Putting aside the the purported corruption that brought the World Cup to Qatar in 2022 and the concept of a “winter World Cup,” the pervasive and continued human rights abuses in Qatar leave serious questions as to whether the country is ill-prepared to host one of the world’s most important sporting events, now or in 2022.
FIFPro, the global representative organization for professional soccer players, has publicly renewed its efforts to end Zahir Belounis’s nightmare experience in Qatar by directly requesting assistance from FIFA president Sepp Blatter. Belounis, a French midfielder, claims that he has been trapped in the country without financial resources after his current club team, Al-Jaish, repeatedly denied Belounis an exit visa and failed to pay him for almost two years. According to FIFPro, “[w]ithout income for a prolonged period and forced to sell off most of personal possessions, Belounis and his family are said to be living in an apartment with no furniture which they must vacate in a matter of day.”
Belounis allegedly joined Al-Jaish of the Qatar Stars League in 2007, and extended his contract with the club in 2010 until June 15, 2015. Belounis claims, however, that since November 2011, Al-Jaish has not paid Belounis his salary. FIFPro and Belounis contend that Al-Jaish is now preventing Belounis from leaving the country by not granting him an exit permit, which would be required under the kafala sponsorship system in Qatar.
The kafala sponsorship system is a widespread set of regulations employed in portions of the Middle East and North Africa which, according to Human Rights Watch, “excludes domestic workers from the protection of [the countries’] labor laws . . . and subjects them to restrictive immigration rules, granting inordinate power and control to their employers.” The kafala sponsorship system applies with equal wait to Qatar football clubs’ employment of non-Qatari footballers and requires that foreign players obtain exit permits from their clubs before the players are permitted to the leave the country. As a result, clubs retain substantial leverage in negotiations with discontented players and players are therefore frequently at a disadvantage when they attempt to end their relationships with Qatari clubs.
The Qatari FA has hit back strongly at Belounis’s allegations, claiming that Belounis has been paid his salary and is not on the brink of homelessness. Rather, the Qatari FA has proclaimed that “[u]nless [Belounis] has done something wrong and has no liability towards anybody, he can get an exit permit.”
Assuming, however, the veracity of the Qatari FA’s statement, the statement does not quell concerns about the multiple alleged human rights abuses in Qatar, including similar allegations by another footballer and the recent, damning allegations of abuses of other migrant workers in the country (some of whom may work to build the stadiums that will be used in the World Cup).
Of all of the talking points offered by opponents of the Qatar 2022 World Cup, the allegation of continued human rights abuses is of the most concern. Sure, there are the claims of bribery by Qatari individuals of FIFA executive committee members in the host-selection process, the hotly debated necessity of a winter World Cup in light of the Qatari summer climate, and the general disdain for granting the right to hold one of the world’s most watched and anticipated sporting spectacles in a country that lacks the history, infrastructure, stadiums, or fans to support the event. Those points are all valid, but perhaps the most persuasive argument against Qatar’s hosting the 2022 World Cup is that a country that has repeatedly and defiantly denied the most basic of human rights to its migrant workers—not to mention its own citizens—should not serve as the global stage of the world’s most important soccer tournament.
Public pressure and scathing editorials will do little to change the engrained restrictions on political, economic, and social freedoms in a country like Qatar. FIFA, however, need not dignify Qatar’s inability to promote basic human rights by awarding to and then continuing to prepare for a World Cup in that country. It is time for the World Cup sponsors, including Budweiser, Castrol, Continental Tires, Johnson & Johnson and McDonald’s, to begin applying the pressure. When it comes to FIFA, it seems indisputable that money talks, and when the money finally speaks up, FIFA will listen.