Premium: The Qatar Chronicles, Part I
World Cup host Qatar enacted new laws that it said would improve conditions for migrant workers. But are those laws being followed? We went to Qatar and spoke to workers at 14 FIFA hotels in Doha.
DOHA, Qatar — They’re everywhere here in Qatar, even if nobody acts like they see them.
The authoritarian Persian Gulf nation that will host World Cup 2022 has 2.1 million migrant workers, who make up 95 percent of Qatar’s workforce and 73 percent of its population. If you spend any time at all in Qatar, you’ll see sprawling groups of blue-clad, neon-vested laborers, largely from the Indian subcontinent, toiling in the sun on construction sites and roadsides. If you stay at a gleaming new hotel, chances are the valets, the security guards and the staff cleaning your rooms and serving your food are from somewhere in East or West Africa.
In my experience, which has included weeklong trips to Doha in 2013 for Sports Illustrated and in 2022 for this story, migrant workers are treated by Qataris as though they are invisible—unless locals in the planet’s wealthiest nation per capita are unhappy with, say, their service at a restaurant or private hotel cabana, when they can be bracingly cruel to the waitstaff.
Looming over everything are Qatar’s migrant worker death toll (often related to long hours in the infernal heat) and its apathy toward investigating the cause of those deaths. Last year, The Guardian’s Pete Pattisson cited government sources to report that more than 6,500 migrant workers had died in Qatar in the decade since the country was awarded the World Cup in 2010. (A total of 38 deaths have been directly tied to World Cup stadium construction, though nearly all of Qatar’s infrastructure growth has some connection to the World Cup.)
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For its part, Amnesty International cited data from Qatar’s Planning and Statistics Authority that an even higher number—15,021 non-Qataris of all ages, occupations and causes—had died in Qatar in the past decade. (Qatari officials claim the migrant mortality rate is within the expected range given the workforce size.) Just as troubling, Amnesty says Qatar has failed to properly investigate up to 70 percent of its migrant worker deaths, noting that “in a well-resourced health system, it should be possible to identify the exact cause of death in all but 1 percent of cases.”
When the World Cup starts on November 20, the primary focus for billions of fans around the globe will be the soccer on the field. The same will be true for thousands of visiting sports media, including me. But I didn’t feel right about covering the soccer in Qatar without first visiting and doing independent reporting, speaking to migrant workers about their experience there. And I thought my readers would want to know: What is life like on the ground for these workers? What has Qatar actually done to improve conditions for its workforce since it got the World Cup 12 years ago?
By the time I arrived earlier this year, World Cup stadium construction was basically complete. And so for Part I of The Qatar Chronicles, I traveled to Qatar in late February and trained my energy on migrant workers in the hotel sector. In Part II, I’ll detail what U.S. Soccer has been doing behind the scenes to prepare for the non-soccer aspects of a World Cup in Qatar, including educating its players and doing due diligence on its hotel and vendors, as well as addressing LGBTQ+ rights in a country that represses them.
My plan for Part I: to visit all 14 of the FIFA-affiliated hotels in the main sections of Doha in the West Bay and The Pearl (including where the USMNT will be staying), and speak to at least one migrant worker at each one.
Promising them anonymity for their protection, I wanted to hear their thoughts. How were they being treated by their employers? And was the new set of worker-protection laws announced by the Qatari government to its own great fanfare in 2019 actually being followed on the ground?
There was a reason I didn’t publicize my Qatar visit on social media and didn’t say anything publicly about it until I had left the country. The fact is that journalists can get detained in Qatar—including two reporters for the Norwegian TV World Cup rights holder last November—and I wasn’t hoping for a repeat of that during my time there.
More importantly, risk is ever-present for workers, too. Malcolm Bidali, a Kenyan who worked as a security guard in Qatar and wrote a human rights blog under a pseudonym, was detained for five months last year (often in solitary confinement) by the Qatari authorities and eventually deported for spreading “fake news,” creating a chilling effect across the migrant worker community.
But independent reporting on Qatar is important. In early September, the Qatari government spent a large sum of money to provide first-rate travel and accommodations to journalists from around the world who visited Doha, with the expectation that they would report favorably on Qatar’s readiness to host the World Cup. Not surprisingly, many did. Accepting thousands of dollars in free travel from the people you’re covering is a violation of ethics for reputable media organizations. Nor is it independent reporting when Qatar’s Supreme Committee organizing the World Cup hand-picks migrant workers to speak to the media.
For me, the only way to do truly independent reporting was to use GrantWahl.com’s money (your paid subscriptions matter, so consider subscribing) and travel to Qatar, spend two days in a state-mandated COVID hotel quarantine, deal with a government-required COVID phone app that doubled as a surveillance tracker, and then introduce myself to random migrant workers at those 14 FIFA hotels. I had to earn their trust in 90 seconds, explain who I was, give them my business card and ask them questions about their experience.
I was also well aware that I shouldn’t arrange any interviews in Qatar with government- or World Cup-affiliated groups. When I did that during my trip in 2013 for a Sports Illustrated story, the Qataris made sure to fill my schedule with so many meetings that they knew I wouldn’t have time to do any reporting on my own. This time, I waited until after I returned from my visit to contact Qatari authorities and FIFA for their perspectives.
In the end, the only thing I wanted to do on this trip was to interview migrant workers. And that’s all I did. Several of them have stayed in touch since then via WhatsApp. For their honesty and trust I am grateful. I also recorded some audio tracks as I went through the reporting process in real time: