Argument

How Qatar Can Save Its World Cup Legacy

Media liberalization would allow journalists to report on the country’s labor reforms from within rather than imposing a jaded narrative from without.

The emblem of FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 is unveiled.
The emblem of FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 is unveiled.
The emblem of FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 is unveiled at the Qatar National Archive building in Doha, Qatar, on Sept. 3, 2019. Christopher Pike/Getty Images for Supreme Committee 2022
By , director of the journalism and strategic communications program at Northwestern University in Qatar.

In 2010, days after international soccer governing body FIFA awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, the first of many damning op-eds about the country landed on the editorial page of the Guardian. The article—entitled “Let Qatar 2022 not be built on brutality”—was authored by a representative of Human Rights Watch and detailed the exploitive treatment of the migrant laborers who have built stadiums and other tournament infrastructure. Ever since, there have been regular reports of abuses or calls to boycott the World Cup. Now, less than one month before play begins, there is a new flurry of critical stories about Qatar, focused not only on workers’ rights but things like the country’s supposedly fabricated soccer culture.

No one disputes that Qatar’s treatment of its migrant workers is a problem—not Qataris themselves and not FIFA, which was compelled by its own review of Qatar’s human rights record in 2017 to embed the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights into its statutes. Still, until recently, a common feature of most news stories about Qatar is that they have involved little or no on-the-ground reporting.

Now, international journalists are starting to stream into the country looking for the authentic Qatar—but with a narrative already in mind. That narrative often has grains of truth to it but just as often is an uninformed caricature or is exaggerated. In February 2021, for example, the Guardian reported that 6,500 migrant workers had been killed since 2010 and suggested those deaths were tied to stadium construction. This claim was both inaccurate and missing important context. Many migrant workers in Qatar work white collar jobs and, as one scholar pointed out, 6,500 deaths over 10 years in a country with 1.4 million migrant workers is a mortality rate similar to that of young men in Germany. While othering by the Western press is partly responsible for this kind of reporting, so is sensationalized reductionism of the complex global market for migrant labor.

The emblem of FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 is unveiled.
The emblem of FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 is unveiled.

The emblem of FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 is unveiled at the Qatar National Archive building in Doha, Qatar, on Sept. 3, 2019.Christopher Pike/Getty Images for Supreme Committee 2022

In 2010, days after international soccer governing body FIFA awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, the first of many damning op-eds about the country landed on the editorial page of the Guardian. The article—entitled “Let Qatar 2022 not be built on brutality”—was authored by a representative of Human Rights Watch and detailed the exploitive treatment of the migrant laborers who have built stadiums and other tournament infrastructure. Ever since, there have been regular reports of abuses or calls to boycott the World Cup. Now, less than one month before play begins, there is a new flurry of critical stories about Qatar, focused not only on workers’ rights but things like the country’s supposedly fabricated soccer culture.

No one disputes that Qatar’s treatment of its migrant workers is a problem—not Qataris themselves and not FIFA, which was compelled by its own review of Qatar’s human rights record in 2017 to embed the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights into its statutes. Still, until recently, a common feature of most news stories about Qatar is that they have involved little or no on-the-ground reporting.

Now, international journalists are starting to stream into the country looking for the authentic Qatar—but with a narrative already in mind. That narrative often has grains of truth to it but just as often is an uninformed caricature or is exaggerated. In February 2021, for example, the Guardian reported that 6,500 migrant workers had been killed since 2010 and suggested those deaths were tied to stadium construction. This claim was both inaccurate and missing important context. Many migrant workers in Qatar work white collar jobs and, as one scholar pointed out, 6,500 deaths over 10 years in a country with 1.4 million migrant workers is a mortality rate similar to that of young men in Germany. While othering by the Western press is partly responsible for this kind of reporting, so is sensationalized reductionism of the complex global market for migrant labor.

But ultimately, I believe Qatar’s poor international image is its own doing. Instead of encouraging local media to cover these important issues, the government and its censorship regime attempt to tell the country’s story through official statements and press releases from imperious government ministries. An obsequious local press follows along. As a result, as a journalist from Brazilian broadcaster TV Globo told Foreign Policy recently, most of what he knows about Qatar he’s learned from the New York Times and the British tabloids.

Yet, to the extent that human rights are the hook in so many stories about FIFA’s selection of Qatar as the World Cup host as well as the country’s many other global sport ambitions, Qatar has a far more positive story to tell than China, Russia, or Azerbaijan—recent hosts of other sports mega-events. Scholars who study migrant labor in the Persian Gulf say the World Cup has indeed helped transform Qatar’s labor situation for the better and note that the earliest reforms began before 2010, when Qatar passed a 2009 law intended to compel employers to meet their obligations under their employment contracts.

Surveillance cameras line a wall at the Khalifa International Stadium.
Surveillance cameras line a wall at the Khalifa International Stadium.

Surveillance cameras line a wall below the grandstand at the Khalifa International Stadium in Qatar on Jan. 9, 2019, where Qatar will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.Peter Kneffel/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

Qatar could help itself by liberalizing its draconian 43-year-old media law, which has less to do with Qatari “traditional values,” a claim I hear often, and more so the legacies of the 1916 to 1971 British protectorate period. As a result, Qatar is a very difficult place for journalists to work, which poses a problem for both local reporters—including my students at Northwestern University’s Doha campus—and international ones.

The official view here is that Qatar ended “censorship of the local press” in 1995 and that the old Ministry of Information was abolished in 1998; both the emir and the foreign minister have spoken in important venues outside the country about their commitment to freedom of expression. Qatar’s Al Jazeera is a world-class news organization, though it does almost no critical reporting about the country or the controversies surrounding the World Cup. Official entities like the Qatar Foundation routinely support international forums for scholarly and popular discussion about free expression and critical inquiry. (My employer, Northwestern University in Qatar, is part of EducationCity, which is entirely supported by the Qatar Foundation. FP partners with Doha Debates and the Doha Forum on four podcasts: Course CorrectionGlobal RebootThe Long Game, and The Negotiators.) 

But the domestic reality for media freedom is something else. Qatar’s 1979 media law, derived from norms set during the protectorate period, includes potentially limitless prohibitions on speech the government disfavors, licensing requirements for publications, and criminal provisions for almost any offense, including libel. I would encourage any journalist traveling here in the next month to read it. The 2014 cybercrime law includes additional fines and prison time for some of the same offenses, and a false news law was added to the country’s penal code in 2020. My daily experience is worrying any time my students leave campus to do actual reporting. It is not hard to get detained or arrested for doing journalism.

Foreign workers take a bus on their way back from a Qatar stadium construction site.
Foreign workers take a bus on their way back from a Qatar stadium construction site.

Foreign workers take a bus on their way back from a stadium construction site for Qatar’s 2022 World Cup in Doha on May 4, 2015.MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP via Getty Images

The shell of the Lusail Stadium is under construction.
The shell of the Lusail Stadium is under construction.

The shell of the Lusail Stadium is seen under construction for the World Cup in Doha on Dec. 19, 2019.Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

All this accounts for the country’s low standing in the world’s freedom indexes. In the 2022 World Press Freedom Index, for example, Qatar ranks at 119 out of 180 countries, down from its high of 74 in 2008. The country’s most precipitous fall in the index came in 2016, after it blocked the independent and feisty Doha News, ostensibly for not having a publication license. In early 2021, the Doha News resumed publication—this time with a license held by a Qatari, as required—and in its reporting and editorials, it has tested the limits of the law. It’s a safe bet the government won’t block it again—at least not now—but Qatar has long promised much more to both its citizens and the world. The cabinet has drafted a revised media law three times in the last 11 years. None have been given effect by the emir.

The obvious case for a new media law is that it could help secure the one World Cup legacy the rest of the world cares about: reform of Qatar’s labor system. No criticism of Qatar has been angrier than that directed at its treatment of its expatriate labor force, mostly from South Asia and Africa, who comprise more than 50 percent of the country’s population. During the more than three-year blockade crisis that began in June 2017, the country took the opportunity to issue a new law to protect domestic workers—such as drivers, maids, and nannies—and in 2018, the country invited the International Labour Organization (ILO) to establish a field office in Doha. Since then, Qatar has abolished exit permits for virtually all foreign workers, and in 2020, it established a minimum wage and gave workers significantly greater freedom to change jobs.

Working against these reforms are two facts that would benefit from scrutiny by a more independent press. The first is that many employers don’t like the new rules and will attempt to avoid compliance with them. Many of those employers are also government officials. The second is that the Persian Gulf states have a history of announcing liberalization measures that come to nothing. So while the local newspapers dutifully print government press releases about reforms, there is almost no independent reporting to verify them. In the absence of reliable information, an ILO spokesperson said in 2020 that a great deal of misinformation about the laws circulates among workers on social media, complicating the government’s efforts to effectively implement its policies.

Foreign laborers walk back to their accommodations.
Foreign laborers walk back to their accommodations.

Foreign laborers walk back to their accommodations after working on the construction site of the al-Wakrah soccer stadium, one of the World Cup stadiums, in Doha on May 4, 2015.MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP via Getty Images

Ordinarily, a news organization covering compliance with these new laws would seek to examine records held by the responsible ministry, but there is no public records requirement in Qatar or in any Gulf state but Yemen. Nor are government officials accustomed to answering questions from local reporters. Last March, the Qatar News Agency posted a one-paragraph announcement of a new right-to-information law passed by the Council of Ministers—without a single bit of information about the law. That notice has since been taken down, and the proposal has apparently vaporized. The labor ministry now publishes a website that, on a monthly basis, offers a few spare numbers about worker recruitments, permit applications, and complaints—but that’s it. The ministry also operates a WhatsApp chat to answer workers’ questions, but that has been silent in response to my questions. Workers, for their part, have a strong disincentive to talk to reporters: Many who have complained or spoken out about abuse have been arrested or deported.

No one should expect Qatar to revise its media laws to suit Western critics, whose media regulatory systems and speech laws have their own weaknesses. Yet Qatar’s international claims to be progressive on free expression are breathtakingly out of sync with its domestic reality. A significantly reformed media law would not change Qatar’s domestic journalism industry overnight because in Qatar, as everywhere else, there is good money in bad journalism. But media liberalization is not an end in itself; rather, it is the key to ensuring the human rights that Qatar and FIFA have repeatedly committed to.

This won’t be Qatar’s—or the Gulf’s—last time on the sport mega-event stage either. In August, the International Monetary Fund projected that the Gulf states will see increased oil and gas revenues of up to $1.3 trillion over the next four years, driven by high energy prices caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Qatar’s oil and gas revenues jumped 58 percent in the first half of this year. That increased revenue will greatly boost sovereign wealth funds in many Gulf states—and with them, the likelihood that these countries will play a greater role in international sports competitions like the World Cup and the Olympics.

Isolated and sanctioned Russia won’t be hosting any major such events for the foreseeable future; China is experiencing its own economic contraction; and the rest of the world is dealing with high inflation, surging energy prices, and fears of a recession. The next few iterations of the Olympics and the World Cup—whose venues have already been decided—will be held in Europe, North America, and Australia. But after that, the Gulf states will be likely hosts for these very expensive competitions—and human rights are only going to become more important. There are excellent journalists in Qatar who could tell that story knowledgeably and with a perspective that Western journalists do not have. I hope someday soon they’ll be able to do so freely.

Craig L. LaMay is director of the journalism and strategic communications program at Northwestern University in Qatar. He is the author of several books on international media development, teaches comparative media law, and is the former Middle East editor of the International Journal of the History of Sport.

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