Corruption beats boycotts

Long before Qatar won its bid to host, it was obvious this year’s World Cup was going to be a textbook case of ‘sports washing’

I vividly remember examining my first ever World cup wallchart for Mexico 1970. 


Everything about the poster, from the flags to the blue and white petrol station logo, left an indelible impression. Despite not being much of a fan (it was years before I progressed from picking sides based on the colours of their shirts to the one whose home stadium was closest to where I lived,) and rarely viewing any matches from the start, my childhood attraction to the game's simplicity, folklore, highlights, and pundits remains.


The cricket gene largely passed me by. Despite going several times to Lords to support Bangladesh, I remain convinced Bangladesh should leave cricket and nuclear weapons to India and Pakistan and focus on football instead. 


Not only because it is the one true global sport, but also FIFA may someday allocate more finals spaces to Asia. Imagine home fans arguing more about local players and less about Argentina and Brazil. 


If I had a deeper attachment to cricket, I could now be content as an England fan not to spend any time watching Qatar 2022. Not that I imagine for a second Gareth Southgate's squad is going to win the World Cup, following football is rarely about glory hunting.


Little encapsulates the spirit of football fans better than some of the grittier episodes of the Welcome to Wrexham docuseries about two Hollywood stars trying to revive a Welsh football club. 


These take a deeper-than-one-might expect dive into the culture and followers of said lower league football team. The appeal all lies in the agony, community, and hope. 


Long before Qatar won its bid to host, it was obvious this year's World Cup was going to be a textbook case of “sports washing,” and likely to be forever clouded by bribery allegations. If such a politically aware mutually organized and (at the time) profitable fan owned club as Barcelona FC could be tempted by cash from state owned Qatari organizations, (the national airline and an NGO), then a fiefdom like FIFA was hardly going to show more scruples. 


For all the recent talk of calls for boycotts to protest Qatar's record on poor labour conditions, discriminatory laws and general lack of democratic rights, these issues were known about before the bid and are far from unique across the Arabian Peninsula. (see eg; from nine years ago).


Qatar 2022 is an inevitable fit for a sport where Saudi Arabia's sovereign Public Investment Fund owns an EPL side, and many top teams are sponsored by the airline of counterparts in the United Arab Emirates. Nothing short of a major war is going to stop it now. And I admit I may switch on to later rounds myself if I hear of England progressing beyond expectations.


The scandal is about more than unsafe working practices, misogyny, and homophobic laws -- sadly those are commonplace in many nations, including Bangladesh. 


It is about the disturbing, de facto racist, disconnect between cash rich oil states promoting themselves as luxury business and travel destinations for the wealthier global middle classes, whilst building state of the art facilities on the backs of exploited badly paid labourers from poorer developing nations.


It is simplistic to place all the blame for such inequity at the door of local rulers and traditions. If one considers the history of the wider region and who benefits most today, it is just as much a by-product of Western imperial design. 


After all, the entire Middle East was the dominion of Britain and France a century ago and Qatar and UAE only formally became free of protectorate status from the UK in 1971. (Incidentally the only recently fading and distinctly un-PC “expat witticism” that “emirates” is an acronym for “English managed, Indian run, Arabs taking enormous salaries” is itself a hangover from an imperial pipe dream to make Iraq ‘a colony of a colony' by allowing the British Raj Government of India to administer it on behalf of London and send 25 million Indian settlers to Mesopotamia.)


A 2018 Guardian report into the working conditions of one stadium being built by 4,500 men, reported some improvements in facilities but workers from Bangladesh, Ghana, India, and Nepal being paid as little as £40 a week. 

For argument's sake, imagine that sum being tripled assuming publicity improved matters -- and then note that David Beckham has reportedly just been paid over $11 million for being a Qatar 2022 ambassador.


On the global scale there is just as stark a gulf between nations like Germany and the UK being commercial and investment destinations for tens of billions of dollars' worth of purchases from the likes of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and UAE, and the smaller (though more vital) amounts poorer nations receive from them in remittances. 


Next time you read a report showing Bangladesh over 130 spaces below the UK on the Corruption Perceptions Index, (a reflection of the prevalence of petty corruption in everyday life) just remember the much vaster amounts of which governments are capable; successive UK governments of different political parties repeatedly suppressed a Serious Fraud Office report into the “facilitation payments” that greased the wheels of the UK's mammoth $40 billion plus Al-Yamamah “oil for arms” deal with Saudi Arabia in 1984.


As if UK politics and laws was not already plutocrat and tax haven friendly enough, say hello to the new prime minister Rishi Sunak…


Mutually-assured corruption does not only apply to pliable ‘princely states.' China and the US are latter day Cold War style rivals but are also each other's largest trading partners. 


Until the invasion of Ukraine led to sanctions, Western nations spent decades eagerly laundering ill-gotten billions made by Putin's favoured kleptocrats. And should compliance today rule out loopholes, well then, consider this recent story in the Daily Telegraph: “A group of PwC partners has broken away from the firm to set up a new company in Cyprus that will service Russia-linked clients.”


Sadly, while there are many moral justifications for boycotting this tournament, the reasons for doing so are much too entrenched and large to expect football fans to solve them. 


The best anyone can hope for is hubris. That the greed of the game's administrators will cause them to choke their golden goose. And if the desert kingdoms prove incapable of a solar powered green transition, that their skyscrapers and stadia go the way of the works of Ozymandias.


Niaz Alam is London Bureau Chief of the Dhaka Tribune.