The case for — and against — boycotting the 2022 World Cup

The World Cup trophy.
The World Cup trophy. Illustrated | Getty Images

Qatar's hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup is highly controversial: The nation has been accused of human rights violations related to its use of migrant labor to erect the tournament's infrastructure. Qatar hired more than 30,000 workers, mainly from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and the Philippines, to build its World Cup stadiums. It's estimated that about 6,500 laborers died in the decade since Qatar won its bid to host the sporting event, per The GuardianSame-sex marriage is also illegal in Qatar. This has prompted many to shun the World Cup in solidarity with the victims and the oppressed. But others argue the whole situation is being overblown and the criticisms are misplaced. Who's right?

The boycotts are purely performative

The pro-boycott narrative is nothing more than "liberal storytelling," Fawaz Rob, CEO of Bangla Bari, an architecture firm in Bangladesh, argues in the Daily Star. If Western countries really wanted to take a stand against human rights abuses, they could take major collective action, like issuing sanctions or pulling out of the World Cup entirely. Yet Europe and America still do business with human rights violators, betraying their own hypocrisy in the process. So now "average citizens think boycotting the World Cup would solve the labor problem," when really their actions will have little effect. On the flip side, the World Cup brings the world together. It's "a chance to celebrate humanity. Why should we boycott it?"

They're also prejudiced

The issue of migrant labor in Qatar is concerning and deserves to be scrutinized, but "some of this discourse plays on Orientalist tropes that treat Qatar and other Gulf countries as exceptional," when really they are just one "locus in a global flow of capital and labor," writes historian Abdullah Al-Arian, author of Football in the Middle East: State, Society and the Beautiful Game, for The New York Times. Let's not forget the colonial roots of the United Arab Emirates' "kafala" sponsorship system, which gives employers draconian control over migrant workers. "One would hope that future World Cup hosts — and their labor practices — are given the same kind of scrutiny."

Let's not overlook Qatar's improvements

"Mega sporting events" like the World Cup can pave the way for social change, argues Danyel Reiche, an associate professor at Georgetown University Qatar's Center for International and Religious Studies. Qatar has already made some recent labor reforms, for example introducing a minimum wage. So when compared not to Western nations but to its regional neighbors, "Qatar comes out ahead" as a reformer on employee rights. We want to encourage these changes rather than "disparage" them, Reiche says, and boycotting the World Cup can "actually serve to undermine Qatar's ongoing reform process in the labor market."

Boycott, boycott, boycott!

Qatar's hosting is a clear example of sportswashing — hiding questionable actions behind a highly revered tournament, argues Katharina Fuchs in Vogue. The violations of Qatar cannot be ignored because "if we don't fight discrimination in sports, we don't need to fight it at all." While it's true this is not the first sporting event to have human rights violations, "the inaction of the past in no way justifies the inaction of the present — or even that of the future," and "makes it all the more important to send [a message] now."

This is an opportunity to raise awareness

If you're going to be mad at anyone, be mad at FIFA for choosing Qatar despite its abuses, writes Nick Rewcastle wrote at SportsPro. But take heart in knowing that the controversy "provides a significant moment and platform to drive conversation and change." All the discourse around Qatar will inevitably lead to "talk of social and humanitarian issues and sport's role for good." He adds: "If brands do this well, key figures aren't afraid to have a voice and the world comes together ... driving purpose-led action through sport."

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