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It doesn’t matter if Brazil, Argentina or someone else lifts the trophy next month, Qatar has already won the World Cup.

Despite more than a decade of critical coverage – which initially focused on bribery and corruption embedded in the bidding process, then highlighted Qatar’s regressive labor and human rights laws – the Gulf petromonarchy has proven stronger than ever after an unrivaled nation-building project.

The World Cup, which kicks off on Sunday, has helped boost Qatar’s growth by accelerating the construction of high-end stadiums, gleaming shopping malls, five-star hotels and a world-class airport – and has enabled it to wield both geopolitical and sporting influence.

And regardless of the opposition to human rights, some of the highest-ranking politicians of the West are taking part in the tournament.

Emmanuel Macron on Thursday joined the chorus of politicians urging people to soften Qatar, saying that “sport should not be politicised.” The French president repeated FIFA’s much-criticised letter earlier this month in which President Gianni Infantino told World Cup teams to stick to soccer and avoid giving moral lessons.

Far from being a diplomatic deterrent, the controversial World Cup will welcome many senior Western officials. As first reported by POLITICO, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will attend Monday’s US-Wales game. Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib will support the Red Devils there. Her British counterpart James Cleverly is also going to Doha.

Qatar has long come under fire for its brutal exploitation of migrant workers; its attitude towards LGBTQ+ rights; and potential state supervision of fans. Externally, it has been hit by a long-standing blockade by its Gulf neighbors, led by Saudi Arabia and indirectly approved by then US President Donald Trump.

But Qatar has defeated both critics and foes thanks to its diplomatic dexterity, the influence created by its vast hydrocarbon reserves – and its willingness to spend.

“Qatar has decided to learn how to drive on the fast lane of a motorway,” said Simon Chadwick, a professor of sports and geopolitical economics at the Skema Business School in Paris, of the World Cup bid. “But Qatar had the money to learn to drive.”

***

Some of the criticism – which continues unabated on the eve of the tournament – hit the mark. And in at least one case, he initiated a change.

The kafala a sponsorship-based employment system first introduced by the British in Bahrain in the 1930s ended with the law in Qatar in 2020. In theory, this allows employees in Qatar to change jobs without the need to obtain the consent of the employer. Doha at the same time statutory raising the minimum wage to 1,000 riyals a month – or about 264 euros.

However, the rangers point out that Qatar’s “toxic” labor problems – which have led to abuses and d*ath dozens of migrant workers from South Asia – did not end with abolition kafala.

Men performing traditional fencing ahead of the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup | Francois Nel/Getty Images

“I think there is a compelling case that the system facilitates slavery or forced labour,” said Nicholas McGeehan, founder and director of FairSquare Research and Projects, whose work largely focuses on human rights in the Gulf.

“There are other things that help control workers,” added McGeehan. “You have heavy debts, systematic passport confiscations, no trade unions, no civil society and no access to justice or good health whatsoever [care]”.

“When you put all these things together, they are very toxic and facilitate almost total control over the migrant workforce,” McGeehan said.

Estimates varybecause the Qatari government does not release official figures on the d*aths of migrant workers, but hundreds of Nepalis have died in the Gulf state from cardiac arrest, workplace accidents and suic*de since 2010, according to government statistics. Meanwhile, Doha’s new heat-of-work regulations offer “terrible protection” from scorching temperatures, McGeehan said.

Despite this, there is some support for reform in Qatar. Marc Tarabella, a Belgian socialist MEP who is vice-chair of Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with the Arabian Peninsula and co-chair of the Sports Group, told POLITICO that the World Cup has made Qatar “a good example for other countries in the neighborhood to follow.”

And Qatar has become increasingly militant in defense against the West in recent months, after years of being shot in the chin.

The country’s labor minister told European Parliament lawmakers on Monday that Qatar had been the subject of a “smear campaign”. The highest referee of the World Cup He said that criticism of Qatar was “probably” racially motivated.

Paris Saint-Germain president Nasser al-Khelaifi, who is not affiliated with the World Cup organizing team but is the most prominent Qatari in European sport, was more cautious, telling POLITICO he was “very proud” that his country hosted the World Cup and it does not “try to hide” in the shadows.

“Are we doing everything 100% right? May not. Are we perfect? Not. But we’re fixing some things,” he said. “The World Cup has done a fantastic job for Qatar: infrastructure, regulation. Many things have changed; massive things.

***

Perhaps the only thing that can really disrupt Qatar’s crowning achievement right now is the chaotic tournament from both a human rights and logistical standpoint.

This is something that opponents see as a clear possibility.

LGBTQ+ fans who participate in the tournament are still at risk of violating the Qatari ban on homos*xuality. The reassurances that human rights organizations have received from FIFA, with virtually no Qatari legislation to protect LGBTQ+ people, are insufficient, said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch.

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Aleksander Hassenstein/Getty Images

Escalating human rights concerns, World Cup ambassador in Qatar He said German broadcaster ZDF that homos*xuality is “mind damage” in comments that sparked a backlash earlier this month.

Organizational issues also remain as the tournament kicks off with Ecuador versus Qatar on Sunday, with tens of thousands of fans flocking to the tiny country.

Ronan Evain, Executive Director of Football Supporters Europe, told POLITICO that he was concerned about the training of World Cup stewards, the police’s approach to fans and the logistics of bus transporting fans to and from stadiums.

While car-dominated Qatar touts the expansion of public transport spurred by the World Cup, only some stadiums are connected by a shiny new subway system.

A last-minute turn on beer by Qatari hosts, now banned in and around tournament stadiums, has caused greater concern for human rights groups given Qatari’s previous assertions about alcohol consumption.

And more than a decade after Qatar actually won the rights to host the tournament, the investigation into the corruption that plagued the process and led to the FBI knocking on FIFA’s door continues. French prosecutors investigate alleged role of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy in helping Qatar win bid, French daily Le Monde reported earlier this week. Qatar has always denied that it won the tender by dishonest means.

Regarding the concerns of LGBTQ+ activists, a FIFA spokesperson said that the governing body is “confident that all necessary measures will be taken so that LGBTQ+ fans and allies can enjoy the tournament in a friendly and safe environment like everyone else.”

In a statement, the Qatar World Cup Supreme Committee said it was “committed to providing an inclusive and non-discriminatory FIFA World Cup experience that is friendly, safe and accessible to all attendees, participants and communities in Qatar and around the world.”

***

But what happens when the circus leaves town?

Qatar has shown remarkable geopolitical agility to sweeten the competing interests to which its fortunes are tied. It houses the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East, while sharing Iran’s access to the gas field that has generated its astronomical wealth.

With the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine, “Qatar will remain extremely important in terms of energy dynamics, especially when gas starts flowing in,” said Kristian Ulrichsen, a Middle East researcher at Rice University’s Baker Institute. “I think they will continue to play a role in regional diplomacy, especially towards Iran, if there is no breakthrough in the nuclear negotiations.” Doha was a key diplomatic player when the US withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021, Ulrichsen added.

One of Qatar’s most successful exports, media conglomerate beIN Media Group, known for its international sports broadcasts but also the owner of Hollywood film studios Miramax, has approached various investors from the United States and Saudi Arabia interested in buying a stake in the company – as the state is considering how to position yourself in the international arena after the end of the world cup.

At the same time, a person familiar with the talks said that American investors are interested in buying a stake in PSG, 100% owned by Qatar Sports Investments. QSI acquired a 22 percent stake in Portugal’s SC Braga last month, marking the investment fund’s first move towards multi-club ownership and another sign of QSI and beIN’s increased importance to post-World Cup Qatar.

“I don’t think they’ve given up sport as part of their national strategy,” said Mahfoud Amara, an associate professor of sports management at the University of Qatar.

Qatar will host the Asian Football Cup in 2023 and the multi-sport Asian Games in 2030. Officials are also currently in preliminary talks about the bid for the next crown jewel event: the 2036 Summer Olympics.

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