, though, there are significant caveats. As McGeehan points out, LGBT people living in Qatar face a very different experience. “The laws remain deeply discriminatory,” he says. “And if you’re gay, you are excluded from society. That takes an appalling toil on LGBT people in Qatar. It ruins their lives. Football is not going to change that. That change will come from within Qatari society.”

Have there been actual changes since the country won the right to host the World Cup? Sure. Infrastructure-wise, it has been transformed. And when the academic Joel Rookwood visited Qatar for the Club World Cup in 2019, he noticed there were far more women fans compared to when he conducted research at the Asian Cup in 2011. Back then he saw just six women across 14 games. “It wasn’t just that there were far more women in 2019,” he says. “It was that they went unnoticed. They were accepted. I think that’s a really big shift.”

Even so, it is hard to make a case that Qatar has become significantly more liberal and open since 2010. Yet, for many football fans, that probably does not matter.

A few years ago when Rookwood interviewed supporters who travel to World Cups about the 2022 tournament, for instance, he found the “overwhelming majority… made little reference to Qatar’s human rights violations, discussed continuously by media sources and non-governmental organisation”. As one fan put it to him: “You don’t really think of the workers. I know it sounds bad, but … once you’re there it’s party time.”

Such attitudes do not surprise McGeehan. When asked about the tournament’s potential legacy eMcGeehan is blunt. “Hosting the World Cup has largely benefited Qatar’s reputation. It is now identifiable on the world stage. And while that has come at a cost on one or two issues, for every fan who is concerned about migrant workers and LGBT issues, there’s probably another 40 or 50 people who are uncritically consuming PR content that presents Qatar as a luxurious destination with five-star hotels and camel rides.”

Remind me, how do you say sportswashing in Arabic?