“Fair play doesn't pertain in bargaining. What matters there is leverage.” – Alan Rosenberg
A few weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, we published a piece called Contortion Nation in which we described the plight of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) and migrants of other nationalities caught up in Qatar’s brutal kafala labor system. While most Gulf countries operate some variant of a kafala system –described by human rights activists as being indistinguishable from slave labor – Qatar is known to be a particularly cruel place for foreigners to work. The spotlight on Qatar is made brighter by the fact that the country is currently hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup and is a critical supplier of liquified natural gas (LNG), two subjects presently dominating global headlines.
Although official estimates put the number of worker deaths associated with preparations for the World Cup at roughly 40, activists suspect the number is at least a hundredfold higher. Recently, a Qatari official caused a firestorm when he casually split the difference, at least on a log scale (emphasis added throughout):
“More than 400 migrant workers died in Qatar in the years leading up to the World Cup, the man in charge of the body responsible for organizing the tournament has said, reigniting a debate over the treatment those who built over $200 billion worth of structures for the tournament.
Hassan al-Thawadi, the secretary-general of Qatar's Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, told the British journalist Piers Morgan on Talk TV on Tuesday: ‘The estimate is around 400, between 400 and 500, I don't have the exact number, that's being discussed.’”
Beyond the treatment of migrant workers, other scandals have erupted during the tournament. In Qatar, homosexual activity is a crime punishable by up to seven years in prison, something many European soccer teams were planning to protest by having their captains wear “OneLove” armbands during tournament games. In a controversial move, FIFA warned players that such a display would result in the issuance of a yellow card. Before their opening game against Japan, the German players instead covered their mouths in protest, creating an image that will forever be closely associated with the tournament. After Germany’s shock elimination in the first round, broadcasters on Qatari television were quick to ridicule the team:
“Football pundits on Qatar’s Alkass Sports channel mocked the German football team following its World Cup exit – by mimicking the players’ protest over human rights.
A video on the channel’s Twitter page posted on Thursday shows former Kuwaiti footballer Jamal Mubarak covering his mouth with his left hand and waving goodbye with the right, then calling on former Egyptian goalkeeper and fellow analyst Essam El-Hadary to join him.
Soon after, El-Hadary and other pundits then cover their mouths and wave goodbye – apparently in celebration of Germany’s exit.”
The reason Qatar is in a position to bribe its way into hosting the World Cup, treat migrant workers “like animals,” and openly mock European powers is simple: Qatar is one of the world’s largest producers of LNG and is investing heavily to develop even more of it, while Europe has scored own goal after own goal in the global energy game. As embarrassing as Germany’s premature exit from the World Cup was, it pales in comparison to its recent humiliation in the international natural gas markets. Having long ago handed over the cards of its energy future to other players at the table, Germany still behaved like it was somehow holding a winning hand. The manner in which Qatar called Germany’s bluff makes for a sobering reminder of the trade-offs being made by those loath to get serious about energy. Let’s dig in.