Fifa facing scrutiny after exposing hundreds of fans to criminal prosecution for attending Qatar World Cup dress rehearsal

Exclusive: Football supporters from Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been sold tickets to next month’s Club World Cup despite it being illegal in each country to visit Qatar

Barney Cullum
Tuesday 12 November 2019 16:03
FIFA drops plans to expand Qatar 2022 to 48 teams

Human Rights Watch has criticised Fifa for neglect of fan welfare after Doha organisers of a test event for the 2022 World Cup told The Independent they had made no plans to seek assurances that legal penalties for fans having entered Qatar would be suspended.

December’s Club World Cup, a week-long competition featuring Liverpool and other continental champions from around the world, has attracted match ticket purchases from supporters banned by their governments from entering a country considered a political enemy since 2017.

Qatar has been ostracised in the Gulf since a blockade was imposed by countries it had previously enjoyed close relations with. Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors from the peninsula in the fall-out from the Arab Spring uprisings. Trips to the desert nation have been criminalised ever since.

Bahrain’s Interior Ministry issued an order stating that anyone who violates its own Qatar travel ban “shall have his personal passport withdrawn and his request to renew it shall be denied.” Saudi Arabia’s General Directorate of Passports placed Qatar on its list of countries to which Saudi citizens are not allowed to travel under penalty of a three-year global travel ban and a fine of 10,000 Saudi Riyals (equivalent to £2,000 or US$2,600).

Qatar has been shunned for allegedly “interfering” in the domestic politics of the blockading nations, among other charges. Relations remain icy, to the extent that officials in Saudi Arabia last year threatened to build a 40-mile long canal inside its eastern border, turning Qatar into an island.

Governments say they will not lift the blockade, nor will they allow travel to the country, unless and until Qatar complies with a raft of political demands that it continues to reject. Fifa however has confirmed to The Independent that it sold over 200 Club World Cup tickets to fans in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in October, exposing those supporters to the risk of prosecution.

Fifa has also sold over 500 tickets to fans from the UAE and Egypt. Match tickets have been bought through the Fifa website, which makes no reference to the risks faced by supporters who choose to enter Qatar via a third country.

“All of Fifa’s actions, including the sales of tickets, must be guided by what the human rights risk is,” Human Rights Watch’s Director of Global Initiatives Minky Worden told The Independent.

“All governments have a responsibility not to abuse the human rights of their citizens. So if the governments are extracting a harsh price for attending the Club World Cup then the first responsibility would be with the governments of those countries, but a very close second would be Fifa, which has to know and be transparent about what the risks are to fans in these countries.

“Since 2016, when it adopted the UN guiding principles on business and human rights, Fifa has said it will complete risk assessment due diligence, monitoring, transparency and remediation. Fifa’s not doing any of that [on fan safety] from what I’ve seen with Qatar.

“If a Saudi soccer fan attends and has trouble when he or she returns then Fifa should intervene to make sure the fan is not harassed or prosecuted. Since they’ve arranged for the fan to go, Fifa must make sure that there is no retaliation on their return. This system of identifying human rights risks and managing them is what Fifa has put in place and that’s where the responsibility lies.”

A Fifa spokesperson told The Independent “entry to the host country is a topic led rather by the Host Country”. The governing body added that it would work with the hosts to “create an inclusive experience for all fans” and “use football’s unique power to bring people together in a spirit of celebration and fair play.”

Doha organisers are adamant that it is not their place to initiate discussions with officials in blockading countries – a blockade it regards as illegal – and has no plans to do so unless it receives instructions from the upper tiers of its monarchy government.

“Everyone has always been and remains welcome to the State of Qatar,” said a spokesperson for the local organising committee. “Any fan wishing to attend the Fifa Club World Cup – or any other international sporting tournament the country hosts – is welcome.”

Adel Koraim, a Liverpool fan from Cairo, told The Independent that it has been considered “unpatriotic” in his country to attempt to visit Qatar since the blockade but that “many Egyptians” will be tempted by the prospect of watching national hero Mohamed Salah.

Egypt has been the least hardline of the blockading nations, with hundreds of thousands of Egyptians allowed to continue to reside in Qatar since the blockade. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in contrast gave their citizens and residents just 14 days to return home in 2017.

“I have Egyptian friends in the UAE and they have told me it is too risky to come to Qatar for the Club World Cup,” Koraim, a doctor and football blogger, added. “Having a Qatar entry stamp on their passport makes them subjected to terminating their contracts and stay in UAE.”

The 2022 World Cup is set to play out against a backdrop of controversy and geo-political tensions

Marc Jones, an Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern Studies who grew up in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia but is now based in Doha, says residency and citizenship are often considered “contractual” in the Gulf. “There’s a precarious ‘social contract’ that can be taken away. State media define being Bahraini as being loyal to the system.”

Jones says fans who travel to the Club World Cup from blockading countries risk seeing legislation invoked “arbitrarily”. It will be an expensive, time-consuming struggle for many even to get there due to having to fly via neutral third countries such as Kuwait and Oman.

Attempting to enter Qatar through unofficial entry points is punishable by three years in prison under Qatari law, while “expressing sympathy” for the country, a term open to interpretation, has carried custodial sentences of up to 15 years under laws introduced in the UAE following the blockade.

Prior to the Club World Cup, blockading nations have said they will boycott the Gulf Cup tournament being hosted by Qatar later this month. Meanwhile Egypt’s Zamalek are refusing to play the Confederation of African Football’s prestigious Super Cup this year due to it being held in Doha.

The persistent acrimony poses significant questions for the prospects of the 2022 World Cup, promoted as a competition “for the whole of the Middle East” during the bidding process. Last month’s athletics world championships featured exceptional entertainment on the track but was overshadowed by half-empty stadia that some World Athletics officials attributed to the political situation.

It remains to be seen whether Fifa can reconcile both the appetite and protection of supporters next month and at the main event in three years’ time. Qatar international Hamid Ismail is dreaming of playing against Salah for his club Al Sadd next month and his country in 2022. The full-back, capped over 60 times by his nation, wants to do so in front of fans from across the Middle East. “Football is like love. You cannot say to people that they cannot come to the World Cup. Let’s say to them: ‘You are welcome’.”

Human rights defenders intend to have the last word. “We wouldn’t look first to Fifa to end the blockade, but if that were one of the outcomes then I think Fifa could justly take credit for it,” Worden suggests, holding on to hope. “But it has to be done in full awareness of what the risks are to the specific people who are the front line of carrying out this plan.”

“Fans are often the last ones to be thought of in football. If fans decide to take this risk, and if the fans encounter problems as a consequence of accepting Fifa’s invitation, then they really should have the Fifa human rights staff on speed dial.”

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