Qatar fails to deliver on World Cup promises

“It’s an opportunity to maybe shine a light on the issues and use our platforms to make change for the better.”

These were the words of England midfielder Jordan Henderson during a press conference in the months preceding the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. His comments were in response to questions about the host nation’s appalling human rights record, particularly in regard to LGBTQ+ people, women and labour migrants, and whether teams should be boycotting the competition in protest.

England manager Gareth Southgate echoed Henderson’s suggestion. “There would be more change if we go and these things are highlighted,” he argued. “There’s an opportunity to use our voices and our platform in a positive way.”

This sentiment was commonly expressed in the build-up to the tournament, as teams justified their participation in what was widely regarded to be an ill-disguised sportswashing attempt. However, a year has gone by and such changes have yet to materialise, with those inside the state continuing to be denied basic rights and freedoms.

Qatari physician and activist Dr Nasser Mohamed tells Index on Censorship that for LGBTQ+ people inside the state the situation has not improved.

“As we were approaching the lead up to the Qatar World Cup, I noticed that the coverage and the public message was so disconnected from the lived reality that I had,” he revealed.

Mohamed publicly came out as gay in 2022, after his anonymous attempts to publicise the struggles of LGBTQ+ people in his home country received little traction, seeking asylum in the United States as a result. He described his initial reaction to Qatar being awarded the World Cup as one of “anger and defeat”. He accused the state of using the tournament to try and launder their international reputation, and attempting to gaslight the world into believing they aren’t abusers, despite “taking everything” from him.

As for the suggestions that the pressure of a global audience would force the state to improve their stance on LGBTQ+ rights, Nasser assured us that this has not been the case. “In terms of things on the ground, I think they have not changed, if anything they are worse,” he said. “Arrests, torture, everything, it’s still happening.”

The activist also condemned his home state’s use of celebrity endorsements to launder their image. “You get people like David Beckham coming in and selling their influence to the authoritative regime, saying things like ‘football has the power to change the world’. Amazing! Do you think it will happen by your magical presence?” he laughed. “You can’t just show up and magically infuse goodness into the world, there needs to be action.”

Mohamed also criticised the role of the media when it came to reporting on such human rights violations, arguing that much of the coverage afforded to LGBTQ+ rights in the region framed the issue as a cultural argument between the Middle East and the West, which he said came at the detriment of actual LGBTQ+ people in the country.

“You get all the thousands of spins on the same factual story. ‘Muslim Dad beats his son’ or ‘Homophobic Qatari is violently attacking his LGBT child’. Then on the Arabic side, ‘white Europeans and Americans are intruding to come and tell Middle Eastern parents how to raise their children’,” he explained.

“Then people get really afraid because now they are worried about Islamophobia, racism, discrimination. In comparison, sometimes it feels like being in the closet and occasionally facing homophobia is a lesser evil.”

The absence of change in Qatar is not down to a lack of effort on the part of persecuted groups. In the autumn 2022 issue of Index, when we looked at the free speech implications of hosting the tournament in Qatar, Qatari activist Abdullah Al-Maliki outlined the many ways the regime punishes – and thereby silences – human rights defenders. He wrote:

“Tamim [bin Hamad Khalifa al-Thani] has planted fear and terror in the hearts and minds of the Qatari people. No one in our country can criticise the actions and words of the corrupt dictator, or those of his terrorist gang.”

Mohamed spoke about his own recent experience. He suggested that external pressure has been placed on platforms and organisations to stifle any allegations of human rights violations in the state, a situation he is no stranger to. He described being “ghosted” by Meta, “shadowbanned” by X (formerly Twitter) and speaking to high-profile politicians at length only for those conversations to go nowhere.

“There’s censorship definitely,” he said. “It’s really hard because Qatar’s money is everywhere. Whenever my voice reached a certain level, I was dropped by the people I was talking to.”

It seems that simply spreading the word is not helping to bring about changes in the region. “I naively thought nothing was happening through lack of knowledge,” Mohamed said, before pausing. “It’s not a lack of knowledge.”

There are similar concerns over the continuing exploitation of migrant workers in Qatar. Despite promises from the state that conditions would improve following global outrage in the build-up to the World Cup, a report published last week by Amnesty International stated that progress towards improving these rights has largely stalled since the tournament ended, while hundreds of thousands of workers who suffered abuses linked to the tournament have still not received justice.

Prior to the tournament, there was hope that the global pressure had successfully pushed Qatar into improving conditions for migrant labourers. Reforms were passed in 2021 in an attempt to reduce the power of sponsors over workers’ mobility and to raise the minimum wage, motions which were largely influenced by the criticisms levelled at the country following their successful World Cup bid. However, Amnesty International’s Head of Economic Social Justice, Steve Cockburn, said on publication of the new report that Qatar had shown a “continued failure to properly enforce or strengthen” these pre-World Cup labour reforms, putting the legacy of the tournament in “serious peril”.

He said in a statement: “From illegal recruitment fees to unpaid wages, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers lost their money, health and even their lives while FIFA and Qatar tried to deflect and deny responsibility. Today, a year on from the tournament too little has been done to right all these wrongs, but the workers who made the 2022 World Cup possible must not be forgotten.”

Human Rights Watch stated earlier this year that the 2021 legislation was not in itself adequate to solve the issues faced by migrant workers, calling claims by Qatari authorities and FIFA that their labour protection systems were adequate to prevent abuse “grossly inaccurate and misleading”. An investigation by the organisation found that some issues being faced by migrant workers in the country in the aftermath of the World Cup include wage theft, being prohibited from transferring jobs, not receiving their entitled compensations and being unable to join a union.

Mohamed believes that the fight for human rights in Qatar should encompass all such groups who find themselves exploited, abused or persecuted, but that more targeted action is required: “Workers rights, women’s rights, you can support all of these causes and I think it can be powerful, and it can be a very helpful thing to do, but it needs intention.”

A year in freedom of expression

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image="120168" img_size="full" add_caption="yes"][vc_column_text]As we all start to think about the forthcoming holidays and the end of the year it’s a good opportunity to reflect on what happened in 2022. For regular readers you’ll know I have at various points over the last year despaired at the sheer volume of news. Too many crises, too many heartbreaking stories, too many people and families destroyed by the actions of tyrants. There has been so much news it is easy to forget the range of issues that have impacted human rights and freedom of expression around the world. So it would be remiss of me, in my last blog of the year, not to remind you of some the key events of 2022 (forgive me, there are many missing). The year started with Abdalla Hamdok resigning as the Prime Minister of Sudan after three years of pro-democracy protests, where dozens were killed. A few days later, a week of government clampdown in Kazakhstan led to the deaths of over 220 people with over 9,000 people arrested. In February we thought the biggest issue for Index would be the attempted sportswashing of the CCP as they hosted the Winter Olympics. Unfortunately that was not to be the most devastating act by a totalitarian regime in 2022. By the end of the month Putin’s government had launched an illegal invasion into Ukraine, causing the largest refugee crisis in Europe since the end of World War Two. Nearly 7,000 civilians have been killed during the war and over 13,000 Ukrainian troops and over 10,000 Russian troops have made the ultimate sacrifice. In response to the war, media freedoms and freedom of expression have been completely curtailed in both Russia and Belarus with thousands detained. Events in Ukraine rightly continued to dominate the news agenda for the rest of the year. But this in turn provided cover for dictators and tyrants around the world to move against their people with limited global outcry. March brought more extremism and death. In Afghanistan an IS suicide bomber killed 63 people at a mosque. April was dominated by events in Ukraine and the impact on food and fuel inflation leading to sporadic protests around the world. In June a suspected IS attack on a church in Nigeria saw at least 40 people killed. In July anti-government protests in Sri Lanka led to the deaths of 10 protesters, with over 600 arrested. In August our friend Sir Salman Rushdie was attacked by an extremist. We are incredibly grateful that he survived and remain in contact with him as his long recovery continues. In September the United Nations published their report about the CCP’s treatment of the Uyghur community in Xinjiang province - declaring that their treatment may constitute crimes against humanity. September also saw clashes on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border resulting in nearly 300 deaths in a three-day period. This was followed within days by similar clashes on the Kyrgyzstan - Tajikistan border with dozens killed. On 16 September Masha Amini was murdered by state forces in Iran for not having her hair covered appropriately. This horrendous act of state terror has led to country wide protests, at least 448 people have been killed in the protests and over 18,000 people have been arrested across 134 cities and towns in Iran. These demonstrations continue today as the Iranian government begins executing protestors. These events are truly some of the most egregious of 2022 and we stand with Amini and all those protesting in her name. In October Xi Jinping was appointed for an unprecedented third term as general secretary of the CCP, consolidating his grip on power. And a couple of weeks later Elon Musk purchased Twitter for $44billion, we still don’t know what the final effect on global free speech will be… At the end of October a terror attack in Mogadishu killed over 100 people. November saw the start of one of the most determined efforts at sportswashing of an appalling human rights record with the beginning of the football World Cup in Qatar. Protests were banned and football players were forbidden from wearing LGBT+ symbols while playing. And that gets me to December - in the last fortnight we have seen 1,700 people flee violence in South Sudan which has already killed 166 people. Chinese diplomats have left the UK after a protester was beaten by Chinese staff at a consulate in Manchester earlier this year. Twitter has banned journalists who have criticised Elon Musk and Jimmy Lai was sentenced to five years in jail in Hong Kong, as he awaits his trial for being a democracy campaigner. And yet there is still a fortnight to go before we close the door on 2022 - I pray that it’s a quiet fortnight for those on the front line. As we approach the end of 2022 my prayers will be with the people of Ukraine as they remain on the front line in the fight for freedom - especially as the temperature plummets. But the women of Iran won’t be too far from my thoughts too. So to you and yours from the Index family, Happy Christmas, Chag Sameach and Happy Holidays and here’s to a better 2023![/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title="You may also wish to read" category_id="41669"][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Who is 2022’s Tyrant of the Year?

At the end of every year, Index on Censorship launches a campaign to focus attention on human rights defenders, dissidents, artists and journalists who have been in the news headlines because their freedom of expression has been suppressed during the past twelve months. As well as this we focus on the authoritarian leaders who have been silencing their opponents.

Last year, we asked for your help in identifying 2021's Tyrant of the Year and you responded in your thousands. The 2021 winner, way ahead of a crowded field, was Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, followed by China’s Xi Jinping and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad .

The polls are now open for the title of 2022 Tyrant of the Year and we are focusing on 12 leaders from around the globe who have done more during the past 12 months than other despots to win this dubious accolade.

Click on those in our rogues' gallery below to find out why the Index on Censorship team believe each one should be named Tyrant of the Year and then click on the form at the bottom of those pages to cast your vote. The closing date is Monday 9 January 2023.





Tyrant of the year 2022: Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Qatar

The atrocious worker conditions and contempt for basic human rights in Qatar have certainly been on our minds over the last year. However, relatively little attention has been paid to the man pulling the strings. 

“Al Thani holds a relatively lower profile than his counterparts in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but his dedication to censorship is no less concerning. From concealing thousands of workers’ deaths due to poor working conditions to arresting both local and international journalists, Al Thani remains committed to curtailing freedom of expression at every level,” says Emma Sandvik Ling, partnerships and fundraising manager at Index on Censorship. 

Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani became emir in Qatar in 2013. Since then, he has demonstrated a commitment to censoring dissident voices. Qatar boasts widespread censorship in the press, academia, and civil society. Blatant cases of censorship are certainly not hard to come by: In 2021, blogger Malcolm Bidali was arrested and spent 28 days in solitary confinement for writing critically about the Qatari royal family. Indigenous groups are excluded from participating in Shura Council elections. In November, two Norwegian journalists were arrested hours before a scheduled interview with Abdullah Ibhais, the former communications director for Qatar’s 2022 World Cup.

Like his regional counterparts, Al Thani has invested in soft power strategies to appease international critics. Index editor-in-chief Jemimah Steinfeld reflected on the 2022 World Cup in Qatar in the autumn edition of the Index on Censorship magazine: “Here’s a nation that prohibits homosexuality, has no free press, forbids protest, restricts free speech. It has stadiums built using migrant labour with little to no workers’ rights. And yet come November these stadiums will open to the world, international dignitaries will be wined and dined and Qatar will revel in the glory associated with hosting a World Cup.” 

Global attention will likely move on to new issues and challenges after the World Cup final on 18 December. Still, Al-Thani’s oppressive regime will remain.