Controversial until the final whistle! The 22nd World Cup will take place from the 20th of November to the 18th of December in the desert emirate of Qatar. The Qataris have invested over 200 billion euros in the mega-event, and European companies have made good money.

Due to its huge natural gas reserves, the small Gulf state is one of the richest countries in the world. However, it is not a carefree football festival this year, as economic and political irritants cloud the anticipation of the FIFA2022 tournament.

Allegations of corruption during the FIFA awarding process, untenable working conditions for migrant workers on the construction sites, the importance of Qatar’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) for the EU’s energy transition, Russia’s exclusion from the competition due to the war of aggression on Ukraine, and the unanswered question of whether Iran will participate throughout the whole soccer tournament if the Mullah regime continues to bludgeon its protesting citizens.

Winter instead of summer games – very unusual for the western football world

For football fans in the northern hemisphere, the World Cup is taking place in autumn for the first time. While it is too cold and uncomfortable for public viewings and barbecue football parties with neighbors in the northern hemisphere, it is still too hot for the players and spectators in the desert emirate of Qatar in November – which is why modern, air-conditioned stadiums have been built.

For FIFA officials, Qatar is a convenient partner. Unlike democratic societies that have rejected World Cups in the past because of their high costs, Qatari citizens are a minority share in the country’s population composition and have a rather limited say in the authoritarian emirate. And they are looking forward to the event.


Extraordinary investments

The oil and gas export giant Qatar is one of the richest countries in the world. The Emir of Qatar has invested over €200 billion in state-of-the-art infrastructure, from stadiums (€6.2 billion) to new public transportation. In light of such investments, previous World Cups seem miniscule, the 2018 World Cup in Russia is said to have cost around €12 billion, while the FIFA2006 in Germany cost around €3.7 billion, but in both venues much of the infrastructure was already in place.

European companies and sponsors have benefited from the high investment by the Qataris. The sponsors important to FIFA have lavish budgets, FIFA itself is expected to earn around €6 billion from the 2022 World Cup. No wonder that allegations of corruption arose around the awarding of FIFA2022 to Qatar; it was already strange that at the selection meeting in December 2010, FIFA2018 and 2022 were awarded jointly to two natural gas export giants – Russia and Qatar.

World Cup awards to Russia and Qatar: corruption allegations not substantiated

Criticism of the Kremlin or even calls for a boycott of FIFA2018 never arose: not after President Putin illegally annexed Crimea in 2014 and not after Russia’s military intervention in the Syrian civil war with its dramatic consequences for the civilian population and the flight of 1.1 million Syrians to Europe. Deficits in democracy and human rights around the host of a World Cup were only publicly discussed when FIFA2022 in Qatar came into focus.

Al Wakrah Stadium
Matt Kieffer, Al Wakrah Stadium – Doha, Qatar / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0,

Migrant workers without rights in Qatar

The Guardian speaks of 6,500 dead migrant workers in the last 10 years. Amnesty International reports thousands of dead workers and spotlights the intolerable working and living conditions of the foreign workers, tens of thousands of whom were recruited from Asian countries from Nepal to Pakistan to build airports, hotels, shopping centres and roads.

But such numbers remain estimations since the Qatari authorities do not keep detailed statistics on accidents on FIFA-related construction sites. Thirty thousand migrant workers alone worked on eight stadiums. It is Western civil society organisations and trade unions that have first brought these abuses to the attention of the Western public.

It has become known that they work for at least 14 hours six days a week, that the payment of a minimum wage of the equivalent of €247 a month is often irregular, delayed or not paid at all, that passports of the foreign workers are withheld, that deaths on the construction sites are not investigated, that the migrant workers are not allowed to form their own interest groups and that they live in cramped dwellings.

The migrant workers accept these poor conditions because they urgently need to send parts of their meagre wages to their families and relatives back home who depend on these remittances. Compared to work in Qatar, work in their home countries is rare and poorly paid.

European exporters also benefit from prosperity in the Gulf

All the prosperity in Qatar and the five other rich Arab Gulf states has been built on the decades-long practice of importing millions of migrant workers from Asia, East Africa and the Middle East. We in Europe have benefited from their prosperity. To modernize the Arabian Gulf states have been purchasing our industries’ products and services.

Only in the context of the World Cup have the circumstances of the migrant workers’ living and working conditions become known to a wider, global audience. The emerging criticism prompted Qatar’s leadership to start working with the United Nations International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2018.

Various standards prescribed by the ILO, such as a minimum wage, the abolition of the guardianship system (the so-called Kafala system) and an easier change of employer, are being adopted. The situation on FIFA construction sites is improving. This is progress that should also be transferred to other industries and to other Arab Gulf states.


Security over irreplaceability

The Qataris still remember how Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein invaded the neighbouring state of Kuwait in 1990 to seize its oil reserve and how Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates isolated Qatar between 2017 and 2020 and threatened to invade.

No one knows when or if the powerful neighbour to the north on the other side of the Gulf, Iran, will set its sights on small Qatar with which it shares one of the world’s largest gas fields. Thus, the ruling family of Al-Thani wants to establish good long-term relations with important states of the world (e.g., the USA, which maintains an air base in Qatar) and international organisations or companies to make themselves indispensable.

And to protect itself against a possible invasion by one of the other regional powers in the Arab-Persian Gulf. The Qataris, for example, bought/sponsor European football clubs like Paris Saint Germain and Bayern Munich and own shares in strategically important European companies, like RWE, Deutsche Bank and Volkswagen in Germany. In hosting the World Cup, Qatar wants to gain recognition as an exemplary host of a perfectly organized event.

Qatar’s liquefied gas is a curse and a blessing for the EU energy transition

Qatar has relied on long-term gas supply contracts, for example, for over 20 years with Japan, South Korea and China. The energy transition in Europe and Brussels’ strategy of breaking away from its dependence on Russian natural gas imports and distributing gas purchases among many countries has put Qatar’s LNG, but also the enormous oil reserves of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, on the European radar.

For example, Qatar could supply LNG to Germany, but wants contractual reliability for longer terms. Berlin probably only wants three to five years – the negotiations are still underway after German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited the Emir of Qatar in September 2022. In addition, Germany must quickly complete the construction of the associated LNG terminal. But such bilateral negotiations are problematic since the EU member states cannot utilize the bloc’s negotiation power.


EU Gulf Strategy on alternative energy production

The way forward is for the EU to actively implement its new Gulf strategy and work together with the financially strong and innovative Arab Gulf states on the development and expansion of alternative energy production, the yield of which all can use, from solar energy to hydrogen.

Even if these countries want to sell gas and oil to secure their prosperity, they notice from the climate change induced heat in their region that they also benefit from CO2-free energy production. But Europe’s purchase of more gas and oil from and energy diversification with the Gulf requires greater cooperation with autocratic leaders – a contradiction of core European values.

Russia’s gas and oil remains an economic factor in the Gulf

Qatar and its neighbours want to coordinate production quotas and prices with Russia, a major natural gas and oil market competitor. Despite the criticism and pressure from the West to sanction the Putin empire for its war of aggression on Ukraine – Russian power in energy is still present in the financial calculus of the Qataris, Emiratis, Saudis and Kuwaitis. Qatar voted with the West at the United Nations. The Putin war, however, is politicising Qatar’s World Cup, with FIFA barring Russia from the tournament – just three years after FIFA officials were photographed with Putin in the glow of FIFA2018.

FIFA2022 Russia excluded – Iran remains in

The peaceful protests in Iran, which have been brutally suppressed by the Mullah regime since their outbreak in mid-September 2022, also pose difficult questions for the FIFA and host Qatar. Will Iranians show gestures of solidarity with the protest movement at home? Will only regime loyalists come? Will the games be overshadowed by the crackdown of Iranian security forces against demonstrating Iranian women? Will the regime in Tehran respond to the West’s new sanctions by demonstratively continuing to work on its nuclear and missile programmes? Of high political explosiveness are the games of Iran against the USA, England and Wales in the first round.

Tie the awarding of international sporting events to ESG criteria

Geopolitical and geo-economic issues will overshadow the World Cup in Qatar – it does not look like it will be a lively and joyous international sporting event. This turn of events highlights that prominent international sporting events especially now have an increasing responsibility for social, environmental and governance (ESG) development in the world, in particular when FIFA and the International Olympic Committee determine the host countries.

ESG criteria should really be applied in future awards. Guidance can come from ESG investment criteria employed, a.o., by the World Bank for major projects in emerging countries. Had ESG concerns been considered in 2010 when the 2018 and 2022 World Cups were awarded, Russia and Qatar would have not been qualified as a host country.

About the authors

Clemens Gerland is currently an intern at Bertelsmann Stiftung. He supports the Europe’s Economy project (September 2022 to February 2023). He studied Economics and Business Economics at Maastricht University.

Christian Hanelt is a Senior Expert for the EU Neighbourhood and the Middle East, working in the Program “Europe’s Future.” His areas of expertise include the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, the Israeli-Arab conflict, the EU’s relations with the Gulf region, economic developments in the Arab world, and the causes of flight and migration.

Across the Mediterranean: New Perspectives for Old Neighbors

The EU and the Middle East: Exploring alternatives to Russian Energy

COP27 in Egypt – The Role of the EU