On December 2, 2010, Qatar won the bid for hosting the 2022 Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup, becoming the first country in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to host this tournament. Ever since, the country has launched several mega projects, ramping up its infrastructure capacity, amid wide controversy about migrant workers’ rights. With less than one week left before the start of the tournament, scheduled for November 20 through December 18, 2022, experts from the Middle East Council on Global Affairs reflect below on the various dimensions of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.
Hosting a World Cup Amid Real Wars and Culture Wars
In less than a week, the FIFA World Cup 2022 will be held in Qatar, marking a first for an Arab nation and a country of its size to host the globally significant event. The games are also taking place at a moment of acute geopolitical disorder as the economic repercussions and political tensions of the War in Ukraine reverberate internationally. Qatar has invested massive financial resources and undertaken significant policy reforms over the past decade to organize a world-class tournament, while addressing the concerns of domestic and international stakeholders. Yet, as with past international sports events of this magnitude, there has been a significant uptick in controversial news coverage about Qatar in the Western press as the start date draws closer. Some of this coverage focuses on legitimate questions about the host country’s record on human rights and treatment of migrant workers who constitute close to 90 percent of its population. Policymakers in Qatar should appreciate the important role of these critical perspectives for public accountability and future reforms. After all, this will not be the last major sports tournament to be organized in the country.
Unfortunately, some of the media coverage has been blatantly misleading and full of racist undertones. This serves neither the rights of migrant workers nor the spirit of international sports. Observers in Qatar and other Arab countries should accept the reality that any healthy debate on public policy in Qatar or anywhere else will increasingly take place in a global context of culture wars, media manipulation, and digital disinformation by paid-for influence campaigns. As a result, the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 will generate the unity, joy, and celebration anticipated around the world, while at the same time highlighting current divisions, polarization, and xenophobia in societies, especially in advanced democracies.
The World Cup as a Nation-Branding Opportunity
The 2022 World Cup is the first to be held in an Arab nation. For Qatar, this has made the event a significant nation-branding opportunity as it positions itself as a regional hub for sport and tourism. Yet Qatar has also struggled to balance the desire to appeal to a Western audience that has its own expectations with maintaining an image of authenticity for a regional audience. Past regional tensions have compounded this issue and continue to linger over perceptions of Qatar. The Gulf crisis of 2017-2021 created a hostile regional environment, which had a direct impact on Qatar’s ability to use the tournament as a positive public relations and branding opportunity.
During the boycott of Qatar, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) initiated press campaigns, augmented by social media manipulation, that attempted to paint Qatar as a terrorist-supporting state with a disruptive media system. This spilled into Western media narratives, which cumulatively cast it as a “zealous, young upstart, with reckless spending habits and dubious political alignments.” The adversarial nature of the Gulf crisis was exploited by strategic communication firms and think tanks in London and Washington targeting policymakers with negative information about Qatar. Although Western media tends to report on small countries more negatively, especially in the Global South, the combative nature of the crisis helped foreground narratives about Qatar that have undermined the soft power advantages of the World Cup. The crisis is not the only reason for much of the negative coverage; some of it is self-inflicted. Yet it highlights how a negative regional geopolitical environment has partly undermined Qatar’s opportunity to benefit from being the first Arab nation to host such an event.
An Opportunity for Qatar and the Wider Region
The World Cup takes place in Qatar against the backdrop of a challenging and tumultuous geopolitical environment in the Middle East. Between 2017 and 2021, neighboring countries imposed a blockade on Qatar, prompting wider geopolitical turbulence. Relatively unscathed from these crises, however, Qatar has spent this period carving out a stronger relationship with the international community, particularly in global finance and trade. The country’s vast gas reserves and focus on diplomatic mediation have helped it become an instrumental small-state actor. Qatar has leveraged its gas reserves to address shortfalls in global energy supplies following the Russia-Ukraine war. It has also mediated between the United States and the Taliban to secure Western evacuations from Afghanistan.
These episodes in the country’s foreign policy indicate a marked capacity for power projection, even amid dramatic and rapid changes in the emerging international order. It is, therefore, up to Qatar to determine how and whether the World Cup will build on these significant foreign policy wins. Hosting the World Cup is a historic moment for the country and the Arab world. But it can also present an opportunity for Doha to use the power of sports to secure benefits for the region at large. The Middle East has been characterized by intense enmity, rivalry, and proxy wars over the past decade. Now, however, a spirit of warming appears to have set in, with renewed interest in regional dialogues and bilateral rapprochement. Football transcends linguistic, national, and cultural divides, and Qatar has an opportunity to use the power of sports diplomacy to cultivate further peace and stability.
The World Cup Induces Labor Law Reform, But the Journey Is Not Over Yet
With only days until the start of the FIFA World Cup, hosted for the first time by an Arab country, controversy persists regarding the treatment of migrant workers in Qatar. Since it won the bid to host the tournament in 2010, the small state has initiated several mega projects in preparation for the event, including the construction of cutting-edge sports venues, luxurious hotels, and state-of-the-art transportation infrastructure. With hundreds of thousands of foreign workers brought in to implement these projects, various international organizations and Western countries have condemned Qatar for the mistreatment of migrant workers and abuse of their rights.
As a result, Qatar embarked on a reform journey that started by establishing a technical cooperation program with the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2017 and setting up an ILO project office in Doha a few months afterward. Since then, the country has announced several amendments to its labor law, including abolishing the Kafala (sponsorship) system that exists across the Gulf region. Qatar has also introduced a minimum wage law and created a wage protection system to monitor compliance. In addition, it has defined maximum daily work hours and introduced measures to protect workers exposed to high-temperature environments.
Through this process, Qatar has made significant strides in reforming its labor market and protecting migrant worker rights. However, challenges in the implementation of the legal framework and monitoring of ongoing practices persist, requiring the further strengthening of protection mechanisms and facilitating access to the justice system—advances Qatar is already working on in conjunction with the ILO.
The Regional Benefits of the World Cup Exceed Economic Gains
Hosting the FIFA World Cup holds many benefits that will not only serve the host country but the rest of the MENA region, as well. With global attention focused on Qatar, there is a unique opportunity to alter the stereotypical image of the Arab world, introduce people to Arab culture, and promote an image of coexistence and tolerance. This was the case for South Korea, which hosted the World Cup in partnership with Japan in 2002. That opportunity allowed Korea to promote its culture, which later spread across the globe. Additionally, Qatar’s success in organizing the World Cup may pave the way for hosting and organizing other international events in the region, such as the Olympic Games.
On the political front, the World Cup could contribute to improving intra-Gulf relations that have been strained in recent years. This would also parallel the remarkable improvement of relations between Korea, Japan, and China following the 2002 games. So far, the run-up to the World Cup in Qatar is already benefitting the economies of its neighbors, and revenues in the hospitality, aviation, and tourism services sectors are all anticipated to increase during the month-long event. An intensive schedule of shuttle flights has been organized between Doha and other cities in the Gulf and the broader region. In the hospitality sector, Saudi Arabia expects an increase of 106% in its hotel occupancy rate, with other countries not far behind. The UAE has already postponed the Dubai Marathon due to hotels reaching full booking capacity for the World Cup. Even Iran hopes to increase the influx of tourists during the World Cup period.
True Colors: The FIFA World Cup and the Flag
National flags are an intrinsic part of football culture. They constitute public displays of national identity and culture, as well as statements of allegiance and solidarity. It is unsurprising then that political controversy is never too far afield. Football matches have been spaces where flags have led to dispute, exclusion, and disciplinary action from organizing authorities. For instance, when the Celtic Football Club of Scotland was paired against the Israeli team Hapoel Be’er Sheva in a Champions League match in 2016, many Celtic fans displayed the Palestinian flag as an act of solidarity with the Palestinian people. The incident resulted in a political storm in which the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) took disciplinary action against the club.
For many countries, FIFA membership is likened to admission to the United Nations. It conveys important legitimacy and forms of sovereignty. Kosovo, for example, was embroiled in a diplomatic row with Spain when Spanish authorities refused to permit the Kosovan flag to be flown before the FIFA World Cup 2022 qualifier in the country. Ahead of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, significant debate has erupted over FIFA’s current guidance on flags. Controversy has reigned not only over which national flags to permit but also flags, or flag colors, signifying LGBTQ+ and migrant labor rights, and other vulnerable groups including refugees, women, and racial minorities. Both FIFA and the Qatari authorities are now accused of contradictory or opaque messaging. For this reason, FIFA and Qatar are at the center of a dispute of their own making. As the countdown to the games moves inexorably forward, the politics of flags and all that they symbolize will have to be resolved, otherwise key messages of tolerance and respect will be denigrated in a row over double standards.
Mohammed Salah, Islamophobia, and the World Cup
Since the Egyptian footballer Mohammed Salah moved to Liverpool Football Club, he has been credited with a reduction in Islamophobia and racism, not only in the city of Liverpool but in the U.K. at large. A paper by Stanford University and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) found that Salah’s presence on the Liverpool team has coincided with a significant drop in hate crimes and a decrease in instances of Islamophobic rhetoric on social media platforms. Dubbed the “Salah effect,” the findings highlight how exposure to Muslim sports stars can reduce prejudice more broadly towards Muslims. Indeed, the chant by Liverpool fans—“If he scores, I’ll be Muslim too!”—is quite unprecedented in English and European football, which has a long history of exhibiting racism toward players with ethnic origins from outside the continent. The recent ban by some French cities on the screening of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 in public venues to protest abuses in Qatar is arguably hypocritical, given rising racism, increasing abuse of French Muslims, and growing Islamophobia there. The French footballer of Algerian descent, Karim Benzema, described it best when he said: “If I score I am French. If I don’t, I am Arab.”
Despite valid critiques of abuses of migrant workers’ rights and allegations of bribery, the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 has the potential to build on the “Salah effect” and show fans and the world how a Muslim country can successfully host a World Cup, demystify Muslims, and contribute to efforts to fight Islamophobia worldwide.
Building on and Sustaining Qatar’s World Cup Legacy
The FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 provides a unique occasion for Qatar to present itself on the world stage. The country will, henceforth, forever be associated with the most-watched sporting event on the planet. Indeed, 2022 will provide a unique World Cup experience, as all games are within an hour’s drive of one another. Qatar has also leveraged the World Cup as an opportunity to develop its core infrastructure and key economic sectors. During the event, Doha hopes to showcase its state-of-the-art transportation systems, world-class tourism and culinary experiences, thriving arts and culture scenes, and its warm and generous hospitality. Other countries that have hosted the World Cup have witnessed a permanent bump in tourism and other economic activities. Qatar should expect the same.
The challenge for Qatar, and the question on everyone’s mind, is how the country will leverage its massive economic investments to sustain economic growth after the event. The increase in capacity that was created to host the World Cup, and welcome over 1 million visitors to the country, can only be sustained by encouraging new economic activity and effectively utilizing what Qatar has already built. This will require Qatar to attract foreign direct investment and support the development and growth of small and medium enterprises. Fortunately, Qatar has been investing heavily in its human capital. It boasts among the strongest post-secondary education systems and research institutions in the region. These are the building blocks of a competitive, diversified economy. In the end, Qatar must unleash the full potential of its human, physical, and social capital to diversify its economy and welcome in a new era of prosperity and growth.
Council Views is an ME Council blog series that brings together our experts’ insights on headline issues facing the Middle East and North Africa region.