The 2022 soccer World Cup began its takeover of global sports channels on November 20, transmitting endless images of cosmopolitan crowds enjoying the sparkling new stadiums of Qatar to audiences around the world. The country that hosts the World Cup wins one of today’s most coveted advertisement opportunities. Coverage can boost investment, tourism, and trade, and even add to a country’s diplomatic heft. Yet the 2022 host, Qatar, is a country with an atrocious human rights record, especially in terms of labor conditions. Unfortunately, rather than calling attention to the suffering of laborers in Qatar, the World Cup is in danger of showcasing the economic benefits of Qatari-style labor exploitation to the world.
Ballwashing and the Apolitical Soccer Fan
The ability of countries with poor human rights records to ballwash, or clean up their global reputations by hosting international sports competitions, isn’t limited to soccer. Saudi Arabia countered the coverage of the murder investigation of Jamal Khashoggi (dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018) with a barrage of publicity about the newest European Tour golf event, the Saudi International, and continues to do so with the breakaway Saudi-sponsored LIV Golf Tour, which has lured a number of top golfers away from the US tour with astronomical guaranteed payouts. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been hosting Formula One racing for over a decade, about as long as it has used forced disappearances and torture to limit Arab Spring-style protests. Ballwashing is akin to greenwashing, the practice of generating positive environmental newsbites to distract from negative coverage (like Egypt hosting the recent November, 2022 UN Climate Conference—commonly known as COP27—despite its brutal repression of regime critics), and equally effective. Both take advantage of popular global topics to undercut less flattering reports on human rights abuses.
People love the World Cup. Why drag negativity into one of the few occasions of international camaraderie available in mainstream culture? Unfortunately, despite the penchant of athletes and fans to claim that they aren’t “political,” there is no apolitical option for watching these high-profile events. Enjoying the athletics on display while ignoring, or refusing to acknowledge, the abuse in the background makes one complicit in the ballwashing of state reputations.
Qatar, the Gulf, and a Labor System for the 21st Century
There are several human rights issues in Qatar: LGBQT criminalization, lack of civil rights protections for citizens, guardianship restrictions on women . . . but the most pertinent to the World Cup is the dire situation of non-citizen laborers in Qatar. Ninety percent of the three million residents in Qatar (a country one-tenth the size of Illinois), are not Qatari citizens, but comprise a caste which inhabits the legal no-mans-land that is the kafala system.
Qatar is not the only country to use the kafala system. The other Persian Gulf states of Bahrain, Kuwait, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia use similar systems to supply the labor needed for oil-funded modernization while preventing laborers from making claims on the state. Contract laborers, recruited today in poor Muslim or partially Muslim nations like Bangladesh or the Philippines by labor brokers, are charged fees for transportation and visa processing that immerse them in debt even before they arrive. The sponsorship system linking them to a specific employer prevents them from changing jobs, marrying, protesting unsafe work or housing conditions, or even complaining about unpaid wages. Women workers are often isolated within private homes with few protections against abuse, including sexual violence.
Apologists have dismissed the abuses of the kafala system as products of cultural traditions that will fade with integration into international norms. They are missing the point. The kafala system is a profoundly modern adaptation to global labor dynamics. It provides an endless supply of laborers without rights or social welfare claims upon the state.
Private Corporations Hiding Behind State Labels
The kafala system not only exploits the global poor but it helps perpetuate authoritarian rule. The dynasties of the Gulf originated in the 1800s, when the British navy began to pay some local families for port access. One hundred years later these family dynasties won the geological lottery and found themselves controlling oil revenues as well.
Oil revenues and disenfranchised labor have made it possible for ruling dynasties to buy off the relatively small number of citizens with perks and prestige. If you are one of the 350,000 citizens of Qatar, you have no paths to political participation, but you do enjoy free health care, education, and utilities as well as interest-free mortgages. Most importantly, you enjoy an elite lifestyle and social status made possible by the almost three million non-citizen workers who surround you.
The authoritarian Gulf dynasties are, like the kafala system, often portrayed as products of peculiar cultural traditions that must be tolerated until they wither away. But what if this model of a state run essentially as a private corporation, with limited access to management and a disposable workforce, is the model of the future?
Culture as Distraction from the Caste System
Dismissing labor exploitation and political authoritarianism as regional curiosities rather than brutally effective modern practices is made easier by other Orientalist coverage of Qatar. The question of whether Qatar will harass LGBQT guests is presented as a cultural issue, allowing praise for Qatar’s Potemkin tolerance for non-demonstrative international visitors while ignoring repression of LGBQT locals. Popular discussions of clothing standards or whether alcohol will be served at World Cup venues are also cultural distractions. Qatari waffling on alcohol rules (beer in public? in enclosed tents?) keeps international audiences praising Qatar for its efforts at multiculturalism rather than condemning its human rights record.
Rather than being distracted by Qatar’s efforts to hide behind the fig leaf of Qatari cultural identity, international audiences should see the kafala contract system and authoritarianism as a profoundly modern model of the state. In essence, Qatar is run as a private corporation where the ninety percent that are employees build the houses, mind the children, and clean up the garbage while being permanently banned from accessing full social participation by the membership rules. This is a not a model based in Gulf culture, but a 21st-century set of labor practices with universal potential. It could easily be the European future, as birth rates fall and nativist antipathy to admitting non-Europeans immigrants increases. It is present in the US already, where labor needs are supplied through the exploitation of workers shut out of access to protective legal documentation. Just as in Qatar, laborers are rendered invisible by legal classifications that don’t exist to keep people out, they just keep them from being fully human.
We already live in a global system adopting kafala-like practices, but failing to call out the most egregious abuse, such as Qatar’s, increases the likelihood that this global caste system will spread. The World Cup provided Qatar with an unparalleled opportunity to showcase its interpretation of modernity, not the shiny new stadiums for soccer matches, but the shiny new methods of labor exploitation that built them.
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