The upcoming football World Cup is a chance for the Gulf region to push back against “prejudice”, Fifa’s president said on Thursday, defending host Qatar from criticism of its rights record.
Gianni Infantino was speaking via video link at an investor conference in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, which is reportedly in talks with Greece and Egypt about a separate proposal to host the World Cup in 2030.
The four-week tournament in Qatar, which begins 20 November, offers “an opportunity for Qatar and the whole region to present itself to the world in another light, another way, and get rid I think once and for all of some of the prejudice that sadly still exists,” Infantino said.
His comments came two days after Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, hit out at “double standards” unleashed in an “unprecedented campaign” of criticism related to issues including treatment of foreign workers and LGBTQ and women’s rights.
Fifa awarded the World Cup to an Arab country for the first time in 2010. It has since spent tens of billions of dollars on preparations but has faced intense scrutiny over human rights.
The Gulf state has received heavy criticism over its treatment of the foreign workers who have built the infrastructure for Qatar’s economic miracle.
Foreigners make up more than 2.5 million of the 2.9 million population.
Conditions and safety standards on construction sites were long condemned by international unions.
Rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have insisted that Qatar and Fifa should do more to compensate workers who died or suffered injury on Qatar’s mega projects.
They have demanded that Fifa set up a $440 million compensation fund — equalling the World Cup prize money.
But reforms to the labour system and working practices have been praised by union leaders who previously fought the government.
Infantino highlighted those reforms in his comments on Thursday.
“Some real changes have already happened. For example, when we speak about workers’ rights, which is and has been an important topic, for the first time in the region minimum wages have been established for all workers,” he said.
He also pointed to “key improvements in terms of workers’ welfare”, adding: “These changes have happened in a few years only in Qatar.”