The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia put a spotlight on Europe’s complicated relationship with immigration, especially as European teams composed of top black and Muslim players dominated the competition. Several commentators quickly noted the disparity between fans rooting for diverse teams and the rise of xenophobia and racism in their home countries, while some used the sporting event as a moment to celebrate multiculturalism. Still others asked why immigrants had to continually prove themselves at the highest levels in order to be accepted as truly “belonging” in national communities, pointing out the ongoing struggles of everyday nonwhite people in Europe, not to mention those dying to reach its shores.
It is not surprising that large-scale sporting events become occasions to scrutinize global and local conditions of inequality as well as connectivity—this was indeed an important thread in Western media coverage of the Beijing Olympics, the South Africa and Brazil World Cups, and the Incheon Asian Games. With Russia hosting the 2018 World Cup, many topics could have taken center stage in international reporting, such as concerns over political prisoners and LGBTQ rights, Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict, or state-sponsored doping in Russian sport. Yet migration dominated the headlines in Europe and North America this summer, with daily international news about family separations at the US/Mexico border, the United States Supreme Court ruling on what is commonly referred to as the “Muslim ban,” the ongoing refugee crises in North Africa and the Middle East, and Brexit.
If immigration dominated the 2018 World Cup commentary, it is even more likely to do so in the run-up to the 2022 games, to be held in Qatar. Stories of construction workers from South Asia building the stadiums for Qatar’s World Cup have already circulated in international media, and Human Rights Watch has already targeted the issue in its coverage of the 2022 World Cup, just as it did in its coverage of the 2018 event in Russia. Labor abuses have indeed accompanied these and other large-scale international sporting events worldwide. What is notably absent from the coverage of Qatar is a focus on these stories and others as part of a larger narrative of the country as a space that is, like Europe, impossible to imagine outside of its complicated and contradictory relationship with immigration. In this article, we discuss the multiple facets of immigration in Qatar without which the 2022 World Cup would not be possible.
We make purposeful use of the word immigration here when discussing Qatar and the Gulf states. We do so in order to challenge the migration vs. immigration binary within which those who are coded as non-native (legally, culturally, racially, and/or socially) in the Gulf region are commonly understood in comparison to their counterparts in the so-called liberal states of the West. As we know, immigration is not secure in any way in North America or Europe. Meanwhile, several scholars of the Gulf region, including us, have researched how non-citizens do in fact have access to various rights and enact forms of belonging, despite what many outsiders perceive as rigid–and seemingly total–systems of exclusion and precarity.
Qatar is truly a country of immigrants; Qatari citizens only comprise about twelve percent of the population. The rest are foreign residents on renewable work visas or dependents of those on work visas. Unless you are visiting as a short-term tourist, this is the only way to legally reside in Qatar without citizenship. It is nearly impossible for a foreign resident to gain citizenship or even permanent residency in Qatar. Citizenship is patrilineal and not linked to place of birth. Therefore foreign residents can be into their second, third, or even fourth generation and still be reliant on renewable employment visas to stay in the country that they know as home.
There are some exceptions to Qatar’s highly restrictive citizenship system. The primary one is if a foreign woman marries a Qatari man, she can naturalize. Some long-term residents who are Arab, Muslim, and speak Arabic have also been awarded citizenship. Some unique allowances are also made for those who show exceptional “contributions” to the country. This includes players on Qatar’s national teams. Most of Qatar’s World Cup players are either foreign born or foreign residents born in Qatar who have been given citizenship in order to create a national football team. FIFA rules dictate that team players have to have citizenship for at least five years. Qatar has been building itself to be a regional sports hub for much longer and has been naturalizing players across many teams in order to build its sporting profile internationally.
The fans that will fill Qatar’s stadiums for the 2022 World Cup will not just be citizens and visiting tourists—they will include the country’s majority foreign resident population. Even though Gulf states like Qatar have been criticized for not providing formal rights and belonging to their immigrant populations, we have observed diverse forms of nationalist affinity and belonging among several diasporic groups that reside there. On Qatar’s National Day, it is commonplace to see foreign residents displaying the national flag in various forms, such as on T-shirts, bags, bumper stickers, or even as nail polish. Many consider Qatar their home, get defensive when criticism is levied toward the country and its leadership, and celebrate the success of Qataris on the world stage. Indeed, noncitizen residents came out in droves to celebrate in 2010, when FIFA announced that Qatar had won the bid to host the 2022 championship.
While the men who are building the stadiums, hotels, roads, railway, and other necessary infrastructure to host the World Cup have been profiled in terms of “modern-day slavery,” it is also important to remember that most of them hail from South Asia, a region of the world that is football-obsessed. How will the immigrants who worked on the sports facilities watch the World Cup? Who will they watch it with, and what will they have to say about the event? Discussions around Qatar’s 2022 World Cup need to do more to include these immigrants’ voices and their lived experiences, rather than reducing them to the iconic figure of the “migrant worker,” rendered suspiciously voiceless and faceless by the very commentaries that seek to champion them and challenge their marginalization. Such simplistic and dehumanizing savior narratives are old-hat. Critical media coverage of sporting mega-events, whether in Qatar or elsewhere, will need to push beyond tired clichés if it is to have any effect beyond preaching to the choir and serving as a self-affirming narrative of Western/liberal superiority.
One starting point is to stop fetishizing the poor as victims and to instead understand them as real human beings with complex motives and emotions that do not slot easily into one-sided narratives. In the documentary film, Champ of the Camp, which follows a Bollywood-style singing competition held in labor camps, South Asian construction workers in Dubai interact with the iconic towers of the city, both sweating at the construction sites of the not yet completed buildings and, on a day off, marveling in the shadows of the building that they participated in completing. A recent documentary set in Doha profiles construction workers building stadiums and hotels for the 2022 World Cup. The workers dream of being recruited out of their backbreaking jobs onto football teams through a competition put on by their companies. The competition allows the employers to distract them from the dismal working conditions they have to endure with false promises of stardom. But it also strengthens their connection to the sport they so love and their role in such an iconic sporting event. The immigrants working on Qatar’s World Cup infrastructure are indeed exploited by many of their employers and are overworked, yet they are not merely bodies that migrate as “labor.” Nor is it possible to reduce the space-time of their labor to quantifiable economic values alone. Ethnographic accounts of daily life on the job and in “labor camps” reveal that immigrants create multilinguistic, cross-ethnic, and cross-religious communities and form affective ties to the Gulf. They are also connected to the urban materiality that they have helped to shape. These aspects of their experiences are erased in the discourse of “slavery” and elided through terms like migrant labor.
The linguistic and cultural forms that working-class immigrants bring with them impact the fabric of Doha and other residents’ understandings of Qatariness, and this shifts over time as patterns of migration change. Pro-worker rhetoric and activism has also surfaced throughout Qatar, from individual resident activities and private charity works to corporate social responsibility initiatives and state-led changes. Although this is clearly a response to international media coverage, which tends to frame the country as a bastion of labor abuse, these gestures might also be read as part of Islamic duties toward the poor, forms of social justice, or civic-mindedness. Making gestures of inclusion to construction workers and other low-wage immigrants–and ensuring that they are heavily publicized–has become central to state and corporate efforts to reassert control of Qatar’s image as modern, cosmopolitan, and progressive. As with other sporting events in Qatar and high-profile projects sponsored by the state, the FIFA World Cup will no doubt be an important venue for the political leaders and investors and their allies to advance this image on the global stage. While attendance at Qatar’s World Cup will be restricted to those who can afford ticket prices, Qatari organizers are likely to offer special access for some working class “laborers,” akin to the trips sponsored to the Russia World Cup this summer.
Another way to push critical accounts of sporting mega-events in new and less imperial directions is to give more attention to the complicity of elite actors, who profit tremendously from events like the World Cup. By this we do not just mean the officials implicated in the FIFA bribery scandal that gave Qatar the 2022 event in the first place, but also the political elites and their technocratic allies who are responsible for designing the stadiums (e.g., Foster + Partners, Zaha Hadid Architects, Heerim Architects), powering them with “green” energy (e.g., Siemens), as well as redeveloping Doha’s entire transportation network (e.g., Mitsubishi, Egis Group). A vast array of corporations and experts are actively working to bring the Qatari leadership’s vision of a modern and spectacular World Cup to life. Indeed, a large portion of Qatar’s noncitizen immigrants makes up the technical experts, businesspeople, investors, and other “knowledge economy” workers who are needed to advance this vision. The overwhelming media coverage about poor “migrant workers” in the Gulf excludes the complicity of these middle- and upper-class migrant workers (and they do labor) in producing the spectacle of a sporting event that includes an entire new city—Lusail—outside of Doha, eight stadiums, numerous luxury hotels, a rail system, completely reworked roadways, and countless other infrastructural acrobatics.
Immigration issues in Qatar–just as anywhere else in the world–cannot be reduced to one side of the equation or a narrative of wins and losses. Liberal critics seem to know well who loses, but they have little to say about those who win. And when all of us, winners and losers, are glued to television screens across the Global South and the Global North, this kind of economic calculus gets a little murkier. With Qatar still under blockade from its regional neighbors after one year, the individual actors and companies with stakes in the game may be far more complex in 2022 than most observers can imagine at the moment. At the very least, we hope that the focus on immigration during the next World Cup will live up to the enormous diversity of the immigrants, which makes Qatar such an important place to understand not through tired clichés, but in its full complexity.