Dark clouds hung over the 2022 World Cup in Qatar almost from day one.
Not only were there concerns about holding the sports contest in a sweltering desert, allegations of corruption around Qatar’s bid soon began to circulate.
FIFA launched a two-year investigation into these claims, finding no significant concerns. But a taint remained for some.
Soon there were further allegations that migrant workers brought in to build the infrastructure needed for the cup were being abused and exploited. Qatari authorities deny this.
But what do we actually know about Qatar? Here is a general overview of the country.
Qatar is a coastal country in the Middle East, bordering Saudi Arabia.
It has a small population of 2.6 million (80% of whom live in the capital, Doha).
“Qatar is kind of a unique place,” says Pete Pattisson, a journalist, who has investigated the treatment of low-wage workers in the country.
Qataris make up around 12% of the population. Like Saudi Arabia, Wahabism is the dominant variant of Islam, generally considered more fundamental and conservative.
Nearly 90% of the population are immigrants mostly from South Asia, but also East Africa.
A majority of these migrant workers are single men who work in sectors like construction, hospitality and security, though women also migrate for housekeeping and childcare jobs.
“Qatar is a very hierarchical, stratified society,” Pattisson told Euronews. “People from South Asia and East Africa are way down at the bottom. They essentially live parallel lives to everyone else in Qatar, especially the white what we call ex-pats, who in reality are migrant workers.”
A highly critical 2020 UN documented “serious concerns of structural racism and discrimination against non-nationals”, finding that “a defacto caste system” exists in the country.
Qatar is a monarchy, with the emir (or King) largely calling the shots.
Before gaining independence in 1971, the tiny gulf state was a protectorate of Britain, with London controlling their foreign affairs and providing security.
Unlike in other former colonies, Allen James Fromherz, who wrote ‘Qatar: Rise to Power and Influence’, claims “there was not any real push [by Qatar’s leaders] for the British to leave …[who] appreciated their military protection”.
Large numbers of protests by the public against the British and the ruling family took place before independence.
Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani personally appoints ministers – usually family members – and one-third of the Shura Council, a law-making council, though the others are elected.
Although a lot of consulting goes on behind closed doors, power is largely in the hands of the Emir, who ultimately controls political decisions, law-making and the judiciary.
Political parties are banned.
“The problem [in Qatar],” says Rothna Begum, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, “is that their laws limit freedom of expression, association and assembling … making it really difficult for anyone who wants to do work on women’s rights or anything like that.”
This leaves politics to play out on Twitter, where progressive voices, such as the LGBTQ+ community or women’s rights are subjected to online abuse and death threats, she says.
Freedom House, an NGO monitoring political rights and civil liberties, ranks Qatar as “not free”.
Qatar is the third richest country in the world, measured by GDP per capita.
Much of this is due to its vast oil and gas reserves, which are also the third largest in the world.
A large exporter of Liquified Natural Gas, Fromherz says fallout from the Ukraine war has strengthened Qatar’s economic hand by causing energy prices to spike.
“Along with the United States, Qatar is one of the major suppliers and alternatives to Russia,” he told Euronews. “It is in the vital strategic interests now of Europe, which needs to make sure that petrol gas keeps flowing.”
Russia has largely cut off gas supplies to Europe in retaliation to sanctions imposed on it following its invasion of Ukraine. European countries are scrambling to find new energy supplies, ahead of what could be a gruelling winter.
But Qatar doesn’t just have economic muscle.
Flush with petro-dollars, it established itself as a world media hub, creating Al Jazeera in 1996.
“Qatar has enormous amounts of soft power,” says Fromherz. “More than any other nation in the whole region.”
In contrast to “hard power”, which involves using force to get your way, “soft power” is the ability to influence others through culture and values.
Hosting the World Cup is part of this appeal.
“Qatar is trying to show itself off to the world as a serious international player,” says Begum. “It’s a big deal.”
This year Qatar will become the first country in the entire Middle East and North Africa region to host the World Cup.
Why is the World Cup so controversial?
But this global spotlight is not all positive.
Some 30,000 workers were brought into Qatar to build the stadiums and infrastructure needed for the World Cup, according to Pattisson.
He says the situation for the millions of migrants in Qatar, who have filled its massive infrastructure development over the last two decades, was already dire.
“The World Cup made things worse only to the extent that it meant that more people were vulnerable to abuse”.
Slave wages, dangerous working conditions, forced labour, passport confiscations, alongside large numbers of unexplained – and uninvestigated – deaths have all been extensively documented by human rights organisations and journalists in Qatar, which Pattisson called the “human tragedy” behind the cup.
Qatar rejects these allegations, with emir Al Thani saying in October that his country has faced an “unprecedented campaign” of criticism leading up to the contest.
Underpinning all this, says Pattisson, is Qatar’s Kafala system, a form of sponsorship – backed up by the law – forbidding workers from changing jobs without their employer’s permission.
“If you can’t change the job, then there’s no incentive for the employer to take care of you,” he said. “You have a controlled workforce.”
Until recently there was no minimum wage in Qatar. Critics claim the new legal minimum of 1 per hour does not go far
In response to these claims, Qatari authorities abolished the Kafala system and introduced a minimum wage (equivalent to £1 per hour), though critics say the rules are not enforced.
“Exploitation is hard-baked into the system,” said Pattison.
The treatment of the LGBTQ+ community also causes concern in Qatar.
A report by Human Rights Watch, published in October, found that the country’s security forces have arbitrarily arrested lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, subjecting them to ill-treatment in detention.
“The LGBTQ+ community are forced to live private lives,” says Begum. “They have to do everything in secret and hope that they don’t get caught.”
Like the conditions faced by migrant labourers, the plight of Qatar’s LGBTQ+ community has also come under the spotlight.
But this focus has had the opposite effect says Begum, claiming anti-gender or anti-LGBT sentiment has actually strengthened.
“In some odd way, we now have a social backlash of like LGBT people and issues being as Western,” she said. “People are pushing back and coming out with all sorts of terribly derogatory and homophobic things online.”
Last year Qatari authorities seized rainbow-coloured toys, deeming them “un-Islamic”.
FIFA and Qatar continue to face scrutiny over the treatment of the LGBTQ+ community, foreign workers, as well as women.
“There’s a PR battle going on at the moment with the Qataris and FIFA saying it’s all good now. But, frankly speaking, most human rights groups and journalists who actually go on the ground have a very different story to tell,” added Pattison.