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Supreme Committee faces supreme headache

The organisers of Qatar 2022 are quickly realising that the World Cup spotlight brings with it some serious questions.

Last Modified: 07 Oct 2013 08:54
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Qatar has been using the 2022 World Cup to boost its own and the Middle East's international profile [GALLO/GETTY]

The pleasant view across Doha’s corniche waterfront from the tower occupied by the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee will have looked a lot less serene in the past two weeks.

In an office where previously-baseless sniping by British newspapers on the suitability of Qatar as a World Cup host can be enough to send executives’ resting heart rates soaring, the deeply-troubling Guardian report on the death of Nepali construction workers in Qatar will have broken new ground for stress levels.

The plight of workers in the Gulf state has been documented even before the attention of the global media switched to Qatar and its hosting of the World Cup.

But the Guardian report, the squalid conditions it appears to reveal and the subsequent official confirmation of the deaths of at least 50 Nepali workers on construction sites last year, has brought more scrutiny on the country – scrutiny that is much more justifiable than allegations, never backed up, of corruption in the lead-up to the successful World Cup bid in December 2010.

We’ve established a workers’ charter, we’ve worked on contractual language that will go into all our contracts to ensure that the minimum standards will be adhered to

Nasser Al-Khater, Qatar 2022’s communications director

The problem for Qatar 2022 is that they’ve been handed the unofficial mantle of the country’s spokesperson to the West, and an easy punchbag for Western media. It’s a nasty position to be in – using the term ‘nasty’ relatively, given what is apparently being faced by construction workers in the country.

Despite its huge foreign investment and increasing military influence, nothing else about Qatar is very interesting to outsiders. The World Cup is very interesting, however, so any news about Qatar is beamed through that lens.

On Friday, their PR problem got worse. Football’s world governing body FIFA decided to defer a decision on whether to move World Cup 2022 to another time of year – i.e. not during the heat of the summer months (somewhere around 42 degrees celsius during the day, or a relentless 50 degrees celsius if you’re a tabloid).

For the Supreme Committee, that means potentially another year of bad press as World Cup "stakeholders" – i.e. people who stand to lose or gain money from the tournament – pick apart the credentials of the hosts.

Thus on Friday we had Nasser Al-Khater, Qatar 2022’s communications director, standing on the air-conditioned pitch of Al-Sadd stadium, being interviewed by Al Jazeera’s David Foster on workers’ rights and trying not to get in trouble with the ministry of labour.

"On this issue of workers, we’ve always taken this issue very seriously from the very beginning," he said.

"Our discussions with FIFA have not only started today, but since 2010 when we won the right to host the World Cup. We’ve had discussions with Human Rights Watch and with Amnesty International.

"We’ve established a workers’ charter, we’ve worked on contractual language that will go into all our contracts to ensure that the minimum standards will be adhered to – and these standards will be above the internationally-recognised minimum standards."

Or as his boss Hassan Al-Thawadi has put it, slightly more strongly, "This is not a World Cup being built on the blood of the innocents." Well let’s hope not.

It’s uncertain how much power the committee, however supreme, wields in terms of workers’ rights in general – not just on World Cup sites.

They’ve done good things, like creating a Workers’ Cup football tournament.

But in terms of the evidence over workers’ treatment by private companies – the withholding of passports, failure to pay wages, cramped living conditions, unsafe practices – then whether they have the ability to put pressure on people in government with greater wasta (clout) than themselves is questionable. FIFA president Sepp Blatter must not miss the chance to exert influence when he flies to Doha to visit Qatar's new Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani. 

Catalyst?

Back at Al-Sadd, Al-Khater described the World Cup as a "catalyst" to improve conditions, and if so then that at least could galvanise Qatar’s government into action as it increasingly becomes the centre of attention on the way to 2022.

He also says that there are examples of "exemplary" workers’ sites, and that not just the negatives should be focused on. It will be interesting to see if journalists are allowed to turn up to construction sites and labour camps to investigate further.

What is certain is that the thing that worries Europeans about a summer World Cup in 2022, i.e. heat, is faced by workers for long hours every day – but in a boiler suit, and high above the streets in unfinished skyscrapers. 

Summer or winter? Yes, the sensible option is winter. It’s a lovely time of year in Qatar, and we really shouldn’t be worrying about whether the NFL loses money or the Premier League has to swap things round for a couple of years.

But whatever the wranglings of the stakeholders, the world must hold onto its seeming interest in these people from Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and elsewhere – World Cup or no World Cup.

And that means looking at the safety record of other countries with large-scale construction projects, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

It shouldn't just be a World Cup that makes us concerned for the welfare of South Asian workers. 

Paul Rhys is a sports journalist based in Paris. 

He was formerly an Al Jazeera English sports presenter based in Qatar. He started working at Al Jazeera in 2008. 

You can follow him @PaulRhys_Sport

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