Serving human rights and social justice is a noble cause. However, falling prey to sensationalism and psy-ops while vilifying Qatar is counterproductive.

Recently, the Norwegian national football team wore t-shirts sporting the phrase “human rights on and off the pitch” before their World Cup qualifying match to protest against holding the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Meanwhile, Danish football fans have petitioned the parliament against participation in the 2022 World Cup. Such calls are unjustified, biased, and bear the hallmarks of a wider smear campaign.

Human rights organisations have indeed raised the issue of migrant worker rights in Qatar in the past. However, the Qatari authorities have gone to great lengths to address this issue. In the last few years, the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) has praised Qatar’s reforms, including removing the exit visa for domestic workers and establishing a non-discriminatory permanent minimum wage and easing job change procedures. 

These measures are miles ahead compared to what the migrant workforce faces in other Gulf nations and across the region. International trade unions and experts have validated such progress and indicated that these measures effectively ensured compliance with signed international labour agreements and fundamental rights at work.  

But is the migrant workforce the real issue here? The question is relevant in this context particularly given the history of human rights groups using the World Cup as an occasion to launch criticism against non-Western host countries. This was the case with South Africa, which was accused of police harassment of informal traders, homeless people, and migrants. Similarly, Brazil was slammed for detaining protesters and evicting slum residents in the run-up to the World Cup. Russia, too, received heavy flak for its anti-LGBT legislation. 

On the other hand, in the run-up to the 2006 World Cup, Germany was seldom put under the spotlight despite some serious concerns about police ill-treatment and excessive use of force against detainees and asylum seekers. The case of Oury Jalloh’s death, whilst in police custody, represents a textbook example of the lenient treatment of police brutality. There were hundreds of other incidents of similar nature. Nevertheless, these allegations were often not investigated promptly and impartially

France’s human rights’ record is even more problematic than its northern neighbour. For example, the abuse of undocumented workers has been an issue for decades. However, this was not subject of media activism in the lead up to the 1998 World Cup. Such double standards make one wonder about these campaigns’ selectivity and bias.

On top of that, the smear campaign against Qatar seems to have become entangled with a larger conflict, namely the battle for influence that unfolded during the Qatar Blockade and continues unabated. In the past three decades, Qatar has established itself as a player to be reckoned with internationally. This newly found prestige has infuriated its neighbours.

Being a wealthy nation in a turbulent region is dangerous business. This state of affairs forced the Qatari leadership to adopt various strategies to create a comparative advantage. Subsequently, an ambitious soft power strategy was undertaken to position the country as a leading power in the region irrespective of its small size. This approach was interwoven with Qatar’s rising economic growth, political stability, a reasonable distribution of wealth, a good education system, and a great deal of political will.

Qatar went ahead with this strategy and achieved momentous successes along the way, even if the journey was not without its share of difficulties. Tensions between Qatar and its regional rivals brewed for a few years before reaching its apogee in 2017. At that juncture, four countries subjected Qatar to a blockade, which was upheld until January 2021. 

During the three and a half years of the blockade, Qatar’s information nodes were targeted by cyber strikes, while political and media warfare was waged against its leadership to dent the country’s reputation and weaken its population’s morale. These hostilities occurred against a backdrop of economic sanctions and an all-out diplomatic blitz against Qatar by the blockading states.

Sustained smear campaigns featured prominently in the register. At the height of the Qatar blockade, the UAE info-warriors launched the hashtag #UAEwillhosttheWorldCup, alluding to their desire to seize the World Cup’s hosting from the Qataris. This wish was later blatantly expressed by UAE’s Lieutenant General Dhahi Khalfan when he tweeted: “If the World Cup leaves Qatar, the crisis will go away…because the crisis is created to break it.” Likewise, the Saudis did not hide their desire to at least co-host the world’s biggest party.

The anti-Qatar war of words was not confined to the Gulf region. Armies of American and British lobbyists and companies engaged in astroturfing campaigns echoed the slander against Qatar internationally. Even renowned media outlets fell prey to the battle of narratives, often peddling erroneous and unsubstantiated reports. While sloppy journalism is nothing new, the mobilisation of media bias at the service of hidden agendas is definitely not welcome. 

The World Cup is supposed to be an occasion for joy and passion. There is no denying that serving human rights and social justice is a noble cause. However, falling prey to sensationalism and psy-ops while vilifying a country moving in the right direction is not only counterproductive but ultimately defeats the purpose.

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