Global Sporting Events: Battlegrounds for Human Rights

RSIS presents the following commentary Global Sporting Events: Battlegrounds for 
Human Rights by James M. Dorsey. It is also available online at this link. (To
print it, click on this link.). Kindly forward any comments or feedback to
the Editor RSIS Commentaries, at

No. 089/2012 dated 28 May 2012
Global Sporting Events:
Battlegrounds for Human Rights
 By James M. Dorsey

With the London Olympics less than two months away major global sporting events
are increasingly proving to be Middle Eastern battlegrounds for human rights
rather than an expensive way for countries to boost their prestige and sense of
national pride.

Flashy, high-profile events in the Middle East like the 2022 World Cup in Qatar,
Formula-1 in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi and tennis championships in Dubai have
become leverage points in the hands of international and local activists and
flashpoints of protest against autocratic regimes

To detractors of Gulf Arab regimes the tournaments are symbols of an effort to
retain power in part by squandering resources to pacify people with glittering
totems of unbalanced and often misconceived development as well as games.
That perception is reinforced by a sense that major economic benefactors of
sporting events are often members of the host’s ruling family

Currently the British Foreign Office is struggling whether to allow a Syrian general
close to embattled President Bashar al-Assad to attend the Olympics. General
Mowaffak  Joumaa, head of Syria's Olympic committee, has signaled his intention
to be present in London in contrast to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who
said he was not coming because Britain had an undisclosed “problem” with his
presence. The general sees his attendance as a way to project the Assad regime
as an accepted member of the international community despite widespread
condemnation of its brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters and rebels.

Anti-government protests foiled a Bahraini attempt earlier this year to use
Formula-1 to portray the country as stable and harmonious following last
year’s hard-handed suppression of anti-government demonstrations. The attempt
backfired. Rather than focusing on happenings on the race track, international
attention turned instead to continued discontent and the government’s failure to
move ahead with meaningful political and economic reforms demanded by the Shiite
Muslim majority of the ruling Sunni majority.

Meanwhile, Gulf states are feeling the heat of the labour movement to change
foreign workers’ conditions, widely denounced as modern day slavery, as a result of
Qatar’s winning of the right to host the 2022 World Cup.

Confronting existential fears

Union pressure to change the labour system cuts to the core of the nature of Gulf
societies, whose dependence on foreign labour has turned the local citizenry into a
minority in countries like Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Beyond the commercial and economic advantages of a cheap pool of labour,
discussion of any kind of rights for non-locals raises the spectre of minority
Gulf populations no longer having countries that they control.

Gulf states are nonetheless seeking to avoid confrontation with the
International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which represents 175 million
workers in 153 countries. The ITUC is threatening Qatar with a boycott campaign of
the 2022 World Cup if it fails to bring the conditions of up to one million primarily
Asian workers engaged in construction of stadiums and other huge infrastructure
projects in line with international standards. Qatar’s Labour Minister Nassir bin
Abdulla Alhumidi agreed recently to meet the ITUC for the first time at the
International Labour Organisation conference next month.

Saudi Arabia has followed Qatar in announcing that it was looking to replace
employer sponsorship of workers with a licensing system. Qatari Labour
Undersecretary Hussein Al-Mulla said earlier this month that the energy-rich
Gulf state would form “an elected and independent workers’ union to
protect workers’ rights regardless of their nationality.”

However the moves by the Gulf states amount to too little too late. They have
failed to appease the ITUC and have put world soccer body FIFA on the spot
because it does not want to be seen as endorsing the staging of the world’s
largest sporting event on the back of perceived slavery and violations of human
rights. Until Qatar’s agreement to meet the ITUC next month governments in the
Gulf had refused to engage in a dialogue with the trade unions and other
interest groups who are using the staging of major global sporting events to
push for changes that would bring the region into line with accepted international

They also seek to underwrite the calls for social justice echoing across North
Africa and West Asia from the Atlantic coast to the Gulf that have been in revolt
since December 2010. As a result, trade unions are moving ahead with plans for a
global campaign under the motto 'No World Cup in Qatar without labour rights’,
to deprive Qatar of its right to host the 2022 World Cup if it failed to align its
labour legislation and workers’ condition with international standards.

It was not immediately clear whether Al Mulla’s announcement went further
than his proposal in early May to establish a Qatari-led labour committee that
would represent workers’ interests rather than a union able to engage in collective
bargaining; he had also proposed abolition of the sponsorship system that
would stop short of allowing foreign workers to freely change jobs.

Battle for labour rights

The unions’ sense of urgency stems from the death last year of some 200
Nepalese workers, allegedly as the result of harsh working conditions as well
as the fact that companies are developing their supply chains and costing
models for major infrastructure projects on the basis of what they describe as
unacceptable labour terms.

The battle for labour rights is one that could significantly alter the paradigm on
which international sporting bodies like FIFA and the International Olympic
Committee award hosting rights. A successful campaign for labour rights would
force such bodies to take workers’ conditions and by extension, adherence to
human rights, into account in the awarding of future tournaments. Qatar
learnt the price of reputational risk this week when the International Olympic
Committee rejected its bid for the 2020 Olympics

The campaign could also spark long overdue debate over the unsustainable
demographic structure of wealthy Gulf states that are home to generations of
Gulf-born descendants of immigrants with no rights, no secure prospects and
no real stake in the countries of their birth. As their number continues to
increase, educated and prosperous Gulf-born expatriates are beginning to
demand that they be given equal rights and caution that they no longer can be
bought off with cushy tax-free incomes and benefits.

The scion of a wealthy South Asian family in the Gulf, when asked whether he
minded that his Gulf born children would grow up with no rights and no
security, responded: “Absolutely, that is no longer acceptable. Gulf societies will
have to change by hook or by crook.”

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International
Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He has been a journalist
covering the Middle East for over 30 years.

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  1. Jonathan Hariri had a superb report on the plight of South Asian immigrants in the prosperous Middle East in The Independent. Of course, Jonathan Hariri has had his downfall, but he shed much light on the ugly nexus between cheap labor (South Asian) and blatant disregard for humanity's inalienable rights. Has anyone seen the video of the mistreatment of an Ethiopian maid in Lebanon? It's awful!


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