World football body FIFA’s creation of a watchdog to monitor the living and working conditions of migrant labour employed in World Cup 2022-related construction sites is the second time in a month that Qatar has been warned that it needs to demonstrate sincerity in its reform of the Gulf state’s controversial labour system.
The announcement of the watchdog by Gianni Infantino during his first visit to Qatar as newly elected president of FIFA followed a rare warning by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) that it would establish a Commission of Inquiry if Qatar failed to act in the coming year. Such commissions are among the ILO’s most powerful tools to ensure compliance with international treaties. The UN body has only established 13 such commissions in its century-long history.
FIFA’s long-overdue move—more than five years after Qatar was awarded World Cup hosting rights—has much to do with Infantino’s need to demonstrate that he is breaking with the world football body’s politically and financially corrupt past that has led to criminal investigations in Switzerland and the United States. Scores of FIFA executives, as well as other international football executives, have been indicted in the US on corruption-related charges.
It also constitutes the first concrete follow-up to a report by Harvard University professor John Ruggie, a renowned human rights scholar, that earlier this month called on FIFA to “consider suspending or terminating” its relationship with World Cup hosts who fail to clean up their human rights records. Ruggie’s report was commissioned by Infantino’s disgraced predecessor, Sepp Blatter.
FIFA has been heavily criticised, for awarding the World Cup to Qatar despite its kafala or sponsorship system that puts workers at the mercy of their employers. Working with international human rights groups, Qatar’s 2022 committee, as well as two other Qatari institutions, have adopted international standards that are incorporated in all contracts. Those standards have yet to be made part of national legislation, and Qatar has yet to make good on promises to significantly reform its labour system.
FIFA’s creation of a Qatar watchdog constitutes progress but, like the Ruggie report, it fails to address the underlying fundamental problem that enabled disregard for human rights in the awarding of the World Cup and has by and large turned the world football body and some of its regional confederations into support pillars of autocracy in the Middle East and North Africa. That problem, which is endemic to international sports associations in general starting with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), is the denial of the inextricable relationship between sports and politics and international sports’ fictional assertion that the two are separate.
Populated by officials with government links, the executive committees of, for example, the IOC or the Asian Football Confederation, whose president, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa, a member of Bahrain’s minority Sunni Muslim ruling family, is a FIFA vice president, tells the story of the incestuous relationship between sports and politics. It also demonstrates the limitations of Ruggie’s recommendations.
Salman’s AFC presidency and his failed candidacy earlier this year for the post of FIFA president have been dogged by allegations of involvement in the abuse of rights of prominent Bahraini football players and other athletes to which he never responded adequately or convincingly. Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, a key protagonist in a power struggle within the Kuwaiti ruling family that has sparked Kuwait’s suspension by the IOC, FIFA and a slew of other international sports associations, represents Asia in FIFA’s executive committee.
AFC executive committee member Major General Mohamed Khalfan MS Al-Romaithi, a former head of the UAE football association, is deputy commander-in-chief of the Abu Dhabi Police, a force that stands accused by human rights groups of systematic violations of human rights.
Salman’s AFC recently inadvertently put the relationship between sports and politics on the agenda when it argued that national soccer associations were being penalised for political interference that was beyond their control. Two AFC members, Indonesia and Kuwait, have been suspended by FIFA on charges of political interference.
“Our Member Associations (MAs) are being punished for actions which are outside their control. It is not that the members have broken the rules; rather they are suspended because of the decisions taken by their governments. It is extremely damaging for the members, who are not only banned from playing international football but also lose their grassroots funding. Development is being hugely affected in these MAs through lost income from their sponsors, as well as funding from the AFC and FIFA. This, in turn, leads to staff losses and cancelled projects,” said Mariano V. Araneta Jr, chairperson of an AFC taskforce that looked at intrusions in the running of national football associations.
The AFC’s presumption that national football associations are victims rather than accessories, if not participants in political interference, is belied by the fact that most Middle Eastern and North African governing bodies are managed by members of ruling families or executives with close ties to government. The implicit call in the taskforce’s conclusion would effectively give those executives a blank check and deprive bodies like FIFA and AFC from much of the leverage they have.
FIFA banned Indonesia last year over a dispute between the country’s sports ministry and the Indonesian football association over who was in charge of the sport.
The Kuwaiti example is a particularly flagrant example of the disastrous consequences of the unacknowledged and unregulated relationship between sports and politics. Kuwait’s suspension is widely seen as the fallout of a long-standing power struggle involving personal and political differences between members of the country’s ruling family, at the centre of which is Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, who is widely viewed as one of world sports’ most powerful men.
Sheikh Ahmed, a former oil minister and head of Kuwait’s national security council, is also president of the Olympic Council of Asia and the Association of National Olympic Committees. He has sought to leverage his powerful position in sports to secure a prominent return to government.
Kuwaiti officials said privately that members of the ruling family were fighting a bitter battle against one another at the expense of their country’s sports. “This is a political struggle. They want to finish off Sheikh Ahmed but he is not someone who will go down without a fight,” one official said.
The composition of the AFC executive committee as well as Kuwait’s travails illustrate that FIFA will have to do more than create a Qatar watchdog to secure recognition of its adherence to human rights. To do so, FIFA, like the IOC and other sports associations, will have to acknowledge football’s inextricable ties to politics, clean house, and introduce independent oversight and principles that govern their relationship with politics.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, 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 just published book with the same title.