Global Sporting Events: Battlegrounds for Human Rights

With the Lon­don Olympics less than two months away major glob­al sport­ing events are increas­ing­ly prov­ing to be Mid­dle East­ern bat­tle­grounds for human rights rather than an expen­sive way for coun­tries to boost their pres­tige and sense of nation­al pride.

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Flashy, high-pro­file events in the Mid­dle East like the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, Formula‑1 in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi and ten­nis cham­pi­onships in Dubai have become lever­age points in the hands of inter­na­tion­al and local activists and flash­points of protest against auto­crat­ic regimes. 

To detrac­tors of Gulf Arab regimes the tour­na­ments are sym­bols of an effort to retain pow­er in part by squan­der­ing resources to paci­fy peo­ple with glit­ter­ing totems of unbal­anced and often mis­con­ceived devel­op­ment as well as games. That per­cep­tion is rein­forced by a sense that major eco­nom­ic bene­fac­tors of sport­ing events are often mem­bers of the host’s rul­ing family. 

Cur­rent­ly the British For­eign Office is strug­gling whether to allow a Syr­i­an gen­er­al close to embat­tled Pres­i­dent Bashar al-Assad to attend the Olympics. Gen­er­al Mowaf­fak Joumaa, head of Syria’s Olympic com­mit­tee, has sig­naled his inten­tion to be present in Lon­don in con­trast to Iran­ian Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ahmadine­jad who said he was not com­ing because Britain had an undis­closed “prob­lem” with his pres­ence. The gen­er­al sees his atten­dance as a way to project the Assad regime as an accept­ed mem­ber of the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty despite wide­spread con­dem­na­tion of its bru­tal crack­down on anti-gov­ern­ment pro­test­ers and rebels. 

Anti-gov­ern­ment protests foiled a Bahrai­ni attempt ear­li­er this year to use Formula‑1 to por­tray the coun­try as sta­ble and har­mo­nious fol­low­ing last year’s hard-hand­ed sup­pres­sion of anti-gov­ern­ment demon­stra­tions. The attempt back­fired. Rather than focus­ing on hap­pen­ings on the race track, inter­na­tion­al atten­tion turned instead to con­tin­ued dis­con­tent and the government’s fail­ure to move ahead with mean­ing­ful polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic reforms demand­ed by the Shi­ite Mus­lim major­i­ty of the rul­ing Sun­ni minority. 

Mean­while, Gulf states are feel­ing the heat of the labour move­ment to change for­eign work­ers’ con­di­tions, wide­ly denounced as mod­ern day slav­ery, as a result of Qatar’s win­ning of the right to host the 2022 World Cup. 

Con­fronting exis­ten­tial fears

Union pres­sure to change the labour sys­tem cuts to the core of the nature of Gulf soci­eties, whose depen­dence on for­eign labour has turned the local cit­i­zen­ry into a minor­i­ty in coun­tries like Qatar, Kuwait, the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates and Bahrain. Beyond the com­mer­cial and eco­nom­ic advan­tages of a cheap pool of labour, dis­cus­sion of any kind of rights for non-locals rais­es the spec­tre of minor­i­ty Gulf pop­u­la­tions no longer hav­ing coun­tries that they control. 

Gulf states are nonethe­less seek­ing to avoid con­fronta­tion with the Inter­na­tion­al Trade Union Con­fed­er­a­tion (ITUC), which rep­re­sents 175 mil­lion work­ers in 153 coun­tries. The ITUC is threat­en­ing Qatar with a boy­cott cam­paign of the 2022 World Cup if it fails to bring the con­di­tions of up to one mil­lion pri­mar­i­ly Asian work­ers engaged in con­struc­tion of sta­di­ums and oth­er huge infra­struc­ture projects in line with inter­na­tion­al stan­dards. Qatar’s Labour Min­is­ter Nas­sir bin Abdul­la Alhu­mi­di agreed recent­ly to meet the ITUC for the first time at the Inter­na­tion­al Labour Organ­i­sa­tion con­fer­ence next month. 

Sau­di Ara­bia has fol­lowed Qatar in announc­ing that it was look­ing to replace employ­er spon­sor­ship of work­ers with a licens­ing sys­tem. Qatari Labour Under­sec­re­tary Hus­sein Al-Mul­la said ear­li­er this month that the ener­gy-rich Gulf state would form “an elect­ed and inde­pen­dent work­ers’ union to pro­tect work­ers’ rights regard­less of their nationality.” 

How­ev­er the moves by the Gulf states amount to too lit­tle too late. They have failed to appease the ITUC and have put world soc­cer body FIFA on the spot because it does not want to be seen as endors­ing the stag­ing of the world’s largest sport­ing event on the back of per­ceived slav­ery and vio­la­tions of human rights. Until Qatar’s agree­ment to meet the ITUC next month gov­ern­ments in the Gulf had refused to engage in a dia­logue with the trade unions and oth­er inter­est groups who are using the stag­ing of major glob­al sport­ing events to push for changes that would bring the region into line with accept­ed inter­na­tion­al practice. 

They also seek to under­write the calls for social jus­tice echo­ing across North Africa and West Asia from the Atlantic coast to the Gulf that have been in revolt since Decem­ber 2010. As a result, trade unions are mov­ing ahead with plans for a glob­al cam­paign under the mot­to ‘No World Cup in Qatar with­out labour rights’, to deprive Qatar of its right to host the 2022 World Cup if it failed to align its labour leg­is­la­tion and work­ers’ con­di­tion with inter­na­tion­al standards. 

It was not imme­di­ate­ly clear whether Al Mulla’s announce­ment went fur­ther than his pro­pos­al in ear­ly May to estab­lish a Qatari-led labour com­mit­tee that would rep­re­sent work­ers’ inter­ests rather than a union able to engage in col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing; he had also pro­posed abo­li­tion of the spon­sor­ship sys­tem that would stop short of allow­ing for­eign work­ers to freely change jobs. 

Bat­tle for labour rights

The unions’ sense of urgency stems from the death last year of some 200 Nepalese work­ers, alleged­ly as the result of harsh work­ing con­di­tions as well as the fact that com­pa­nies are devel­op­ing their sup­ply chains and cost­ing mod­els for major infra­struc­ture projects on the basis of what they describe as unac­cept­able labour terms. 

The bat­tle for labour rights is one that could sig­nif­i­cant­ly alter the par­a­digm on which inter­na­tion­al sport­ing bod­ies like FIFA and the Inter­na­tion­al Olympic Com­mit­tee award host­ing rights. A suc­cess­ful cam­paign for labour rights would force such bod­ies to take work­ers’ con­di­tions and by exten­sion, adher­ence to human rights, into account in the award­ing of future tour­na­ments. Qatar learnt the price of rep­u­ta­tion­al risk this week when the Inter­na­tion­al Olympic Com­mit­tee reject­ed its bid for the 2020 Olympics. 

The cam­paign could also spark long over­due debate over the unsus­tain­able demo­graph­ic struc­ture of wealthy Gulf states that are home to gen­er­a­tions of Gulf-born descen­dants of immi­grants with no rights, no secure prospects and no real stake in the coun­tries of their birth. As their num­ber con­tin­ues to increase, edu­cat­ed and pros­per­ous Gulf-born expa­tri­ates are begin­ning to demand that they be giv­en equal rights and cau­tion that they no longer can be bought off with cushy tax-free incomes and benefits. 

The scion of a wealthy South Asian fam­i­ly in the Gulf, when asked whether he mind­ed that his Gulf born chil­dren would grow up with no rights and no secu­ri­ty, respond­ed: “Absolute­ly, that is no longer accept­able. Gulf soci­eties will have to change by hook or by crook.” 

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.

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