Qatar sports minister to World Cup critics: We’re no vampires

The sports minister for 2022 World Cup host Qatar, Salah bin Ghanem bin Nasser al-Ali, claimed Qatar'€™s World Cup will set a benchmark of excellence that will be "€œalmost impossible to beat."

John Leicester/AP

DOHA, Qatar — Qatar’s sports minister says the 2022 World Cup will set a benchmark of excellence that will be ”almost impossible to beat” and promised in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press that the Gulf nation will implement labor reforms in the next few months.

Salah bin Ghanem bin Nasser al-Ali also insisted that Qatar wouldn’t jeopardize its hosting of the World Cup and ambitions of being at the front and center of sports by funding terrorism.

He was vague on whether alcohol will be sold inside World Cup stadiums and how gay fans will be welcomed at the 2022 tournament.

The minister left no doubt that Qatar wants its World Cup – financed with vast oil-and-gas wealth – to stun the world. He said the Middle East ”needs something like this. It’s hope. It’s giving the youth in this region really a positive event that can change a lot of their hopes and dreams.”

Qatar’s name is now ”a brand related to quality, to luxury. We will not jeopardize this brand (by) holding a World Cup that is not successful,” the minister said. He anticipated that on opening night in 2022, he’ll be saying to himself: ”God help the country that will host the World Cup after us.”

”Really. I will stick to that. You will see that we will put a benchmark that is going to be almost impossible to beat.”

On allegations that Qatar supports the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria and other extremists, al-Ali insisted it would make no sense for ”a country that wants to hold the World Cup and big events almost every year” to be financing terror.

”This is ridiculous,” the minister said. The country’s ruling emir has also said Qatar doesn’t support terrorists, but the minister expanded on the reasoning for that.

Citing the example of Afghanistan, which became an al-Qaida and Taliban stronghold after the United States armed and financed anti-Soviet fighters there in the 1980s, the minister said: ”If you support any terrorist group it will not bring you any good. It is only going to haunt you one day.”

”So we don’t believe in that, we don’t do that,” he said. ”We are not ready anyway to take that risk because we know it’s dangerous for us.”

But it was al-Ali’s vigorous insistence that Qatar will tackle the ill-treatment of migrant workers which stood out most in the 90-minute interview in a luxury hotel overlooking the Aspire sports academy in Doha, the capital, where young players who will make up Qatar’s 2022 squad are being hot-housed.

Qatar qualifies automatically for the tournament as hosts.

The minister said his own father worked as a 12-year-old laborer in the oil industry in ”very hard conditions” that today ”would be like child abuse.”

”We understand this problem. For us, it’s a human question,” he said. Qataris aren’t ”vicious people who are like vampires,” he added. ”We have emotions, we feel bad.”

Human rights groups have documented ill-treatment in Qatar of migrant workers from Asia and Africa and conditions they say amount to forced labor.

Critics accuse Qatar’s government of being slow to act and warn that laborers flooding into the country to build World Cup stadiums, rail networks, roads, hotels and other massive public works will be vulnerable to abuse if Qatar doesn’t change and better enforce its laws. Such problems aren’t unique to Qatar and have long been an issue across the Gulf, but the World Cup has shone the spotlight on the 2022 host.

”We are under focus now which, OK, it’s tough,” al-Ali said. ”It is something that really needs big, big work from us. But we are really tackling this problem face-to-face. We are not hiding.”

Although World Cup organizers introduced mandatory welfare obligations for contractors in the last year, changes to the labor law were only proposed by the Qatari government in May.

Al-Ali said those reforms have now been through cabinet and will get final approval in ”the next few months.”

Critics say the changes don’t go far enough. But al-Ali said Qatar’s measures could drive change across the Gulf, perhaps even upsetting some neighbors.

”It is going to be good for not only the laborers in Qatar but in the whole region, which might upset some people.”