Thousands of migrant labourers have been holding strikes in Qatar this month as they protest poor working conditions on World Cup 2022 construction sites. They claim they are living in prison-like conditions, working in hazardous environments and unable to leave as their pay has been withheld. The Nepalese government recently reported that 1,426 of its nationals have died building Qatar’s shiny new stadiums, either in workplace accidents or succumbing to heat-related illnesses.
Temperatures exceed 45 degrees at this time of year and the workers have grown desperate, so they are striking out of desperation.
“We have not been paid for four months and we have not taken any leave since 2013,” one protester says. “The water we are given is not fit for human consumption.” Nepal and the Philippines have joined forces to condemn Qatar for its treatment of migrant workers, and the entire project has turned into a human rights catastrophe.
It also illustrates just how unsuitable this small desert nation is for hosting the World Cup. It has no footballing culture, heritage or pedigree, while its team is unheralded and a massive underdog in any football spreads, so most fans were shocked to learn that it was chosen to host the tournament. The selection process is mired in controversy and former UEFA president Michel Platini was recently detained for questioning by French police over the decision to award the World Cup to Qatar. Claims of corruption and bribery abound.
Qatar secretly offered $400 million to FIFA just 21 days before world football’s governing body controversially decided that the 2022 World Cup would be held in the tiny desert country, according to a Sunday Times investigation.
Yet Qatar has always denied any wrongdoing. It says it won the bidding process fair and square, by a comfortable margin in a 14-8 vote. It claims it is deeply committed to the health, safety, and prosperity of expatriate workers. It pledged to increase the minimum wage for construction workers at the stadiums from 750 Qatari Riyal a month ($206) to 900 Riyal ($247), and it denies that any workers involved in World Cup projects have been striking.
It is facing an economic and diplomatic embargo from four neighbours – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates – who have accused the gas-rich nation of supporting terrorism. It strongly denies that claim too, and it says that embargo has not affected construction on stadia and infrastructure for the upcoming World Cup. It is simply ploughing ahead with the project.
To swerve the sweltering summer conditions in Qatar, the 2022 World Cup has been moved from its traditional calendar slot to winter for the first time. This is extremely controversial, because it will totally disrupt the European season, where almost all of the best players in the world ply their trade. But it would simply be too hot for players, fans and staff to cope in the summer.
It will still be hot when the tournament is held, so it is constructing seven air-conditioned stadiums to showcase the action. The entire project, including a new metro system and the general infrastructure required to host the most popular sporting event in the world is costing Qatar – the world’s richest country per capita due to its pioneering exploitation of natural gas – north of $200 billion.
If it can withstand a barrage of criticism from human rights activists, continue to fight off claims of corruption and circumnavigate the economic embargo, Qatar should be ready to host the World Cup in 2022. The first purpose build stadium, the 40,000-seater, $575 million Al Janoub, was unveiled in March. Visitors have described it as “world-class”, blessed with futuristic design from the late British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid and boasting air cooling systems and a fully retractable roof. It expects to complete construction of all the new stadiums by 2020, or early 2021 at the latest.
The Qatari government is rich enough to put on a World Cup from scratch, and FIFA’s pockets are deep enough to sign up legendary former players Xavi, Samuel Eto’o and Cafu as ambassadors for the tournament. It is his job to be effusive, but Eto’o really lavished praise on the project. “It’s going to be the best World Cup in the world,” he said. “There’s going to be stadiums like no one has ever seen before. We’re going to discover a country that’s going to show soccer in a way we’ve never seen before.”
Eto’o was impressed by the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but he believes Qatar will put on an even better show. “During my time on the ground in Qatar witnessing preparations, I can say that fans will enjoy stadiums that are unparalleled in their beauty and modern technology,” he said. “I’m sure everyone will be blown away by the facilities, infrastructure and the pitches given that the world’s biggest tournament will be played in the Middle East for the first time in history.”
The controversy will not go away. Gay rights activists urge a boycott. Fans are worried that will not be able to buy booze after Qatar hiked the price of alcohol up 100% this year. Some estimate the death toll will rise to 4,000 before the construction has been completed. Yet the Qataris have been totally steadfast in their commitment to build these stadiums and deliver this World Cup. “Work is progressing very well,” says Hassan al-Thawadi, and preparations within the country are likely to continue relatively untroubled over the next few years.