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George Bright and Tommy Go discuss the increasing interest in football in the Gulf states and examine some of the political issues that arise from this.
In the last fifteen years, football has become of increasing interest to the oil-rich nations of the Persian Gulf. The reasons behind this sudden, perturbing interest have been reported as projects of passion and goodwill or a left field option of diversifying these country’s financial portfolios. Perhaps the most intriguing lens with which to view the current landscape is considering the use of football as a political tool, and the proceeding response of its primary governing bodies. In this article, we will unpack two key examples which demonstrate how this can manifest.
The 2022 World Cup
The 2022 FIFA World Cup has put the spotlight on Qatar and its oil-rich Gulf neighbours. What was once the crown jewel of world football has been heavily marred in controversy. Initially, public discussion centred around widespread corruption at the highest levels of FIFA that led to Qatar being announced as the winning bid. In the decade since however, the conversation has taken a darker tone. Details of the kafala system of employment practiced by the Gulf Nations have become available to a global audience of football fans, journalists and governing bodies.
With these new findings, a host of alleged breaches of human rights has arisen surrounding workers employed under the kafala system. The Guardian UK reported in March 2021 that 6,500 migrant workers from the Indian subcontinent have now died in Qatar since the winning bid was announced. FIFA is facing increasing pressure to take an active stance against the current practices from fans, non-government organisations such as Amnesty International and most recently members of its own smaller constituent nations. FIFA is yet to take any such action.
Politics and sport have long been a part of an uneasily one-sided relationship. Whether it’s scoring victories over international political rivals, allowing exemptions for sport to return during a pandemic or simply using sporting associations to improve public image, sport and politics have always been and will always be intertwined. The uneasiness of the situation comes from fans and sporting governing bodies’ unwillingness to acknowledge this relationship. Both parties flinch at apparent connections and promote the idea of sport existing as a separate entity, isolated from external contributions.
This apathy for political involvement in sport is motivated by both emotion and finance. Publicly, the lopsided commitment to keep politics out of sport has justified FIFA’s decision to remain passive in challenging the governments of the Gulf Nations to improve the standard of living for their migrant workforce. As football’s global governing body, FIFA does not have a direct responsibility to improve the wellbeing of lives around the world, including those of these workers. After all, it is an organisation that oversees football at an international level and is intent not to be seen as any more.
It is also an organization which in 2018 after the Russia World Cup announced an annual revenue of $4.6 billion USD. FIFA possesses the global clout and financial leverage to become an active, positive global citizen. The 2022 World Cup will be the ultimate example of its refusal to do so.
Whilst Qatar has been the subject of the majority of public criticism of the kafala system, it is far from the only country in the region to implement it. The system is employed by all nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council of which Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are both prominent members. Under the system, employees are contracted to state owned companies and emigrate from developing countries such as India, Bangladesh and Pakistan having been promised paid work. Upon arrival however, workers are escorted to labour camps which serve as their new home, passports are confiscated and they are put to work in the brutal daytime conditions of the Sinai peninsula.
Remittance contributes heavily to the GDP of most of the countries whose workers are targeted. As such, native government intervention is minimal. These employees are now trapped. Unable to earn enough money to escape their contracts, unable to change jobs under the laws of the kafala system and are tied by the constant burden in sending their payslip to their families back in their home.
Since the global spotlight has turned on Qatar, gaining employment there is now considered to be advantageous when compared to its neighbouring countries. Qatar has been pressured into making a number of positive reforms including allowing workers to seek new employment as of August 2020. These reforms have been praised and used as evidence by FIFA that it can remain passive and still have a positive impact globally. This stance ignores the work that still could and should be done both in Qatar and its neighbouring states.
Involvement in European Club Football
In 2008, Manchester City became the first football club to become state owned when they were purchased by the Abu Dhabi United Group, owned by Sheikh Mansour, Deputy Prime Minister and leading member of the UAE Royal Family. In 2011, French Club Paris Saint Germain (PSG) became the second, bought by Qatar Sports Investments. The subsequent spending and image of buying success led fans to question the values of the sport’s structure as a whole and governing bodies reacted with new financial regulations placed on clubs. Since then, European football has become the arena for club battles for off field relevancy, governing bodies such as UEFA (who oversee European national and international club competitions) have been challenged for control and the sport has become a proxy for international political feuds.
Under its new ownership, Manchester City immediately began spending record amounts of money. They broke the English record transfer fee upon arrival, spent over £100m on players before the following season and in 2011 announced an annual loss of £197m. With this spending came success and in 2012, Manchester City won its first Premier League title. The success of the club was reported by the UAE as a good news story, transforming a middling club in a largely working class city into English champions and Champions League perennials. Playing an attractive brand of football, the club has now won a further three titles and its Abu Dhabi owners have continued to cultivate goodwill.
The UAE has been accused of using this positive public image to deflect from accusations of human rights abuses, particularly surrounding its involvement with the Saudi Arabian led military intervention into Yemen which worsened a “humanitarian catastrophe” in the region according to the UN. The process dubbed “sportswashing” was described by Amnesty International as a brazen attempt to repair the country’s “deeply tarnished image”.
UEFA responded to the massive losses being accrued by implementing Financial Fair Play rules prior to the 2011-12 season, with aims to improve the overall financial health of European clubs and restrict what was described as “financial doping”. The controversial rules have largely restricted new owners from operating in the same fashion as those of Manchester City and PSG, but in the cases of these clubs appear to have had little more than an aesthetic effect. Internal emails leaked in 2018 reported numerous counts of sponsorship deals being inflated or secretly funded by their respective state owners. According to the leaks reported in German publication Der Spiegel, instead of accepting sanctions, Manchester City threatened legal action against UEFA that would send the organization bankrupt. An email allegedly sent by the club’s lawyer stated CEO Khaldoon Al Mubarak would prefer to “spend 30 million on the 50 best lawyers in the world to sue them for the next 10 years”. Manchester City did face a 2 year ban from UEFA for their financial management between 2012 and 2016, a decision which the club appealed resulting in a legal battle in the Court of Arbitration for Sport. After substantial evidence was ruled to be time-barred by UEFA’s own regulations, the 2-year ban was overturned and City were left with only a fine for failing to cooperate with UEFA’s investigation. The result has left many questioning UEFA’s influence as a governing body.
The UAE and Qatar are not the only Gulf Cooperation Council members with interests in European Football. Last year, Saudi Arabia attempted to turn Newcastle United into the third state owned club. The proposal was met with an outcry of vocal opposition including from Hatice Cengiz, fiance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi who had been murdered on the orders of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman 18 months earlier. Examples such as the aforementioned execution, involvement in Yemen and oppression of women’s rights in the nation were raised as reasons for the Premier League to block the proposed deal.
The bid failed to pass the Premier League’s owners and directors test and was blocked, but none of the above issues were cited as motives. Instead, the Saudi Arabian government’s failure to address widespread illegal broadcasting of Premier League games within the country. BeIN Sports, a Qatar state owned company owns the Premier League, Champions League and Formula 1 broadcasting rights for the Middle East and North Africa region. After Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties to Qatar in 2017, pay television company beoutQ was established and began providing pirated streams of beIN broadcast overlaid with the beoutQ on air logo. In September 2020, beIN announced it would not bid to renew its rights to broadcast German Bundesliga matches citing piracy as “crippling the market”, this is what matters to the Premier League.
The recent interest in football from the Gulf States has come with unprecedented amounts of monetary investment and an increased scrutiny on governing bodies to value morality over finance. On the field, a football game lasts for 90 minutes. Off it, is a perpetual game to remain relevant and successful at the highest level. There are new players in the game now, pushing traditional boundaries and testing the sports limits. How football’s governing bodies react will determine the landscape of the next round.
References and further resources
Kafala, Human Rights and The World Cup:
Financial investment and international confilcts:
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Some recent updates from closer to home: