Pointing the finger at Qatar's rulers is not enough

German players made their views clear ahead of a qualifier for the 2022 World Cup in March 2021.
German players made their views clear ahead of a qualifier for the 2022 World Cup in March 2021.

As Qatar prepares to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the country has come under fire for its treatment of migrant workers, with some nations calling for a boycott of the contest. But this simply misreads the realities of the situation and the underlying problems associated with international migration. By Sebastian Sons

By Sebastian Sons

The German, Dutch and Norwegian national teams all displayed various symbols of criticism and solidarity ahead of their World Cup qualifying matches in late March. Intended as an affirmation of human rights, they also sent a clear signal to FIFA 2022 host Qatar, a nation that for years has come under fire for massive human rights violations and industrial accidents on construction sites. German players, especially Toni Kroos and Joshua Kimmich, have been harshly critical of conditions in Qatar and calls from various quarters for a boycott of the contest have been growing in recent weeks.

Eurocentric normative criticism

In the Gulf states, such accusations are met with a shake of the head: in conversations with colleagues from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the recriminations are derided as Eurocentric normative criticism, essentially unconcerned with the interests of migrants and instead bearing all the hallmarks of Islamophobia.

The recriminations are also thought to be concealing a further subtext: because Qatar isn’t a traditional soccer nation, it should not even have been allowed to stage the World Cup. So, taking potshots at conditions in Qatar is perceived as symptomatic of the West's hypocritical double standards and the fact that it begrudges the Arab states the FIFA World Cup. Back in 2015, former Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani expressed similar sentiments when answering accusations of corruption.


Structural violence against migrant workers

Both standpoints – criticism of conditions in Qatar and the reactions to it – are however more of an exercise in political polemics, obstructing any constructive discourse on the controversial phenomenon of structural violence against migrants. There is no question that millions of migrant workers from neighbouring countries, Africa, and Asia still suffer precarious working conditions in Qatar and other Arab Gulf states, primarily due to a combination of legal insecurity, a criminal recruitment mafia – and influential lobbyists.

The basis for the unequal treatment of migrant workers in infrastructure, the service sector and – above all – in domestic employment was and still is the sponsorship system (kafala), which places the sponsor or employer in an asymmetric position of power as regards the migrant. For years, the kafeel or sponsor was allowed to confiscate the passport of the foreign recruit upon arrival, deny them days off or home visits, and ban them from switching to a new employer.

Reports of sexual and psychological abuse, first and foremost of domestic staff, and the systematic discrimination of foreign construction workers on Qatar’s World Cup sites in particular are piling increasing pressure on Arab Gulf governments to implement reforms.

Qatar reacts to international pressure

Of all these nations, Qatar stands out as having responded to international criticism, introducing measures to ensure the labour rights of migrants are better protected. Human rights organisations justifiably observe, however, that the reforms remain inadequate and cannot be described as a complete abolition of the kafala system. Nevertheless, it may be helpful to adopt a more nuanced view of the situation of migrant workers in Qatar.

World Cup: FIFA scraps plans to expand Qatar 2022 to 48 teams. Positive direction for FIFA with current human rights abuses in Qatar related to 2022 World Cup + more human rights abuses if Kuwait and Oman were included as hosts.#FIFA #Qatar #HumanRightshttps://t.co/pCupntAI6v

— Daniel (@D_SmithIV) May 24, 2019


After all, the Qatari government would appear – in co-operation with international partners – to be interested in improving the migrants’ legal status. Unlike in other Gulf states, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has been permitted to open an office in Qatar. 

Furthermore, Qatar has also introduced a minimum wage and complaint system for migrants, health and safety measure for domestic personnel and a relaxation of travel restrictions on migrants, welcomed as positive steps by the ILO. Human rights organisations acknowledge these changes, but are still calling for further improvements – particularly in terms of their implementation.

The discourse on labour migration is changing in the Gulf states

International pressure and global media attention on Qatar as the FIFA 2022 host has doubtless fostered a political and social rethink: the idea that the unequal treatment of migrant workers is somehow justified, or that migrants can be treated with xenophobic rejection and marginalisation is still an accepted part of daily life in all Gulf states for a variety of reasons.

However, the stigmatisation of migrants as "parasites" depriving the domestic workforce of scarce jobs is being challenged from various sides. Following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, when migrants were branded as carriers of the virus and expelled from the country in their thousands, social media campaigns kicked off highlighting the importance of migrants as an integral element of Persian Gulf societies and calling for citizens to show solidarity with their Muslim brothers and sisters.

For the first time, FIFA has come together with the #WorldCup's local organisers and host country to create a unified sustainability strategy for the tournament.

Learn more about Qatar 2022's commitments, including human rights, diversity and environmental protection.

— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) January 21, 2020


A number of local initiatives and private foundations are also trying to address the social malaise by offering assistance to migrants. Nor has the Qatari government been the only one in the Gulf region to realise that the maltreatment of migrants inflicts huge damage on its international reputation, restricting the state's ambitious goals of diversifying oil-dependent economies, attracting foreign investment and creating jobs.

In view of this, the changes implemented may be seen as a core feature of Gulf brand positioning – an argument that should not be undervalued. It is a means of deflecting international criticism on the one hand, while securing one's preferred business model on the other.

For this reason, boycotting the FIFA World Cup would not only be too late, but it would also undermine this initial commitment to reform in the Gulf states and bolster the old guard opposed to change.

Sending nations’ reliance on remittances

Furthermore, this one-dimensional focus on the situation in Qatar distorts the perception of foreign workers and their precarious predicament during the migration process as a whole. Migrants who go to work in the Gulf states continue to face extreme existential pressure to secure a livelihood not only for themselves, but also for their entire families. 

The average wage in Saudi Arabia, for instance, is still four times as high as in Pakistan, for instance. Most of the money earned is sent back home. Migrants often don’t see their families for years and face difficulties adjusting to altered family structures upon their return.


Crisis-torn countries in southern Asia such as Pakistan or Bangladesh rely on migrant worker remittances to avert the collapse of their ailing domestic economies. Of a total of 131 billion U.S. dollars in remittances flowing from the Gulf Arab states in 2018, more than 78 billion went to South Asia. South Asian labour-sending countries received 21.2 percent of remittances from the UAE, 18 percent from Saudi Arabia and 6.2 percent from Qatar.

Careful not to endanger this source of income, governments in the migrants’ home nations do too little to advocate workers’ rights abroad. Many Pakistani migrants, for example, are still being forced by their recruitment agents to smuggle drugs. The migrants are often arrested upon entering the Gulf states and sentenced to death. They are rarely offered any consular protection, while those responsible – the powerful recruitment agents who organised their migration – are rarely prosecuted.

This recruitment mafia has been wielding enormous power for generations: 69 percent of all Pakistani migrants have to incur debt to cover the high recruitment fees: in the case of Saudi Arabia, the total cost of emigration is almost 4,300 U.S. dollars. This means the migrants face pressure from three sides: firstly, they fall under the control of the agents, secondly, they have to settle their debts and thirdly, prove to their families back home that they are not failing and that they can fulfil hopes of a way out of poverty.

Criminalised migration system

This psychological pressure is not just due to conditions in the receiving country, but generally because of the criminalised migration system. In order to improve migration conditions in the long-term, the process of reform in the Gulf states must therefore continue with the abolition of the kafala system across the board. Improved monitoring of migrant flows is also necessary to protect migrants and their families from exploitation.


For this to happen, labour-sending countries need support to fund this migratory pressure through economic development at home and shatter the power of recruitment agencies for good. The devastating consequences of the coronavirus pandemic have further exacerbated the economic crises in labour-sending nations, which is likely to heighten the need for migration. At the same time, the Gulf states are looking to reduce the number of migrant workers and place greater reliance on the domestic workforce long term.

Constructive inclusive dialogue

It is going to take more than criticism of Qatar to break this vicious cycle. What is needed is a constructive and inclusive dialogue that pools together the efforts of international organisations such as the ILO, all the Gulf states, as well as civil society actors in labour-sending countries and Europe. In recent years, many Gulf states have demonstrated an increased willingness to enter into such an exchange, as evinced by the Abu Dhabi Dialogue.

Such forums can only be the starting point, however. Both the Gulf states and the international community must do more to acknowledge their responsibility – not just on their home turf, but also in the migrants' countries of origin. A greater effort should also be made to integrate diaspora community representatives into such dialogue. After all, it is their rights that require transnational protection.

A process like this certainly requires a constructive discussion that includes all partners – one dimensional criticism does not lead to progress; it will merely serve to deepen the rifts.

Sebastian Sons

© Qantara.de 2021

Dr. Sebastian Sons is a researcher and expert on the Arab Gulf states at the CARPO institute in Bonn. His PhD was on Pakistani labour migration to Saudi Arabia and he is the author of  "Auf Sand gebaut. Saudi-Arabien – Ein problematischer Verbündeter" (Built on sand: Saudi Arabia – a difficult ally, published in German by Propylaen)