FIFA Qatar 2022: Tournament kicks off with politics and human rights at the fore

FIFA Qatar 2022: Tournament kicks off with politics and human rights at the fore
Qatar World Cup opening ceremony/ AFP

The activities of the World Cup kicked off on Sunday, November 20, amid a global uproar, during which politics and human rights came to the fore.

Although this football event is the most famous in the world and always has great momentum, this tournament has been the subject of questions and criticism since March 2009. Since the moment FIFA announced on that date that Qatar was given the right to host the 2022 World Cup, there has been uproar on multiple levels.

All eyes turned to the Qatari capital, Doha, and its hosting of such a world championship, especially since it is a country that derives much of its legislation from Islamic law.

Therefore, the constant question was how Doha would deal with the many masses, specifically the western ones, with their customs and radical differences with those in Doha.

Political arena

Many leaders of countries attended the opening ceremony, particularly those who are at odds politically.

In the foreground of the scene, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi appeared shaking hands with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and in the background, Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad smiling. This handshake was called the “World Cup handshake”, and it was the first direct meeting of its kind between the two heads of state since Sisi assumed the presidency of Egypt in 2014, following a long estrangement and then a rapprochement that began to loom on the horizon in the past few months.

Fady Hanna, professor of political science at Cairo University, told Jusoor Post, “The World Cup is an occasion for what can be called sports diplomacy. It seems that there was clear planning for the different political leaderships to meet with each other as an opportunity to dissolve differences and resolve outstanding issues.”

On the other hand, the Iranian national team players took advantage of their first match with England to announce their opposition to the ruling regime in Tehran and their solidarity with the Iranian protesters in light of the ongoing protests in their country.

The team refrained from performing their country's national anthem, and the Iranian fans met them with applause and carried banners with the slogan “Women, Life, Freedom” written on them.

Iran has been witnessing protests for nearly two months following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, three days after she was arrested by the morality police for not adhering to the strict dress code imposed by the Iranian authorities.

Gulf connectivity

Qatar's hosting of the World Cup contributed to officially and practically lifting the state of siege from which it had been suffering for years. It has also become part of the consolidation of Gulf relations, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with Doha.

Saudi Arabia has operated many flights to and from Qatar for those who hold “Haya” cards, which are intended for the World Cup fans, to visit the Kingdom for a period of 60 days. This is in line with the new trend of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to open up to the world and encourage domestic tourism, within the framework of implementing Vision 2030, which was previously announced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman years ago.

At the same time, the Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, Mohammed bin Rashid, attended the opening ceremony, in a clear indication of the new openness between the two countries.

Bin Rashid said in a post on Twitter, “Doha will be the capital of world sports for a month from today, may God protect it and grant every success to its people and leadership.”

Dubai hotels and the Emirates in general are crowded with fans who have come to encourage their teams and travel between Doha and Dubai for this purpose.

Mona Al-Jabaly, professor of international relations at the British University in Egypt, told Jusoor Post that Gulf relations are rooted, no matter what events happen, one of which is the Qatari relations with the Gulf states since 1997, after Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa took over the rule of Qatar, succeeding his father, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani.

“The evidence for this is that the tensions that led to the withdrawal of ambassadors from Doha in 2014 and 2017 were ended by the Gulf rulers at the Al-Ula summit,” she added.

Since the historic Gulf Cooperation Council summit held last year in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia, which witnessed the official end to the Gulf dispute, Qatar's relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have improved.

Hanna explained, “We all know that sport, especially football, is one of the soft forces that countries influence and people are affected by, and it is one of the tools of rapprochement in many of its events. The World Cup is an opportunity to build bridges between the countries of the region and promote rapprochement between leaders after the Gulf reconciliation.”

For her part, Al-Jabaly pointed out that “the organization of a Gulf state, specifically Qatar, for the World Cup is an opportunity to attract attention politically, sportively and economically to the Gulf region, to prove that it is the most worthy in organizing a group of issues.”

“Indeed, the World Cup represents an opportunity for the Gulf countries to show cohesion with each other. This was represented by offering to give Qatar everything necessary for the success of this great football event,” she added.

Al-Jabaly believed that “there is keenness to invest in the World Cup so that there will be political meetings at various levels. For example, a meeting took place between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Algerian president, which is considered very important, as well as a meeting between the Egyptian and Turkish presidents. This confirms that there is coordination of these political meetings to melt the ice.”

The professor of international relations said, “The World Cup also represents an opportunity for people to express their rejection of their regimes, as happened with the Iranian national team, which expressed its rejection of its country's policies.”

Human rights issues

Many talked about the requirements of Western fans, including the alcoholic beverages favored, for example, by the England fans, who usually drink it as an authentic ritual inside and outside the stadiums. But today they have to abide by the host country's decision two days before the event, that is, after the fans arrived to follow their teams,to ban alcohol, and FIFA approved it.

As for the issue of the LGBTQ community's presence and their previous intention to raise the rainbow flag that symbolizes them, everyone was waiting for how this matter would be dealt with.

Qatari officials were interested in clarifying their position on this matter. They emphasized that the State of Qatar welcomes all cultures and differences, but the country's law strictly prohibits the promotion of the LGBTQ community.

The captains of 10 European countries, namely England, Wales, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands, announced that they would wear the One Love badge to support the LGBTQ community at the World Cup matches in Qatar.

However, FIFA intervened to resolve the controversy by issuing a statement prohibiting the wearing of these badges and adhering to the traditional badges, which forced European teams to announce that they would not wear the One Love badge due to the threat of awarding yellow cards to those who wear it.

A joint statement issued by seven football associations said they could not place their players “in a position where they could face sporting sanctions.”

The first and second days of the global event saw the Qatari authorities prevent fans wearing signs and clothes symbolizing the LGBTQ community from entering the stadium to watch the matches.

This is what happened with American journalist Grant Wahl, who was detained for about half an hour for wearing a rainbow shirt. He was asked to remove it before he was allowed to enter. After that, he was apologized to by a security official at Al Rayyan Stadium and by FIFA, according to The Guardian.

Another issue that has been raised since 2010 is human rights groups' criticism of Qatar's treatment of foreign workers who were involved in the preparations for the tournament. This issue is likely to remain in the spotlight during the finals, according to the BBC.

In 2016, Amnesty International accused Qatari companies of using a forced labor system.

The organization said that “many workers live in squalid accommodations, are forced to pay huge recruitment fees, have their wages withheld and their passports confiscated.”

But since 2017, the Qatari government has taken a set of measures to protect foreign workers from working in extreme heat, limit their working hours, and improve life conditions in labor camps, according to the BBC.

The reforms also included wage protection to ensure that employers pay their workers on time.

Qatar also abolished the so-called “sponsorship” system, whereby these companies sponsor foreign workers coming to the country and then prevent them from leaving their jobs.