Each death is one too many. And six thousand or more, it’s terrible, not to mention the working conditions. These are the arguments of those who oppose any Dutch official presence at the World Cup in Qatar. It is also, loosely translated, the title of the latest report by the International Labor Organization (ILO) on the situation of work-related accidents in Qatar. The report shows how complicated such statistics are. To what extent are traffic accidents directly related to work, and should they be included in what is called inhumane conditions? What impact has the partial shutdown of construction had during Covid-19? However, the ILO’s main conclusion concerns the improvement that has taken place since the Western press first reported on the construction conditions. It suggests that international attention is a condition sine qua non is for change.
The tension surrounding the World Cup in Qatar is of course about much more than football or the number of victims in the construction of stadiums and infrastructure. And also about more than the energetic footprint associated with construction, transport and accommodation (imported food, bottled water!) of so many people that you barely hear about now that the event is approaching. The recent stunning statements by the authorities about homosexuality as a mental illness and women as candy, whether wrapped or not, confirm the deep outrage of many that ‘no one’ should go here (no one except the team and supporters) and that these countries are not good. Supporting a dubious regime’s advertising campaign is unacceptable.
This indignation, however justified, also shows a certain opportunistic naivete. The objections to Qatar are only emerging now, ad hoc. If there had been no football, no one would have beeped.
Of course, every country seizes a tournament for self-promotion. Of course, geopolitics plays a role. First of all, it has been a political gesture to award the World Cup to an Arab country. You can oppose this choice, but in doing so you deny the geopolitical reality of changing power relations. The world’s center of gravity is increasingly outside Europe. The Gulf as a region forms a hinge between east and west and south. Excluding the Arab world from such championships is also a value judgment. That point of view is acceptable, but not comprehensible, because all the Gulf states are members of the UN.
Football may be war, but it is also politics and diplomacy, part of the formal and informal relations between countries. Countries that are increasingly interdependent in a web of relationships that are difficult to unravel. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, it’s about the art of the possible. This is actually what the KNVB and the government are doing: insisting on social responsibility and hoping that it will ultimately have a good impact.
There is no clean line-up in the short term. Each position has its moral complications. Isolating countries (Iran, North Korea) have given little. I am of the school to keep the dialogue open. Show empathy and at the same time don’t talk with flour in your mouth. The instrument of the diplomat is the language, which I prefer to the finger of the priest or the laziness of the merchant.
However, the perversity of our time is that much of what people associate with it is done using labor and raw materials and under regimes that raise major ethical questions. Facing that requires more than indignation over a World Cup.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper on 14 November 2022