World Cup chief warns Gareth Southgate: Qatar protests lack credibility if you do not talk to us

Nasser Al Khater (left) and Gareth Southgate - World Cup chief warns Gareth Southgate: Qatar protests lack credibility if you do not talk to us - PAUL GROVER / REUTERS
Nasser Al Khater (left) and Gareth Southgate - World Cup chief warns Gareth Southgate: Qatar protests lack credibility if you do not talk to us - PAUL GROVER / REUTERS

Qatar's World Cup chief has warned Gareth Southgate that any England protest would lack credibility without visiting the country to learn more about their human rights record.

The England squad and the Football Association are in talks with counterparts from other nations over some sort of public statement in Qatar, but there is frustration in Doha over the prospect of action without hearing another side of the debate and personal invitations have now been extended to both Southgate and his captain Harry Kane.

“We have reached out to federations … prominent clubs ... we have opened our arms to have dialogue,” said Nasser Al Khater, the chief executive of Qatar 2022. “Criticise. Raise concerns. But do it properly. Come here. Speak to us. Let us show you where the progress is. By all means, go and take a look on your own. Give yourself more credibility.

“You have a responsibility when you are someone that is internationally recognised. You need to be very careful with what you say because what you say has influence.

“I’ve extended an invitation to [Gareth] Southgate. I’ll be more than happy to extend an invitation to the captain of the national team to have an open dialogue. Before you take a uniform position, have an informed unified approach that is not based on entities, whether they are news outlets or NGOs, that might have an agenda. Is there work that still needs to be done? 100 per cent. Has a lot of work taken place? 100 per cent.”

In an exclusive interview that marks 150 days until the first winter and Middle East-staged World Cup kicks off, Al Khater also:

  • Predicted none of the disorder or stewarding chaos that marred recent European finals;

  • Said that alcohol would be available in fan-zones as well as certain hotels and cruise ships;

  • Warned of Qatar’s zero-tolerance approach to drugs following English football’s surge of cocaine incidents;

  • Welcomed gay fans but said that all public displays of affection run counter to Qatari culture;

  • Guaranteed affordable World Cup accommodation within options that include cruise ship cabins, fan villages of tents, caravans and Portakabins as well as apartments and hotels;

  • Said that Qatar was ready to host a summer Olympic Games.

The England players were shown a 30-minute presentation earlier this year containing information from, among other sources, Amnesty International. Vice-captain Jordan Henderson described some of the briefing as “shocking and disappointing”.

Southgate said in March that the “the biggest issue … is what happened with the building of the stadiums and there is nothing we can do about that either, sadly”. There is ongoing dialogue between FA chief executive Mark Bullingham and Qatari officials, with further visits planned between now and November.

More than two million migrant workers have come to Qatar to work on various building projects since they were awarded the World Cup and Amnesty International have detailed accusations of numerous human rights abuses.

Al Khater emphasised the legislative reform in Qatar over recent years, including the abolition of the Kafala system, which prevented workers from changing jobs without their employer’s consent, a new minimum wage, and various laws with regard to working hours, particularly during the searingly hot summer months.

“What is really frustrating is we work with internationally recognised bodies,” said Al Khater. “Legislation being enacted in a span of one year or two years is unheard of in many countries. Qatar has been a trailblazer in the region.

“The failure of the recognition is what frustrates and is honestly counter-productive because it demoralises you. It seems like the recognition is always taking place behind closed doors and, then in the public sphere, it is always an opportunity to attack.”

Players of Norway wore a T-Shirt saying ‘human rights – on and off the pitch’ in March, but Al Khater said that he respected their position following extensive engagement.

Erling Haaland - World Cup chief warns Gareth Southgate over Qatar protests - GETTY IMAGES
Erling Haaland - World Cup chief warns Gareth Southgate over Qatar protests - GETTY IMAGES

“Nordic FAs have reached out, have come here ... spoken to these unions … the ILO [International Labour Organisation],” he said.

“We work with the ILO, we work with the Building and Wood Workers’ Institution, we work with the International Trade Union Congress. We have audits by these organisations. Speak to them.”

An extraordinary building project remains ongoing. World Cup infrastructure, including the eight air-conditioned stadiums, have cost around $6.5 billion and other development includes new hotels, apartments, the Doha metro, roads, an expanded airport and upgrades to key tourist areas like the Doha Port and the Corniche. Amnesty raised fresh concern in April over private contractors in Qatar “still exploiting their workers” but did also acknowledge “progress” on “enhanced labour standards”.

Why complaints about scrutiny are wide of mark

By Jason Burt

If there is one thing that Nasser al Khater, Qatar’s World Cup chief, can be assured of it is that Gareth Southgate will have done his homework.

There is no way the England manager would have passed any comment on Qatar, the World Cup or human rights without being prepared. And there is no way that Al Khater’s complaints will now wash.

World Cup chief warns Gareth Southgate over Qatar protests - GETTY IMAGES
World Cup chief warns Gareth Southgate over Qatar protests - GETTY IMAGES

After all Southgate is someone who prefaces any invitation to criticise – be it on hooliganism or racism – with a reminder to the UK that we need to get “our own house in order” first.

So what has he said on Qatar? Southgate has only pointed out a number of facts – starting with highlighting that the main area of concern was how the stadiums were built and the human cost. “There’s nothing we can do about that now,” he said. Even Qatar has finally acknowledged that.

Southgate also qualified every comment and stated that the region is “culturally” and “religiously different”. While being forthright he could not have chosen his words more carefully or more diplomatically, and while Al Khater has invited him to come and speak to migrant workers, who will decide which workers and will they be in fear of reprisals should they speak out? It would be in danger of becoming a mere PR exercise.

Southgate has also already visited Qatar, albeit fleetingly, for the World Cup draw at the beginning of April. He spoke to workers and campaigners then and he will be in Qatar next month on a longer visit when he attends a coaches’ workshop ahead of the tournament.

Qatar has certainly brought in more reforms than its neighbouring states and improved conditions, which is partly why organisations such as Amnesty International do not want the World Cup to be boycotted. They believe shining a light on what has happened will accelerate those reforms, and that appears to be the right strategy.

Amnesty also believes the Football Association has not gone far enough in calling out violations and has been frustrated by its more softly, softly approach when compared to the Netherlands and Denmark.

Indeed there was astonishment when FA chief executive Mark Bullingham claimed that migrant workers were “fully behind” the World Cup. So the FA or Southgate have hardly come out aggressively and attacked Qatar. Far from it.

Al Khater seems to want praise for improvements made to a situation that was simply appalling. He also appears to want praise because conditions in Qatar are now not as bad as in neighbouring countries, which looks like a particularly unsavoury kind of “whataboutery”. Instead what Qatar needs is further encouragement and continued pressure.

The truth is neither Southgate nor Harry Kane need to go on a fact-finding mission to Qatar to discover for themselves what is going on. There is plenty of evidence from reputable sources to educate them not just on what is happening now but – as Southgate rightly points out – what happened in the past when that spotlight was not being shone so strongly on Qatar.