Nation-Building, Greenwashing And Death: FIFA And Qatar's Problematic World Cup
At 110 pages long and split into five sections, FIFA’s World Cup Qatar 2022 Sustainability Strategy sums up the contradictions, omissions and paradoxes that define the latest edition of global soccer’s biggest jamboree, which starts on Sunday in the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar.
The document has a section on human rights and social progress that glosses over the conditions of the migrant workers who have built new stadiums and cities from scratch.
Its section on environmental sustainability claims the tournament will be carbon neutral, an assertion that has been called greenwashing by a carbon reduction consultancy. And a section on economic development argues infrastructure creation will catalyse growth without offering evidence to back that up.
In bidding for and hosting the World Cup, Qatar has consistently been accused of sportswashing, or using the tournament to launder its reputation on the global stage.
For Qatar, though, the World Cup has been a process of nation-building — a way of turbocharging economic development, doubling its population and reducing dependency on natural gas reserves that are lucrative, but won’t last forever.
Much of the talk about the tournament has centred around commercial real estate and construction: of stadiums and surrounding new cities of questionable long-term use, built by workers in conditions that have angered global human rights groups.
“Sportswashing is not a term I’m comfortable with,” Skema Business School Professor of Sport and Geopolitical Economy Simon Chadwick told Bisnow. “It takes everything Qatar is trying to do and our understanding of Qatar and reduces it to one thing. The intention was always for the World Cup to, in part, be a policy instrument to enable continued national development.”
In the early 2000s, Qatar published the Qatar National Vision 2030 economic plan outlining goals of growing quickly but smoothly and moving toward a balanced, knowledge-based economy less reliant on revenues from natural gas.
Hosting tournaments like the World Cup, or the 2019 World Athletics Championships was seen as a way of supercharging this development, particularly through infrastructure growth.
Qatar is a rich country, with one of the highest rates of gross domestic product per capita in the world. But it is small and it needs to diversify.
“The FIFA World Cup has been a catalyst in achieving the vision of the country and its different objectives and goals,” Qatar University Assistant Professor in Sport Management Wadih Ishac said. “History shows that hosting these mega sports events can be that catalyst. If you look at Sydney in 2000 [which hosted the Olympics] or South Africa in 2010 [which hosted the World Cup], you can see that these tournaments can be beneficial in terms of improving infrastructure.”
Given it is a much smaller country geographically and population-wise than most that host a major sports event, the effect has been transformative for Qatar. After winning the right to host the World Cup in 2010, it built a motorway network for the first time, as well as an extensive public transport network and hundreds of millions of square feet in new office blocks, shopping malls and apartments.
Around the Lusail stadium, which will host the final of the tournament on 18 December, an entire new suburb of the capital Doha has been built.
“I’ve been going to Qatar for 12 years, I’ve been there 40-50 times, and the first time I went it was just desert,” Chadwick said. “And the last time it definitely wasn’t.”
Both Chadwick and Ishac agree that this development would have happened anyway, but the World Cup has fast-forwarded its creation. Yet its existence alone isn’t a mark of a successful economic legacy, especially when viewed against one of the key goals of Qatar’s 2030 plan.
Chadwick pointed out that part of the 2030 national vision was increasing the country’s population of both native-born Qataris and foreign migrant workers, with an unofficial target in place of 7 million people.
When the vision was outlined in the early 2000s, Qatar’s population was around 3 million, and it has stayed stubbornly around that figure ever since.
The domestic birth rate has been dropping for the past 60 years and the country’s goal of attracting foreign companies and workers in high-value jobs has not thus far succeeded. That's due to what Chadwick describes as the country “pushing forward and then pulling back," for instance, cutting back on public spending when natural gas prices dropped over the last decade.
Because of this, the country has built a lot of infrastructure it does not necessarily need after the World Cup is finished, all constructed either directly through the state or through state-owned entities.
Commercial property is a perfect example. Qatar’s total office supply has risen by about a third in the space of just eight years, according to data from Cushman & Wakefield, rising to more than 50M SF. The Lusail district alone has seen almost 10M SF of new supply built.
But demand has not come close to keeping up with supply, with the overseas companies the stock was designed to attract not arriving and domestic demand essentially static. As a result, Qatari office rents have halved since 2014, Cushman data showed.
“The population explosion that Qatar was hoping for was going to be directed towards Lusail, but there’s no one there,” Chadwick said.
An unavoidable issue when talking about economic and infrastructure development for the Qatar World Cup is that its stadiums, roads, buildings and other improvements have been built using migrant labour under a workers' rights system that has been consistently condemned by international human rights organisations.
FIFA was aware of the "kafala" sponsorship system when it awarded the World Cup to Qatar in 2012, but made only a passing reference to workers' rights in its document outlining the pros and cons of the bid, The Athletic reported.
Under this system, the state gives local individuals or companies sponsorship permits to employ foreign labourers, per the Council for Foreign Relations. The sponsor covers travel expenses and provides housing, often in dorm-like accommodations or, in the case of domestic workers, the sponsor’s home. Rather than hiring an individual directly, sponsors sometimes use private recruitment agencies in the countries of origin to find workers and facilitate their entry to the host country.
The system is seen as being ripe for abuse, with workers often living in cramped conditions, having to pay large fees to unscrupulous recruiters in their home countries, then not being given the salary they have been promised when they arrive in Qatar. The work undertaken is often dangerous and critics say workers aren't given adequate breaks or safe working conditions.
Because the worker is sponsored by a particular company or individual, it is hard for them to complain or change jobs — by rescinding their sponsorships, that company or individual can remove their right to work in the country, leading them to be sent home.
And while the work may be dangerous or poorly paid, it is still better money than in the worker’s home country. Families rely on the remittance payments sent back home.
“The whole situation had a big impact on me, but also on my family because as a main breadwinner, it is not easy to handle this situation,” one worker, Aisha, told Amnesty International. “Sometimes I feel I do not want to wake up in the morning.”
The Guardian reported in 2021 that 6,500 migrant workers had died in Qatar since the World Cup was awarded. At that time, Human Rights Watch was calling for more transparency and more detailed investigations from the Qatari government into the cause of death of migrant workers.
The government responded that the number of deaths was in line with deaths of migrant workers in other countries — in particular, in the construction sector — without giving detailed statistics.
FIFA and Qatar did not respond to inquiries from Bisnow about the working conditions for migrant workers in the country.
In 2020, Qatar passed two laws to end restrictions on migrant workers leaving the country or changing jobs without their employer’s permission. It has also brought in a minimum wage. But Amnesty reported that while the law had changed, it was not being rigorously enforced, and dangerous working practices, forced labour and unsanitary living conditions continued.
“There has been internal improvement, an evolution in labour laws within the country and reform of the kafala system,” Ishac said. “I believe in human progress and I think that these reforms will continue after the tournament is finished.”
He added that reform needed to come from beyond the Qatari government: from multinational companies from Europe and elsewhere that utilised labour in Qatar through the kafala system and from the countries that were large suppliers of labour to the country.
Chadwick said the country had not been ready for the level of scrutiny it received when it won the World Cup bid.
“They were overwhelmed,” he said. “They had to learn to drive in the fast lane of the motorway. They have instituted labour reforms over the last five years, but would I have wanted to be a migrant construction worker five or 10 years ago, absolutely not.”
In addition to the safety and wellbeing of the people building the Qatar World Cup, the safety and wellbeing of the planet have also been called into question in relation to the tournament.
FIFA and Qatar claim this will be a carbon-neutral World Cup in their sustainability document, with the emissions created by the tournament reduced as much as possible and any remaining emissions offset.
But this assertion has been strongly countered by consultancy Carbon Market Watch.
“Yes, it’s greenwashing,” Carbon Market Watch Global Carbon Markets Lead Gilles Dufrasne told Bisnow.
The rebuttal stems from the way the total carbon emissions for the tournament have been calculated and how they are being offset.
Qatar and FIFA said in sustainability projections the World Cup would produce 3.6 million metric tonnes of carbon when taking into account building stadiums and infrastructure, fans travelling to the country and between games, and other factors.
But Carbon Market Watch said the figure is actually well above 5 million metric tonnes.
When calculating the amount of carbon created by stadium construction, Qatar and FIFA apportioned only a tiny sliver of the carbon emitted to the World Cup, explaining the stadiums would be regularly used in the decades to come. Since the World Cup only lasts two months out of the next 60 years, they said, only 0.002% of the carbon emitted by construction should go on the World Cup’s ledger.
That is “misleading” Dufrasne said, since the stadiums were constructed for the tournament and how much they will be used in future is in doubt, especially in a country with a population of just 3 million people.
In addition, FIFA and Qatar have bought just 200,000 of the 3.6 million carbon credits needed to offset emissions for the tournament. And the emissions they have bought have been of a low quality in that they are payments used to fund carbon reduction projects that likely would have happened anyway, and shouldn’t count toward offsetting targets. That is a common problem in the murky world of carbon offsetting.
FIFA and the Qatar World Cup organising committee have disputed the claim.
Dufrasne said construction is a major part of why the World Cup will not be truly carbon neutral. But that is not to say, as some now argue, major sports tournaments should only be held in countries that have existing infrastructure.
“That would politically be very sensitive,” he said.
What's more, Dufrasne pointed to the next World Cup in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. While those nations have plenty of existing infrastructure, fans and teams will have to travel huge distances between matches.
If tournaments have ambitions to be truly carbon neutral, they have to examine the inherent structure of getting a lot of people to travel a lot in a very short space of time, Dufrasne said.
“We’re trying to raise awareness among fans about the claims that are being made,” he said.