One of the political challenges in Qatar is that most of the population is left behind when the royal family forges ahead with socio-political modernisation. Unlike in most countries where change is often driven by civil society, in Qatar it is the royal family which has that role. Hence, the Gulf State has found itself caught between pleasing foreign football fans and the West on one hand, and possible domestic unrest on the other with regard to the arrangement made for the FIFA World Cup.
Since winning its bid to host the tournament in December 2010, Qatar has faced almost continual criticism, with many people doubting its capabilities for hosting it successfully. Four main issues have been dominating such criticism. Given its mean temperatures, could the state host a tournament traditionally held in the summer? Some of the highest recorded temperatures in the world are found in Qatar; just a few months before it won the bid, the temperature reached 50.4 degrees Celsius. No wonder it was decided to move the tournament to November-December, a move which demonstrated FIFA's willingness to take the World Cup around the world, no matter what the difficulties might be. It also gave the hosts extra time to get the infrastructure finished.
Moreover, Qatar is accused of widespread abuses of labour rights and subjecting low-income migrant workers to inhumane living and dangerous working conditions. The reality is that workers' rights need to be reformed across the region, not only in Qatar. Several labour laws in the country have been amended, and violations incur severe penalties. Despite its stated commitment, though, the government in Doha failed to implement and enforce reforms, enabling abusive practices to resurface, and the worst elements of the kafala (sponsorship-based) employment system to continue, for example.
Qatar is also accused of bribery, even though it insists that it won the bid to host the World Cup "fair and square" and followed the rules and regulations. The British media and some regional countries have been in the forefront in peddling these accusations. The British media has published a number of articles accusing Qatar of misconduct and irregularities in its bid. Since winning the bid, British newspapers the Guardian, the Times, the Daily Express, the Sun, the Daily Mail, the Telegraph and Metro UK have mentioned Qatar approximately 1,735 times in their headlines. Forty per cent of the articles about Qatar have been about the World Cup. Significantly, none of these publications is known to be particularly favourable towards Muslims and the Muslim world.
According to a published analysis, the top five most common topics in all of the articles about Qatar are workers' and human rights, the 2017 Gulf Crisis, bribery and aviation. Notwithstanding Qatar's reassurances and justifications, some in Europe remain sceptical and have gone so far as to call for a boycott of the tournament.
"The reasons given for boycotting the World Cup do not add up," said Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohamed Bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani. "There is a lot of hypocrisy in these attacks, which ignore all that we have achieved."
There have also been concerns about the applications of Qatar's strict laws, culture and traditions during the tournament. It has insisted that it remains committed to welcoming and protecting all fans who will be visiting the country to watch the matches. Similarly, the government "expects those who will be visiting to be sensitive of the country's certain cultures and norms." According to Yasir Al-Jamal, the Deputy General Secretary of Qatar's 2022 Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, "Everyone has their beliefs and cultures. We welcome and respect that. All we ask is that other people do the same for us."
There are a few things to point out in support of Qatar. First and foremost is that it won the bid to host the tournament within the "normal practices and culture of FIFA"; it followed the rules of engagement prevalent in that environment. Furthermore, the Middle East, like Africa, has a huge following and support for football. The decision to take the tournament to the region was the right one. Qatar made resources available to realise that ambition. The authorities in Doha said from the beginning that, "This World Cup is for the Arab World, not only for Qatar." To that end, for example, passenger aircraft will for the first time fly between Israel's Ben Gurion Airport to take supporters to the World Cup, including not only Israelis but also Palestinians. This is despite Israel and Qatar having no diplomatic relations.
Finally, Qataris are generally very conservative people. As such, the government has had to tread very careful as it continues to push the boundaries, especially the younger royals who are driving the modernisation campaign in Qatar. It can be argued that the enemies of Qatar both within and beyond the country would have found fuel for their dissatisfaction of the ruling family if certain concessions had been made, including the public sale and consumption of alcohol. The last minute ban of alcohol sales within stadiums was critical, otherwise it would have invited a huge backlash against the royal family. As Qatar prepares to make a bid to host a future Olympic Games, such decisions have to be made with due consideration for the readiness not only of the infrastructure, but also the country's citizens.