Qatar: The Most Controversial World Cup Host Ever?


Kai Pfaffenbach

(Photo By: Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters)

Paul Siebert


As the 2022 FIFA World Cup is drawing closer, let’s take another look at its host Qatar–a country only twice the size of Delaware that is located in the Persian Gulf. Since it won the bid for the Soccer World Cup in 2010, the country has been involved in enormous amounts of controversy, including accusations of bribery, corruption, and the practice of modern slavery. How much of that is actually true and whether Qatar is a country suitable to host a FIFA World Cup will be discussed in this article.


To understand what Qatar is like, you need to know that its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita is one of the highest in the world, and it has been a monarchy ever since it was founded in 1850. Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani is the current emir and also Qatar’s head of state. He rules over Qatar’s 2.8 million inhabitants, only 12% of which are actual Qataris; the rest are migrant workers from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Kenya, and the Philippines. These migrants make up about 95% of Qatar’s workforce in the sectors of construction, service, and domestic work.

How and why was Qatar voted as host nation?

The vote on the FIFA World Cup 2022 was held in 2010 and there was tough competition with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the United States, and Qatar contesting for the honor of hosting the tournament. After Qatar crushed the competition and won the vote, people asked how that was possible and Qatar was accused of bribing FIFA officials. Since then, a lot of evidence that suggests that Qatar did indeed bribe FIFA executives has been gathered.

In 2010, a few months before the FIFA officials voted on the host countries of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) held its general meeting in Libya. Since they had just held the World Cup in South Africa, they were stripped for cash. Qatar came in and sponsored the meeting; and they had good reason to do so. They used the opportunity to present their bid for the World Cup to African members of FIFA’s executive committee. Of course, Qatar didn’t let any of its competitors present their bids at the meeting. These people would vote on the location of the future World Cups a few months after that. It is likely, though not proven, that certain members of the executive committee, who were at that meeting, came through for Qatar in the final vote. On top of that, a whistleblower by the name of Phaedra Almajid  accused Qatar of offering several African FIFA officials $1.5 million each if they voted for Qatar. She later stated that she had merely tried to get revenge on the Qatar bidding team because they had relieved her of her job, though. She also added that she wasn’t pressured into admitting that she had only tried to get her revenge. Whether that was actually the truth, we will probably never know. 

Additionally, that isn’t the only rumor floating about. Another high-ranked FIFA official suspected of corruption is Mohammed Bin Hamman, a former president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) which is the confederation that Qatar is part of. As chance would have it, Bin Hamman is also a Qatari. In 2010, before the FIFA executives voted on the host nations of the future World Cups, Bin Hamman said he would not run for FIFA president in the following year after many insiders had suspected he would. He said he “will not run against Sepp Blatter” and he “will be backing him to remain in office for a new mandate.” He also added that Sepp Blatter is his “very good friend.” Sepp Blatter was the FIFA president at the time and his relationship with Bin Hamman, who admitted that he had fallen out with Blatter over issues in the executive committee, wasn’t actually as great as these statements might suggest. Of course, it could just be weird timing that Bin Hamman suddenly supported Blatter’s run for president but it does seem a bit suspicious that the underdog Qatar wiped away the competition just three months later. It is possible that Sepp Blatter used his power to convince a few people that Qatar would be a good option for the 2022 World Cup. 

Bin Hamman was banned from soccer for life by the FIFA ethics committee only a year after that. He appealed the decision in 2012 and the ban was actually annulled due to lack of sufficient evidence. However, just 5 months later, FIFA handed him a second ban for life after “conflicts of interest” were identified in his role as president of the AFC. The Sunday Times also published an exposé about him that included leaked documents which proved that Bin Hamman had paid members of other nations’ soccer associations prior to the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids. Sepp Blatter, the man who might have convinced members of FIFA’s executive committee to vote for Qatar, also stepped down as FIFA president in 2015 after he had just been re-elected for a fourth time. Around that time, it was rumored that he would soon be under investigation by the United States and Sweden on charges of fraud and corruption. So, while we don’t have any specific evidence concerning Sepp Blatter’s wrongdoing, it does seem like these two characters were involved in some shady business practices.

On top of that, the Qatari government funded news outlet Al-Jazeera has been accused of offering FIFA $100 million if Qatar won the bid for the World Cup. According to Bonita Mersiades, the whistleblower who first brought this up, FIFA executives were worrying that Qatar’s nomination would lead to a financial shortfall in 2022. Al-Jazeera called the payments “production contributions” and “standard market practice [which is] often imposed upon broadcasters by sports federations and sports rights holders.” But that is not all, according to the Sunday Times, Al-Jazeera offered FIFA another $400 million for broadcasting rights, which wouldn’t have been a problem if they hadn’t paid that money 21 days before Qatar even won the vote. Allegedly, Qatar’s government offered FIFA another $400 million three years after the initial offer. FIFA refused to comment on these allegations but a spokesman for beIN (Al-Jazeera’s new parent company) did react to the requests by saying that beIN would not respond to “unsubstantiated or wildly speculative allegations.” If all of these payments really did go through, FIFA would have received $900 million from the Qatari government and Al-Jazeera.

Finally, FIFA’s secretary general admitted that it is easier to work with countries that have a “strong head of state.” Specifically, he said:  “I will say something which is crazy, but less democracy is sometimes better for organizing a World Cup. When you have a very strong head of state who can decide, as maybe [Russian President Vladimir] Putin can do in 2018 […] that is easier for us organizers than a federal country such as Germany, where you have to negotiate at different levels.” 

So, Qatar was most likely voted as host nation for the 2022 FIFA Soccer World Cup because it is incredibly rich, willing to “help” FIFA finance the tournament, and because it is a monarchy which makes negotiations easier and the deal more financially lucrative for FIFA.

To end this section and to give you an example of how corrupt FIFA actually is, two members of the FIFA executive committee were suspended ahead of the 2010 votes because they were filmed offering votes for cash. Not only that but the US Justice Department indicted another 14 FIFA officials, including nine current and former FIFA executives, one of them being the vice president, on charges of bribery and corruption in the years following the votes. 

Why did Qatar want to host the World Cup?

Danyel Reiche is a specialist in sports policy and politics who leads the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 research initiative at the Georgetown University Center for International and Regional Studies. According to him, Qatar’s elite mainly care about foreign policy objectives such as reputation and branding. Qatar wants to become the Singapore of the Middle East, and in turn beat, its increasingly popular neighbor Dubai in doing so. To do that, it needs to build up several new branches to support its economy even when its oil resources are used up. One of the branches Qatar seems to be focusing on is tourism. To attract possible tourists, it is trying to present itself as a country that is worth visiting and Qatar’s elite seems to think that this is achievable by hosting a World Cup. 

While the preparations of the World Cup have brought horrible consequences to many people, Reiche sees how it could possibly be a stepping stone toward improvement for Qatar. He says the Qatari elite have realized that it will have to address the human rights issue if it wants to earn itself a good reputation in the western world. According to Reiche, Qatar wouldn’t have established a minimum wage at all if it hadn’t been for the West pressuring it. But does that really mean the World Cup will have a positive effect on Qatar? After all, the Qatari elite don’t really believe in these reforms and they are also not enforced properly. So, the negative effects of the World Cup being held in Qatar shouldn’t be glossed over only because Qatar is taking some steps in the right direction after it was pressured by the West. 

Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist thinks Qatar’s reason to host the World Cup is vanity. According to him, the World Cup will maybe directly bring $4 or $5 billion into the country, but Qatar has already spent more than $300 billion on preparations. So, from a financial and short-term point of view, Qatar holding the World Cup is actually ridiculous. However, Qatar has a ridiculous amount of money and wants to develop new industries. Not only that, but they also want to populate the country; after all, nearly 90% of their 2.8 million inhabitants are immigrants who don’t live there permanently. So, Reiche and Zimbalist could probably agree on this: It makes sense for Qatar to host the World Cup because anything that draws attention to them and puts them on the map is beneficial for them since they want to make Qatar seem like a place that people would potentially like to live in.

Qatar’s connection with soccer

Soccer only came to Qatar in the late 1940s and the first stadium (Doha stadium) was finished in 1962. When Qatar was voted as a host nation in 2010, it didn’t have any real soccer legacy; 7 of its 8 stadiums still had to be built, and four of those stadiums were planned to be built in the same city (one even is planned in a city that didn’t even exist yet). On top of that, Qatar was the only host nation to have never qualified for a World Cup before. 

For the final vote in 2010, Qatar had to face the United States, a country that had successfully hosted the World Cup in 1994 and was perfectly prepared to host the World Cup in 2022 since it already had stadiums all around the country. Qatar, of course, won this vote. Deserved or not, I’ll leave for you to decide but since then, Qatar has started to make a name for itself in global soccer. In 2019, it even won the Asian Cup for the first time and beat nations like Iraq, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Japan on its way to the win. If somebody would have predicted that in 2010, when Qatar won the bid for the World Cup, people would have simply laughed. It seemed impossible. Qatar was ranked 82nd of all countries in the world at that point. But only four years later, in 2014, they were ranked 40th, beating 8 of the 32  participants of the 2014 World Cup. How did they do it? 

Well, they recruited dual nationals for their team. Five of Qatar’s 23 players were not born in Qatar; including its top scorer at the Asian Cup, Almoez Ali. Other countries have enlisted dual nationals before, but some were disqualified by FIFA for that. Syria, for example, was disqualified from the 2014 World Cup, for fielding a Swedish striker without seeking FIFA’s approval. Qatar has also been accused of that, and the UAE even lodged a complaint to FIFA after its match against Qatar in the Asian Cup, claiming that Ali and one of Qatar’s defenders were not eligible to play for Qatar. Qatar’s federation didn’t respond at all and FIFA’s deferral to the matter has raised even more eyebrows. Some people suspect they might turn a blind eye to it as the World Cup approaches. But even if there is nothing dubious about double nationals playing for Qatar’s team, the whispers will continue as long as they are focal points in Qatar’s rise on the pitch. 

So, Qatar has developed a certain connection with soccer in the last decade, and it made a name for itself in global soccer. Whether that was by bypassing rules while FIFA was turning a blind eye or by actually putting the work in, we don’t know. But even if Qatar deservingly won the Asian Cup, it wouldn’t justify them being voted as host nation in 2010 because nobody could have predicted that they would, at any point, advance so far in any tournament. They had not won a single tournament in their country’s history when they won the World Cup bid and soccer was not a sport Qatar’s population enjoyed watching. Whether a country without any real connection to soccer should be elected to host the World Cup, I’ll leave for you to decide. 

Migrant workers in Qatar

As already mentioned, Qatar fully relies on about two million migrants who make up 95% of their workforce in the sectors of construction, services, and domestic work. Its migrant to citizen ratio is the highest of any country in the world. Migrant workers often go to Qatar to earn money that they can send back to their families. But a lot of the time, they have to pay so much to secure a job in Qatar that they are not even able to send money back to their families because they are in debt. On top of that, they are often not paid as much as they were promised which makes it even more difficult for them to pay off their debts and send money to their families. A 21 year old man from Nepal who has been working in Qatar for over two years described how he hadn’t been paid for eight months and how his sick mother who needs heart surgery hasn’t been able to go to the doctor for months. He added: “I’m worried she is going to die. There is nothing I can do. I’m powerless.” 

And, despite continuous pressure from Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on human rights, the Qatari government does not publish verifiable statistics about the average pay and length of stay of these workers. It also does not conduct research on unexplained deaths of otherwise healthy workers or enforce adequate restrictions on outdoor work to protect workers.  

All of this is only possible because of the so-called kafala system. It gives employers excessive control over their workers’ legal status. An example of this is that workers cannot open a bank account or get a driver’s license without their employer’s permission. They can also not “abscond,” that means leaving the employer without permission. They have to notify the employer two months in advance if they want to change jobs and that is only a recent development. In the past, workers could not abscond at all. Some employers also collect their workers’ passports upon their arrival so they cannot leave the country. This is now illegal as well, but sometimes still practiced. It is also illegal for workers to strike; this means, if an employee told his/her employers he/she could not pay them, the workers would have to keep working. So, the migrant workers are kept in Qatar by force, they are abused and exploited, they have to live in unsanitary and crowded quarters, and can often not even send their families the money they promised. These conditions are human rights violations and they are not acceptable. 

To build the stadiums for the World Cup, Qatar relied on migrant workers. So, to prepare for the World Cup, Qatar heavily violated human rights by not treating the migrant workers, who are responsible for building the infrastructure, like humans. Since Qatar won the World Cup bid, it has tasked the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy with overseeing the organization of the World Cup. This committee put protections on migrant workers working on stadium sites. However, that only includes about 1.5% of Qatar’s workforce and, secondly, the protections are not even regularly enforced on stadium sites. Workers have reported several breaches of both the Qatari law and the Supreme Committee’s additional protections. So, while Qatar has dismantled parts of the kafala system, employers can still pretty much decide whether they want to abide by the new laws or continue to violate human rights. Amnesty International, another non-governmental organization focused on human rights, encouraged FIFA to demand implementation of labor laws. While that is highly unlikely, there is still hope that players will use their “star-power,” as Amnesty International called it, to demand rights for workers. 

Why the World Cup shouldn’t have gone to Qatar – beyond the continuous accusations of slavery

If the horrible treatment of migrant workers in Qatar was not enough to convince you that Qatar is not exactly the ideal country to host a World Cup, this is for you:

Since the average temperature would be over 100 degrees in the summer, the tournament has to be held in winter. For the first time ever! That means that all European leagues will have to be disrupted for 2 months. 

Qatar is strongly homophobic and sexist. Homosexuality is still illegal in Qatar and the death penalty still exists for the “crime” of Homosexuality (at least, there are no known cases of the death penalty being enforced for homosexuality). Sepp Blatter commented on this, saying that gay people should “refrain from sexual activity” if they wanted to go see the World Cup in Qatar. He later tried to correct himself, but it was too late for that. 

While the labor force participation of women in Qatar is among the highest in the Arab world, women still have to obtain permission from their male guardian to marry, study abroad in government scholarships, work in government jobs, travel abroad (until certain ages), and to act as a child’s primary guardian in Qatar. So, Qatar is lacking extremely far behind the rest of the world when it comes to these topics. 

According to Bloomberg Intelligence, Qatar spent over $300 billion to prepare for the World Cup. That includes building stadiums, roads, hotels, and other kinds of infrastructure required to host a tournament like the World Cup. Just to compare this to what other countries spent: It cost South Africa about $3.5 billion to prepare for the World Cup and Russia spent $11 billion. I’ll let you decide if those $300 billion were invested wisely.

Should you watch the World Cup?

In the end, I can’t tell other people that they should not enjoy their favorite sports competition. It is for everyone to decide and I, myself, struggle to decide whether I should watch the World Cup. On the one hand, I really want to see my country play but on the other, I cannot let FIFA get away with this. For years, they have just been chasing the money without giving a thought to the effects of that. The only thing that might really make them reconsider their decisions would be decreases in viewership. That is only possible if enough people refuse to watch the World Cup in Qatar, though. I don’t know if that is possible but it would definitely set an example.