Qatar has long targeted International Geneva in efforts to burnish its image

Partnerships with FIFA, one of the world’s most powerful and wealthy sport organizations, may undoubtedly seem alluring; but is it worth the risk of associating with what critics claim is a system riddled with corruption, now also tainted by Qatar’s influence buying?

Walk the halls of the Palais des Nations these days and you’ll see Qatari flags next to huge TV screens provided by the World Cup host so staff can watch the games. WHO’s logo, meanwhile, is displayed around the stadium’s pitches at the World Cup. The result, WHO tells The G|O, of a 2019 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) building on “a WHO collaboration with the Qatar Ministry of Public Health and FIFA.”

According to WHO, the relationship with FIFA “is geared to share messaging to promote health and to concretely improve health impact for the millions, if not billions, of fans watching the games. At this World Cup, for the first time, catering in stadia and fan zones included healthy options developed with guidance from WHO.”

For international organizations wishing to have a global impact, the rewards and risks of associating themselves with football and other mega-sporting events evidently need to be carefully weighed up. Partnerships with FIFA, one of the world’s most powerful and wealthy sport organizations, may undoubtedly seem alluring; but is it worth the risk of associating with what critics claim is a system riddled with corruption, now also tainted by Qatar’s influence buying? Should the possibility of FIFA and other organizations engaging in ‘bluewashing’—using their association with the UN and its color to clean up their image—not require the utmost care and public transparency from the UN and its agencies?

Well before the Qatargate scandal broke, FIFA was feeling the heat of continued international condemnation of Qatar’s treatment of migrant laborers in the run-up to the tournament.

A few days before the World Cup final, the story of the planned Memorandum of Understanding between FIFA and the International Labour Organization (ILO) offers interesting insights into the complexities of the relationships between international organizations and the world of sport.

On November 19, about midway through his now notorious “Today I feel Qatari”, “today I feel gay”, “today I feel like a migrant worker” monologue before the world football press, FIFA’s President Gianni Infantino excitedly dropped the news that FIFA and the ILO would jointly establish a “labour excellence hub.”

“We’re in discussion, we have a memorandum of understanding with the ILO,” Infantino said. “The Director General will be coming here in a few days.” FIFA wants, Infantino continued, “to establish programs from the experience we’ve gained here in Qatar,” adding in an almost surreal sentence, given the controversy over Qatar’s foreign workers treatment over the years, “I would never have thought I’d have to deal with labour matters, based on the experience we’ve gained in Qatar.” This “labour excellence hub,” Infantino went on, would collect best practices all over the world and “with the number one partner, ILO, work to make the lives of workers all over the world a little bit better.”

In reality, contrary to the FIFA President’s statement that day, there was no Memorandum of Understanding between his organization and the ILO.

Infantino and Gilbert Houngbo, the ILO’s new D-G, had met three days earlier in Bali, on the sidelines of the G20 summit. Houngbo was already familiar with Qatar: back in 2016, as former Deputy Director-General of the organization, he had initiated contacts with Doha after a coalition of unions, acting on behalf of foreign workers, had lodged a complaint to the ILO regarding Qatar’s alleged labor rights violations. According to sources familiar with the discussions surrounding the MoU, Infantino was in a hurry to have it drafted and signed. He reached out directly to Houngbo, asking that the document be ready by December 4, when Houngbo would meet with him in Doha.

According to sources knowledgeable about the conversations, internal consultations at the ILO ensued and, despite some reservations from staff, D-G Houngbo gave the green light to quickly prepare a draft.
In the end, a very general text, which included the ILO’s cautionary “red lines,” was sent to FIFA.

The Belgian investigation into alleged corruption by Qatar at the European Parliament exploded a few days later, on December 9. While the investigation does not involve FIFA, it casts another shadow over the World Cup.

Qatar and the ILO have had a technical agreement in place since 2018 and as recently as last October the organization vouched for the country’s progress in implementing labor and human rights reforms. The kafala system, akin to a modern form of slavery, has been abolished and a minimum wage system put in place for the foreign workers.

Qatar has paid out $320 million from its Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund since its creation in 2018 to settle outstanding wage theft and other complaints, Infantino reminded the world during his press conference. However, four major human rights organisations want FIFA to shoulder more responsibility: “FIFA’s egregious whitewashing of serious abuses against migrant workers in Qatar is both a global embarrassment and a sinister tactic to escape its human rights responsibility to compensate thousands of workers who faced abuse and the families of those who died to make this World Cup possible. […] FIFA continues to cash in on billions of dollars in revenue but refuses to offer a single cent for the families of migrant workers who died or those workers who were cheated out of their wages,” wrote Tirana Hassan, acting Executive Director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement denouncing the organization, published in Geneva on December 12.


ILO’s work in Doha will continue and even intensify. During his campaign to become D-G and since taking office in October, Gilbert Houngbo has repeatedly stated his intentions to broaden ILO’s partnerships towards other international actors and engage beyond the traditional multilateral sphere to increase the ILO’s visibility and impact. His openness to partner with FIFA derives from his conviction that FIFA, and sport in general, have a considerable scope of influence that the ILO could use to promote its agenda.

That International Geneva has found itself at the very center of Qatar’s efforts to polish its image is, of course, no surprise. For Qatar, hosting the tournament was never only about football.

As Cinzia Bianco, an expert on the Middle East and a fellow at the European Council On Foreign Relations explains, for Qatar, the World Cup is “the apex of a years-long strategy to accrue soft power and international prestige—two extremely valuable currencies for a small country in such a volatile and unstable region.” To do so, the tiny Gulf state did not hesitate to spend an estimated $220 billion: a figure worth pondering in light of Qatargate, and all the more extraordinary when considering that Russia spent 1/20th of that in 2018, and Brazil spent a mere $15 billion in 2014.

Doha’s campaign has included both political and public diplomacy, and since the most pressing challenge was to respond to and address its human rights and forced labor record, considerable diplomatic efforts ended up being deployed in Geneva—efforts which mostly consisted of pushing back against the pressure to reform coming from the UN, human rights activists, and trade unions.

In July of last year, Felipe González Morales, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Miriam Estrada-Castillo, the UN Vice-Chair of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Tae-Ung Baik, UN Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, and Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, wrote a letter to the Qatari government inquiring about Mr. Malcolm Bidali. “Malcolm Bidali, a 28-year-old migrant worker from Kenya, has been highlighting the conditions for migrant workers in Qatar, where he currently resides and works. Mr. Bidali has drawn attention to workers’ rights issues including working hours, wages, accommodation, and workplace conditions,” they wrote.

Three months later, the government informed the UN Special Rapporteurs that Bidali had been charged for the “creation and distribution of disinformation in the state of Qatar.” In their response, the authorities also claimed that he was offered legal assistance by ITUC, the International Trade Confederation mentioned in the Belgian investigation.

In 2017, the Gulf state became co-chair of the Group of Friends on Sport for Development and Peace, promoting events and resolutions on the role of sports and human rights.

During the March session of the Human Rights Council, Qatar had four informative displays in the corridors around the Council’s room, one of them called “Human rights and football”, and since 2018, the UN in Geneva has co-organized three art exhibitions with the Permanent Mission of Qatar. “A heartfelt thank you also to Qatar, co-chair of the Group of Friends on Sport for Development and Peace, for supporting this event, including the reception that is waiting for us afterwards,” the then director of the UN in Geneva, Michael Møller said.


Qatar only started to reform its practices when it felt hosting the World Cup might be compromised. In his 2020 book, Still Work to Be Done: The future of Decent Work in the World, Luc Cortebeeck, former ILO Governing Body Vice-Chair for the Workers Group, recounts how, having assembled an “unprecedented lobbying machine,” Qatar systematically tried to prevent an investigation into its human rights and labor practices.

In 2014, after François Crépeau, the Canadian UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, published a documented report on the conditions of foreign workers in the country, Qatar was able to assemble a large coalition of support among other “Arab countries that didn’t want to lose the migrants’ remittances and other governments trading with Qatar or involved in major sporting events [who] felt little incentive to put heavy pressure on the country,” Cortebeeck writes. “As a result, a strong report got no follow-up from the Human Rights Council.”

The same year, based on the evidence gathered by the Special Rapporteur and by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Cortebeeck pushed for the ILO’s Governing Body to establish a Commission of Inquiry on Qatar. The vote failed, but after the employers group decided to support the workers group, the Governing Body accepted the creation of a tripartite mission to Qatar. From meeting with migrant workers on Fridays—the day of Muslim prayer—in order to escape attention from Qatari’s officials, to the blunt threat by a Qatari minister of cutting energy supply to countries supportive of the investigative mission, Cortebeeck tells the tale of Qatar’s attempts to impede the work of the fact-finding mission and its continued repudiation of the evidence gathered over the years by the UN, by the unions, civil society—including football associations—and by the international press.

In March of 2016, the tripartite mission delivered its report to the ILO’s governing body. The unanimity of its members, recounts Cortebeeck in his book, acted as a “pivot.” The ILO and trade unions could now officially start negotiating with Doha. In November 2017, supported by a $25 million fund paid by Qatar, a technical support program was established with the ILO and an office opened in Doha.


Many ILO watchers see this as the validation of the concept of “constructive engagement.” None of the reforms Qatar eventually implemented would have happened had it not been for the ILO and others engaging with Doha, they say.

But for some, that argument is now being very seriously tested in light of Qatargate. “Qatar has still not managed to resolve its reputational problem in Western public opinion and civil society; and if anything, its role as host has only raised its profile in a negative sense,” wrote Cinzia Bianco before the alleged corruption scandal broke.

Presumption of innocence applies to all in the unfolding investigation, including to Qatar. But at the very least, international organizations looking to “leverage the millions and billions of fans” that mega-sporting events bring might be advised to proceed with caution. “What’s being tested here is the ability of organizations like the ILO to say no,” a former senior UN official told The G|O.

As for the ILO-FIFA MoU, its status today remains unclear. “Details of the MoU will be announced if and when there is an agreement. Discussions are expected to continue next year,” the ILO told us by email.

The matter may be taken up during the spring meeting of the ILO’s Governing Body, the organization’s executive instance: “I expect hard questions to be asked,” a knowledgeable source outside the organization told The G|O.

-PHM, with additional reporting from Jamil Chade