The Ultimate Winner of the World Cup Was Transnational Capital

Western nations rightly accused World Cup host Qatar of worker exploitation and authoritarianism. The postcolonial world responded with well-founded accusations of Western hypocrisy. In the meantime, transnational capital has been let off the hook.

A view of Al Bayt Stadium and a FIFA World Cup ahead of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. (Mohammed Dabbous / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Much has been written on the perverse power of sports-washing surrounding the 2022 World Cup, and rightly so. Western commentators have justifiably criticized the host country Qatar’s political authoritarianism and draconian labor conditions leading up to the tournament. In response, commentators in the postcolonial world have raised reasonable points about the West’s hypocrisy. After all, colonial superpowers laid the groundwork for the debacle that took place in Qatar.

While each side raises fair points, the resulting conversation has not been entirely productive. The political discourse around Qatar 2022 has shown that “clash of civilizations” narratives continue to dominate global political imaginations, despite the modern reality that transnational capital — Eastern and Western — reigns supreme, and has the power to bring governments to heel. While we’re busy pointing fingers, international corporations are making off with the loot.

The World Cup Scandal

Since securing this year’s World Cup bid in 2010 under blatantly corrupt circumstances, the oil-rich yet small nation of Qatar, which had little to no sporting infrastructure at the outset, kickstarted a $220 billion megaproject to host the world’s most watched televised event.

While Qatar’s economy has long relied on migrant workers in all industries, their numbers have grown by more than 40 percent since securing the bid. Today, only 11.6 percent of the country’s 2.7 million inhabitants are Qatari nationals. There has been a massive increase in precarious migrants, predominantly from Southeast Asia, hired to carry out the manual labor needed to construct the virtually nonexistent infrastructure ahead of 2022.

Despite the hundreds of billions invested, working conditions for these manual laborers have been blatantly exploitative. Qatar’s migrant workers have dealt with life-threatening work environments, unsafe living conditions, delayed and paltry payments, withheld passports, and threats of violence, all while carrying out manual labor in the blistering heat of the Gulf sun. There have been 6,751 migrant worker deaths since Qatar secured the World Cup bid.

While human rights groups and journalists have been documenting the rampant exploitation of migrant laborers in Qatar for a decade leading up to the 2022 World Cup, mainstream Western media only began to highlight these injustices in the month leading up to the tournament — with tickets secured, hotels fully booked, and all the infrastructure completed. The most outspoken Western outlet has been the BBC, which refused to air the tournament’s opening ceremony, instead opting to broadcast a roundtable condemnation of Qatar’s human rights record.

The BBC’s criticisms of Qatar are entirely valid. At the same time, they fail to acknowledge the role of the United Kingdom’s colonial legacy in establishing the exploitative labor conditions that existed in Qatar long before the World Cup. Britain intervened in a material, codified manner that continues to benefit both the Qatari monarchy and the global free market dominated by transnational (but chiefly Western) capital.

The British Legacy

At the heart of the systemic exploitation of Southeast Asian workers in Qatar and the broader Middle East is the kafala (sponsorship) system, which exempts employers sponsoring migrant worker visas from the labor laws protecting Qatari nationals. Migrant workers lack the right to seek new employment, unionize, and even travel.

The modern kafala system can be traced back to a relatively unknown colonial bureaucrat named Charles Belgrave. Modern-day Qatar and the wider Arab Gulf fell under British colonial dominion following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Belgrave, an English veteran of the war, was appointed in 1926 as an advisor to the tribal monarchy of what would become modern-day Bahrain in a bid to help create a modern nation-state with a functioning governmental bureaucracy.

The British’s intent in administering the post-Ottoman Middle East, made up of “protectorates” or “mandates” rather than colonies, was to secure long-term British interests in the region. Foreseeing the eventual unsustainability of direct colonial rule in the aftermath of the war, the aim was to create viable structures for Western-friendly, free market–aligned state governments to take over.

Long before the discovery of oil, Bahrain and the surrounding region were coastal, nomadic societies revolving around fishing and pearling. The advent of colonially drawn borders created impediments to this regional industry, which relied on free-flowing trade and labor across the sea, now restricted by new concepts like passports and visas.

To address this, Belgrave codified the first iteration of the modern kafala system, which soon spread to other newly forming governments in the region. Eventually this allowed Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and other Gulf states to facilitate the immigration and exploitation of laborers from Southeast Asia.

The kafala system was widely unpopular in Bahrain, where protests eventually saw Belgrave resign from his post in 1957. But the system persisted well after Belgrave’s leave and the abdication of British rule across the Gulf in the 1960s and ’70s. It’s that British-designed system that led to the deaths of thousands of migrant workers in Qatar leading up to the World Cup. As that origin story demonstrates, the problem is much bigger than the behavior of one barbaric Eastern nation, and the West’s hands are hardly clean.

The Real Winners

The kafala system is only one of many modern exploitative labor systems in the so-called “third world” that trace back to Western colonial rule. Broadly speaking, the consumer lifestyle enjoyed by many in the West is made possible by outsourcing extreme economic exploitation to socially repressive and politically authoritarian post-colonial countries.

The West’s ahistorical finger-wagging at Qatar has thus been understandably derided as hypocritical by many in the postcolonial world, with a number of commentators quick to point out Western governments’ shortcomings in tackling their own labor conditions, not to mention the racism, misogyny, and homophobia (other legitimate grievances against the Qatari government) in their own countries.

These critics have legitimate points, just as critics of Qatar itself do. But the conversation is ultimately doomed to go nowhere, with the West chiding the East for backwardness and the East chiding the West for hypocrisy in perpetuity. This discourse relies on a reductive East/West divide, and fails to capture the shared interests of Western and Eastern governments and corporations in upholding regimes of exploitation and social repression.

Qatar, a stone’s throw away from Iran, houses the largest US military base in the Middle East. It is no coincidence that the Biden administration greenlit a $1 billion arms sale to Qatar during halftime of the high-stakes match between Iran and the United States. This behavior is predictable: the United States is no stranger to turning a blind eye to the despotism of its oil-rich allies in the Gulf, while criticizing its authoritarian enemies for engaging in the same behavior.

European governments and corporations also engage in profitable relations with Qatar. In fact, four members of the EU parliament were charged on December 11 with bribery from Qatari officials looking to influence policy decisions. Yet the West’s enabling of and benefitting from Qatari and broader Gulf despotism haven’t factored into the criticism Qatar has faced in recent weeks. Nor has it been highlighted by those who leaped to deflect that criticism.

Very little has been said from both critics and deflectors regarding Western sponsors, athletic wear companies, sports broadcasters, and other transnational corporate entities who raked in massive profits off the back of the laborers who toiled and died preparing this tournament. The only Western organization complicit in the Qatar 2022 controversy receiving justifiable criticism is FIFA, a noncorporate or governmental entity. Like Western governments, Western corporations have largely been let off the hook.

The “clash of civilizations” narrative informing the discourse surrounding Qatar 2022 distracts from the biggest problem plaguing both the Middle East and exploited migrant workers worldwide, which is global neoliberal capitalism. The real winner of the World Cup is transnational capital, be it Western or Qatari, and the real losers are the exploited migrant laborers and the politically repressed citizens of Qatar and the postcolonial Middle East.

Each side’s respective focus on imagined barbaric Eastern nations or hypocritical Western ones fails to account for the financialized and transnational character of twenty-first-century capitalism, and how it has altered the global political landscape — often uniting East and West in a shared project of profiting off the backs of the exploited global poor.

On a more optimistic note, the 2022 World Cup also saw expressions of a pan-Arab, postcolonial solidarity that goes beyond these colonially drawn borders, a form of political consciousness that has had anti-capitalist, left-wing tendencies in decades past. The continuous presence of the Palestinian flag and the massive support Morocco had from Arabs and Africans alike suggests the possible return of a postcolonial political discourse that breaks with these nation-state bound, unproductive “clash of civilizations” narratives.