By Ernest Iyagi
Firsthand, let me say that I’m a regular sport (soccer, tennis, basketball and motor racing, Formula 1) fan and a silent voice from among the millions globally advocating for global peace, anti-racism and social justice. I have been following the preparations and countdown to the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 for over 6 years now. I was struck by the way human and labour rights advocates have used the successful bid by the State of Qatar to pressure the tiny Gulf country to reform and improve her human and labour rights climate in law and practice. I must confess I was impressed by the positive response of the Qatar State. I will come back to this shortly. My research also showed that this has been a time-tested campaign strategy to use global sports to drive social justice. I love the idea and I’m for it!
I read the story, in a French journal, Lequipe.fr, of the planned vote to be taken on Sunday 20th June 2022 by the Norwegian Football Federation to decide if the country will boycott the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022. The story was posted online on 17 June 2021 at 10:43 AM. The boycott is being proposed on the grounds of “scary” labour rights records that the Norwegian fans find appalling. I made some observations from the very short story and I have some comments to also express, too.
First, the journal, lequipe seems to relish using the word “graveyard” in a most outlandish way but was quick to credit the coinage of that word to the Norwegian football supporters who have forced this boycott vote. I mean, the journal knows that this allegation of a graveyard, meaning and sounding like a war zone is patently false, alarmist and sensational. I believe that responsible journalism will mean helping to inform and educate the public. Researching through previous reports on the matter by the same journal did not reveal opportunities for response by the accused (Qatar officials).
I also observed that the Norwegian fans and government seems to suddenly wake up to activism around global sporting events. I noticed that they are also calling for the boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games to be hosted by China. This is after Norway has pulled out from hosting. Whilst it may be unfair and inaccurate to say that Norway is only now awake to using boycott to press for social justice may discount their solidarity efforts in the past. However, the use of and demand for the boycott in the case of Qatar seems slightly uninformed, hasty and less considerate of the contexts that exist in the Middle East and Qatar’s commendable efforts in the last 4 years.
My last observation touches on the fact that the Norwegian Football Federation, the fans and to a large extent the sporting administration and government of Norway do not see the opportunities that exist if Qatar hosts the games. First, human and labour rights practices are historically not attractive when it comes to the Middle East. The Kafala system of labour recruitment regarded as a slavery system is widely practised in the Middle East. Second, the region is volatile with political tension and open rivalry that has been displayed openly (the unnecessary blockade against Qatar by members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) States led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and through violent combat (Saudi Arabia proxy war in Yemen).
Therefore, hosting sporting events are opportunities to demand and improve human and labour rights ambience. Today, in the entire GCC States, Qatar has made the most far-reaching and impressive labour rights reforms. It has reformed the Kafala system by removing all the provisions that exert and sustain slavery-like practices. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), along with other Global Union Federations (GUFs) have all recognised the improvement and they continue to work with them to do more.
My comments to this planned vote for a boycott will be that Norway rethinks the action. This suggestion is premised on the fact that Qatar has made impressive changes and still working to improve. At the moment, no other Middle East countries have attained the amiable reform heights that Qatar has attained. Second, what is the alternative to a boycott? Norway withdrew from hosting the 2022 Winter Olympic Games and so China picked up the hosting right. Now, Norway has boycotted her participation in the games to be hosted by China on human and rights abuses. This seems a flawed decision and strategy. I will suggest that Norway indicate interest to help Qatar improve more, especially as the State of Qatar has demonstrated the willingness to consider and accept technical, political and technological support.
On the point about using sport to advance global peace and improvement of global relations, it is exciting to notice that the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 is already being dubbed the “Arab World Cup”. This suggests that the Arab and Muslim world is already embracing the games and feeling a sense of inclusion. Norway and other nations should join FIFA in exploring ways to make capital of this situation in the interest of peace in the Middle East and the world. Again, is the idea to boycott and force FIFA to reissue the hosting of the games, maybe to countries in the global North? This will raise a red flag of racism and discrimination against the Arab world by the West. Is it the case that the West is still seething from Qatar’s successful bid 10 years ago? Fairness will be that Qatar is allowed to host the games on account of her reforms, readiness to make the games inclusive and the fact that her commitments to FIFA have remained intact and on course. Fairness is also to allow the games to be staged in the Arab world since Europe (traditional and dominant host, 10-time host, Germany 2006), North America (USA 1994), Asia (South Korea/Japan 2002), South/Latin America, (Brasil 2014), Africa (South Africa, 2010).
Aside from what the media outlets present to the Norwegian public, have the soccer federation and the fans’ leadership visited Qatar recently, ever to ascertain things for themselves? Have they spoken to labour migrants in Qatar to appreciate the contexts and the realities? I want to refrain from labelling the Norwegian move as an act of one attempting to be more catholic than the pope. I think they mean well but their approach is self-defeating and must be reviewed positively in the lights of the suggestions made here. Yes, we want sporting events with human and labour rights respect. No to racism!
Mr Ernest Iyagi can be reached via email@example.com