By James M. Dorsey
Mass protests against Brazil’s hosting of the World Cup, Turkey’s loss of opportunities to host sports events and controversy over 2022 World Cup host Qatar’s labour system are impacting the global sports world’s thinking about the requirements future hosts will have to meet. The impact is likely to go far beyond sporting and infrastructure concerns and raise the stakes for future hosts.
Qatar is under increasing pressure to overhaul its kafala or labour sponsorship system denounced by the United Nations and labour and human rights activists as violations of international human rights standards. The Gulf state potentially risks losing its hosting rights if it fails to demonstrate rigorous enforcement of existing rules and regulations and enact radical reforms.
The Qatar controversy illustrates the risk both potential hosts groups such as world football governing body FIFA and the International Olympic Committee shoulder with the awarding of tournaments to nondemocratic or authoritarian-run nations. FIFA has been heavily criticised for its awarding of the tournament to Qatar.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter this week described the awarding to Qatar as a “mistake”. FIFA later tried to soften the impact of Mr Blatter’s statement by saying he was referring to the fact that the awarding disregarded a negative FIFA technical assessment that warned about the country’s bruising summer temperatures.
“Of course it was a mistake. You know, one makes a lot of mistakes in life. The technical report indicated clearly that it was too hot in summer, but despite that the executive committee decided, with quite a big majority, that the tournament would be in Qatar,” Mr Blatter said, sparking a football diplomacy spat, by charging that pressure by the governments of France and Germany as a result of commercial interests had contributed to the success of the Qatari bid.
In doing so, Mr Blatter perhaps unwittingly raised the question what the drivers for the awarding of sports mega events should be. “We know perfectly well that big French companies and big German companies have interests in Qatar. But they are not only involved in the World Cup,” Mr Blatter said. France and Germany have denied his allegation.
Qatar, meanwhile, is caught in a Catch-22: its international image and the achievement of its soft power policy goals demand swift and decisive action; its domestic politics necessitate a more gradual approach.
The risks in hosting mega events are for Qatar and other Middle Eastern and North African nations particularly high given that their significant investment is designed to achieve more than country branding and international projection and the creation of commercial and other opportunities.
Mega events serve them as a tool to build soft power either as part of a defence and security strategy designed to compensate for the inability to acquire the hard power necessary to defend themselves or as a way of increasing international willingness to provide economic and political support in difficult geopolitical circumstances.
Mass protests in Brazil against the World Cup, the first time a sporting association, FIFA, and an event, became the target of the protest rather than its vehicle, have further pinpointed the need to obtain public buy-in as part of the awarding process to prevent mega events from being mired in controversy and social protest. Brazil hosts this year’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.
Finally, brutal police response to protests and a series of authoritarian measures to control the media, the Internet and the judiciary have cost Turkey the chance to host the 2020 Olympics as well as EURO 2020, reinforcing that fact that mega sports events cannot be viewed independently of a country’s domestic policies.
Qatar however, provides the foremost case study to date of what potential future hosts of mega events may expect. Qatar has garnered significant credibility by becoming since the awarding of the World Cup the first Gulf state to engage with its critics and work with them to address issues.
Yet, at the same time its credibility is being called into question by a history of promises on which it has yet to make good. Qatari institutions have in the past three years adopted lofty principles in response to criticism of its labour system, pledged to incorporate these into World Cup-related contracts and stepped up enforcement of existing rules and regulations. Those promises and principles have yet to be incorporated into law.
At the same time, promises pre-dating the awarding of the World Cup such as a pledge in 2008 to introduce a low governing the rights of domestic workers have yet to be fulfilled. Human rights and trade unionists have charged that the promise this week to overhaul the kafala system, while easing some restrictions on workers’ rights appear to be more of a relabeling exercise than a radical reform, much like Formula-1 host Bahrain did several years ago.
Qatar’s lesson for future host is that putting a country’s warts on public display is risky if it is unwilling or unable to proactively tackle sensitive domestic issues.
The Jordanian hosts of last week’s Asian Forum of Soccerex, a major sports business conference that expanded into Asia for the first time, appear to have recognised which way the wind is blowing. Recognising that global football governance and business is focused on the top end of professional football, they introduced debates on issues such as grassroots and women’s football into the debate.
The Jordanians are also looking at including preparations for future World Cups in forthcoming Soccerex gatherings.
Hosting the conference is part of a Jordanian effort to project itself as a significant and progressive player in international sports. Jordan is scheduled to host the 2016 Under-17 Women’s World Cup.
Said Jordanian Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, the Soccerex conference’s host and a vice-president of FIFA: “[Football] is not just a sport but a tool to improve society.”
James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.