Hung out to dry with the sports washing

27th March 2022

Qatar 2022 – a World Cup built on slave labour

The Formula 1 (F1) Grand Prix in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, scheduled for later today was under threat of cancellation for a while due to a rocket attack which hit an oil refinery less than ten miles from the circuit.  The rocket was part of the response of Houthi rebels in Yemen to the seven year long bombardment of that country, by a Saudi led coalition, supported and largely armed by NATO member countries.

The Houthis do not have such eminent international support, their main allegiance coming from Iran, a beleaguered Islamic dictatorship whose economy is being crushed by US led sanctions.  As a dictatorship the West approves of, the oil rich Saudi regime enjoys access to the political elite in the West; its finance is approved of to buy a Premier League football club; and it plays host to a prominent Formula 1 event.

Of the 377,000 people the United Nations estimate have died since the bombardment of Yemen began in 2015 it is further estimated that 70% are children under 5 years old.  The Houthis have targeted economic installations in order to hit Saudi Arabia economically. There is no evidence that they have hit schools, hospitals or any other civilian locations. This stands in stark contrast to the record of the Saudis in Yemen.

Seven years on much of this is no longer deemed ‘news’ and the Saudis continue to enjoy a place at the top table with other members of the ‘international community’.

A discussion with F1 race organisers and drivers did follow the oil refinery attack but does not appear to have resulted in much soul searching on the part of those involved.  The main concerns ahead of the race appear to be those for driver safety, given the tight cornering on sections of the track, a fact underlined by the withdrawal of Mick Schumacher following a major crash in qualifying.

British driver, Lewis Hamilton, has been vocal in raising concerns about human rights in Saudi Arabia, demanding that F1 organisers do more to press for reform if the sport is to continue to race there.  Given that this weekend’s race is going ahead, in spite of the Saudi authorities having recently executed 81 people in a single day, is a measure of how seriously Hamilton’s concerns have been taken.

Elsewhere England footballers, or at least Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson, were reported to be shocked at the human rights record of 2022 World Cup hosts, Qatar.  Henderson is quoted to have said,

“It’s horrendous really when you look at some of the issues that are currently happening and have been happening over there.”

Henderson’s awakening is not to be dismissed and no one expects professional footballers to have their fingers on the political pulsebeat.  However, the realities of human rights abuse in Qatar, including the use of slave labour to build football stadia for the tournament, have been on the record for some time.  None of this should be news to the FA or to FIFA.

In 2017, the charity Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a report into the conditions of migrant workers in Qatar. It found that regulations meant to protect workers from heat and humidity were woefully inadequate. It found that hundreds of migrant workers were dropping dead on construction projects every year.  However, HRW stated that it was hard to be sure exactly how many and how they were dying, because Qatari authorities would not say, or even carry out post-mortems. The few deaths that were officially accounted for were given vague descriptions like “unknown causes”, “natural causes” or “cardiac arrest”.  

Like Saudi Arabia, the Qatari links to the British state are far reaching, from major property investment, including the Shard in London, to Qatari Holdings being the largest shareholder in Sainsbury’s.  The Qataris also own major French football club, Paris St Germain.

The Gulf Arab states have poor human rights records going back decades but are closely tied into the dollar driven international finance system, are major purchasers of Western weapons systems and are major suppliers of oil and natural gas to the Western economies.  So, a little sportswashing to distract from some of the more unsavoury aspects of the day to day realities in these regimes clearly goes a long way.

The same rules do not appear to apply in relation to the action of Russia in Ukraine, where the exclusion of Russian teams from international tournaments was swift, the exclusion of individual Russian athletes from competition almost as rapid, and the cultural boycott of Russia has even extended to orchestras refusing to play works by Tchaikovsky and other Russian composers.

The recent comments of US President, Joe Biden, that Putin must go, have widely been interpreted as the US calling for regime change in Russia, though the White House Press Corps have been quick to suggest that these remarks were off the cuff and should not be interpreted as a policy change.

The reality however is that Russia represents an oligarchic regime which is not in full compliance with the US view of the international order, while the Saudis and other Gulf States, whatever their human rights records and war crimes, are prepared to fall in line.  Also, in terms of their geo-political position and relative economic strength, they pose no threat to the US.  Given the rapid retreat of Roman Abramovich from ownership of Chelsea Football Club, there is also little likelihood of Russians being able to match their Middle Eastern counterparts in the sportswashing stakes any time soon.

However much the White House back pedal there is no doubt that the US would dearly love to see a compliant regime in place in Russia.  It may not yet be politic to openly say so but the NATO encirclement of Russia over the past 30 years and the trap Putin has walked into in Ukraine tell another story.  An economically strong Russia, with a significant nuclear capability, which is not prepared to follow the Washington line, is not a scenario the US wants to contemplate.

The growing economic strength of China is enough for the US to worry about at the moment.  The mounting body count in Ukraine may be seen as a price worth paying by the US, if the outcome is an economically weakened and politically isolated Russia.

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