2022 FIFA World Cup: Is Qatar Engaging In 'Sportswashing'?

In this segment of "Scoreboard," Newsy's "In The Loop" explores why sporting events are and can be held in countries with authoritarian regimes.
Posted at 7:58 PM, Nov 21, 2022

Sunday marked the start of the 2022 FIFA Men's World Cup. FIFA expects the month-long international soccer competition to draw billions of viewers.

This year's tournament is being held in the Middle Eastern country of Qatar. The selection came as a surprise when it was first announced in 2010, considering the country was much smaller than competing bidders and had its team qualify for a World Cup.

Then in 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted nine FIFA officials in a widespread bribery scandal, and 2020 court filings saw the DOJ allege that Qatar's representatives paid millions in bribes in exchange for officials supporting the country's bid.

Former FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who was ousted for his role in the related bribery scandal, said just a few weeks before this year's World Cup that awarding it to Qatar was "a mistake."

Even after FIFA awarded Qatar the World Cup, the Gulf country came under even more scrutiny for how it had prepared to host. The use of foreign and migrant workers to build the stadiums has been described by Amnesty International as "forced labor," including false exaggerations of salaries, withholding of pay and workers often stuck in debt after having to pay hefty fees to recruiters.

With all of these issues, many question why international sports organizations are comfortable having their biggest events hosted in these countries that have authoritarian regimes, but it's become more common due to multiple reasons.

Firstly, not that many democracies want to take on the burdens that can come with hosting marquee events like the Olympics or the World Cup. Local support for bids has declined as voters don't want to put up with the costs of updating infrastructure for the games, years of construction and having hundreds of thousands of people come into town.

Scrutiny for practices in host countries of major sporting events has been a running theme in 2022. China hosted the Winter Olympics this past February in Beijing while also facing diplomatic boycotts by leaders of several countries — including the U.S. — over human rights abuses of Uyghur prisoners.

Beijing's selection as host of the 2022 Winter Olympics came after they were one of just two bids, competing against Almaty, Kazakhstan.

When the IOC awarded Los Angeles the 2028 Summer Olympics, they didn't bother asking for any other bids.

"Countries that have a more participatory approach or a democratic society, they are not seeing actually the benefits of hosting those mega sporting events," said Andrea Florence, the director of Sport and Rights Alliance. "I think sports' governing bodies are really at an inflection point: Either they change, or the only countries that will bid to host those events will be countries with grave human rights violations."

Florence also points people to the documents that govern entities like the IOC and FIFA.

The IOC commits to protecting human rights in the first article of their code of ethics. But in an effort to stay politically neutral, they generally haven't been too afraid of hosting events in countries with repressive human rights records.

In the past 15 years, nearly half of the Winter and Summer Olympics have been held in Russia or China. 

But earlier this year, the IOC approved a Strategic Framework on Human Rights. Recognizing some of the issues at hand, it included a provision aiming to increase scrutiny of the human rights records in places bidding to host Olympic events. 

"The International Olympic Committee finally accepted that it is falling under the UN guiding principles and that it has responsibilities under human rights," Florence said. "Without human rights responsibilities, without human rights recognition, it's not possible to have a world of sports that is actually a force for good."

This could mean that authoritarian countries will face more scrutiny before bidding, but even with these standards in place, the benefits of turning to authoritarian countries can still be mutual. Countries get to improve their reputation, and sports organizations get to make a lot of money when authoritarian regimes offer to step in.

These partnerships with big sports brands are part of an influencing strategy that critics and foreign policy experts have dubbed "sportswashing." The idea is that if a country is looking to improve ts reputation, they can do it by leveraging the love people have for existing sports.

It's a chance to bring sports closer to the country's people and make it a point of unity, but countries can also make millions of sports viewers aware of that country in a positive way.

It's one thing for a government looking to leverage a nonprofit governing body like FIFA or the IOC. But for privately run sports leagues — like the English Premier League, Formula 1 racing, UFC and others — that don't have charters requiring them to respect human rights, there's even less of an issue.

"When you look at it just from a business perspective, from a capitalist perspective, it becomes malpractice for you not to accept these offers when they're available to you," said Karim Zidan, a journalist covering sports and authoritarianism. "When I studied business, I never read any any business book that taught me that morals go above your bottom line."

Zidan has spent nearly a decade writing about the involvement of authoritarian regimes like Russia and Saudi Arabia in the international sports world. He says Saudi Arabia in particular has developed a version of sportswashing that is more drastic than anything the sports world has ever seen. 

"It starts with Vision 2030," Zidan said. "It's this concept that Mohammad bin Salman came up with to deter Saudi's investments in oil and its dependence on oil. So what did they want to do instead? They wanted to invest significantly in sports and entertainment as a way to employ their people, obviously, as a way to distract and and present Saudi Arabia as this reform society."

If Saudi Arabia can host or sponsor a sport, they will.

For Formula One, the Saudis host a race, and the state oil company Aramco sponsors a team and the entire championship.

For soccer, they have poured in $2.3 billion to sponsor clubs just in the first eight months of this year, and they own the English Premier League team Newcastle United.

For pro wrestling, the Saudis will pay WWE about $100 million annually for the company to host two events there each year.

Earlier in November, ahead of one of their Saudi events, WWE executives Stephanie McMahon and Paul "Triple H" Levesque presented a championship belt for an adviser to pass along to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. 

"When you are obsessed and loyal to your sports team and then say Saudi Arabia goes and buys your sports team and promises to invest in it and make it one of the most successful teams ever, well then Saudi has successfully managed to purchase a whole legion of fans for free," Zadin said.

But fans and athletes aren't always as welcoming. When the Saudis funded the creation of LIV Golf to rival the existing PGA Tour, there was such a big backlash that the DOJ has gotten involved, and both tours have sued each other.

Tiger Woods accused the LIV signees of "turning their backs" on the PGA, saying, "I just don't see how it's in the best interests of the game, what the European Tour and what the PGA Tour stands for and what they've done." 

Plus, families of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks protested outside LIV Golf events in the U.S.

There's no evidence of the Saudis funding the attacks, but 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens, as was Osama Bin Laden.

The league still has won over some fans by signing away star golfers, including Phil Mickelson, and setting up golf leagues or hosting World Cups can be a proxy for countries to settle their geopolitical rivalries.

In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed ties with Qatar, alleging it was funding terrorism and becoming too close with Iran. They tried to get FIFA to strip Qatar of hosting the 2022 World Cup, but FIFA held firm. In 2021 with Qatar's World Cup looming, the countries agreed to settle their differences and restore ties with Qatar.

"This is Qatar showing its political strength, getting back into the into the the arena, the global arena here," Zadin said. "Unless something horrific happens at this year's World Cup, which I'm not necessarily predicting will happen, we will have to consider this a success for Qatar. Despite all the media, despite everything that has gone on, all the reporting on the migrant abuse, Qatar still got what it wanted in the end and is now on stronger footing than ever before."