Qatar’s World Cup sportswashing is democracies’ own-goal?


The FIFA World Cup from November 20 to December 18, 2022, will be played following years of serious migrant labor and human rights abuses in Qatar, Human Rights Watch said today, publishing a “Reporters’ Guide” to support journalists covering the Qatar World Cup.

The 42-page guide, “Qatar: FIFA World Cup 2022 – Human Rights Guide for Reporters,” summarizes Human Rights Watch’s concerns associated with Qatar’s preparations for and hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup and outlines broader problems with protecting human rights in the country.

FIFA’s decision to award the 2022 World Cup to the nation of Qatar stunned many who believed a Gulf city-state was incapable of hosting a global mega event. Their reactions underscore the wide-ranging assumptions analysts hold about what it means to be small, yet still exercise influence, in international affairs. A closer look at Qatar’s case reveals how rising authoritarianism and deepening internationalization are reshaping world politics in ways favorable to states of diminutive stature, says analyst Sarath Ganji.

Qatar’s vast investments, which span the value chain of sports, illustrate the ways in which states, especially authoritarian ones, are leveraging cross-border connections to advance their objectives— often to the detriment of their democratic, and even autocratic, counterparts. Qatar’s outsize influence offers policymakers a primer on the exercise of sharp power—and sports fans, a lesson in the practice of sportswashing, he writes for the Journal of International Affairs.

Last year, the Guardian revealed that about 6,500 workers from South Asia had died since Qatar was awarded the World Cup, the Post adds. But these deaths marked a blanket figure for all laborers and were not tied to World Cup projects. Qatari authorities have suggested that the worker deaths figure specific to the construction sites was about 38 people — though Amnesty International has called out Qatar’s failure to investigate most workers’ underlying cause of death.

So what should open societies do to guard themselves against the disruptive practices of autocratic up-and-comers? asks Ganji, a former Penn Kemble fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). There are two lessons for observers of global autocracy, especially research analysts, sports administrators, and national policymakers, he writes for the SAIS Review of International Affairs:

  • The first is to use internationalization to evaluate the risks associated with particular sectors. Internationalization, as noted earlier, frames the opportunity environment in which autocrats exert global influence: sectors with weak governance structures and fragile financial ecosystems are more vulnerable to autocratic activity. Economic anxiety heightens these vulnerabilities; where cash-strapped democracies retreat, resource-rich autocracies advance. ….Similarly, national firms—including teams and leagues—can use internationalization as a ruler to measure the reputational, legal, and strategic risks associated with entering particular sectors or embracing particular autocrats.
  • Despite these risks, actors in open societies will continue to do business with autocrats.
    Therefore, a second lesson is to use internationalization to assess what leverage democratic actors actually hold vis-à-vis their autocratic counterparts. “Leverage” is frequently invoked or implied as justification for democrats to engage—and even extend opportunities to—autocrats. For over a decade, Qatar and its democratic boosters have cited the transformative potential of the World Cup as reason enough to downplay widespread reports of forced labor, human trafficking, and indefinite detention linked to the country’s construction and hospitality sectors. This line of argument is premised on exposure—that bumping elbows with liberal actors will force illiberal ones to change course.

Qatar’s sports empire alternatively shows that, as much as internationalization increases democrats’ chances to influence closed societies, it also multiplies autocrats’ opportunities to disrupt open ones, Ganji concludes. National firms and policymakers would do well to remember this—or else risk alienating democratic constituencies loathe to see their pastime reeling from an own-goal. RTWT


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