At the World Cup in Qatar, blinking balances firmness and flattery

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DOHA, Qatar — Foreign Minister Antony Blinken on Tuesday dismissed criticism that his World Cup appearance in Qatar had contributed to indifference to human rights, as some activists denounced the Persian Gulf state’s treatment of migrant workers and LGBTQ people.

Blinken, a self-confessed football fan, said his visit meant the opposite. It led, he said, deeper US cooperation with Qatar on human rights, labor standards and anti-trafficking also served as an opportunity to cheer on the US national team, whose opening game against Wales ended in a 1-1 draw.

“I make no secret of having the pleasure of actually coming and cheering for Team USA,” Blinken said during a news conference when asked by reporters how he justified the trip. Members of Congress, including Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), also attended.

Blinken’s visit represents the Biden administration’s difficult balancing act on Qatar, which, despite its policies toward migrant workers and LGBTQ people, is fast becoming one of Washington’s most valuable partners in the Middle East. The secretary made pointed remarks on both topics.

For Qatar, the World Cup is a high-stakes test and a show of force

The gas-rich Persian Gulf state has become the first Middle Eastern country to host the World Cup and has spent $220 billion to build seven stadiums, renovate an eighth and build a network of roads and railroads to connect the fans with the world cup matches.

To complete the transformation, it employed hundreds of thousands of workers from poor countries like Pakistan and India, but was criticized for hazardous working conditions that resulted in an unknown number of migrant deaths.

In response, Qatar implemented labor reforms that some independent analysts have praised and highlighted on Tuesday. “We appreciate the work Qatar has done to improve labor practices,” he said, noting efforts to investigate, prosecute and convict traffickers. “Our hope and expectation [is] that some of the progress made will be continued and built upon after the World Cup is over.”

During Qatar’s insane development, it has also provided crucial assistance to the United States during the most difficult chapters of President Biden’s tenure.

The massive Al-Udeid airbase, home to several thousand US troops, was a central hub of the chaotic 2021 disengagement from Afghanistan, evacuating more Americans and Afghan civilians than any other base in the world. Qatar’s ambassador to Afghanistan personally rode buses with fleeing Americans and negotiated their passage through Taliban checkpoints.

“The US owes Qatar a lot, and that trumps the widespread criticism of its mistreatment of foreign workers right now,” said David Ottaway, golf expert at the Wilson Center.

Biden’s “consequences” for Saudi Arabia are reaping quiet results

After Russia invaded Ukraine, it supported the US push to diplomatically isolate Russia and helped stabilize the liquefied natural gas market in Europe.

Unlike Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates or Israel, “Qatar has taken a clear political stance towards Ukraine and while this has not led to actively working to weaken Russia in the gas market, it has led to that it has given Ukraine high-profile platforms like President Volodymyr Zelensky,” said Cinzia Bianco, Fellow of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“Blinken’s presence in Qatar is a recognition of those efforts and his high-level presence is very important as this World Cup has been marred by controversy,” she said.

Qatar’s unwavering support of US interests in the Biden era stands in stark contrast to relations with other Middle East allies.

Saudi Arabia, for example, enraged US officials in October when it announced a decision to cut oil production weeks before mid-term elections. Israel has openly contradicted Biden’s desire to reopen a consulate in Jerusalem for the Palestinians, and ties are expected to sink further with the return of right-wing arsonist Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister. The United Arab Emirates has meddled in US politics in recent years, raising fears in the US intelligence community about its influence in Washington.

“Qatar is now the most reliable Arab partner the US has and has remained relatively free from criticism from Congress, despite refusing to establish diplomatic ties with Israel like the UAE and Bahrain have,” Ottaway said.

According to a US intelligence report, the most important ally in the Gulf has interfered in American politics

But Blinken’s visit wasn’t just a compliment.

The diplomat sharply criticized a decision by the football governing body FIFA to punish World Cup players with yellow cards for wearing OneLove armbands to support diversity and inclusion.

“From my point of view it is always worrying when we see restrictions on freedom of expression; it’s especially so when the phrase represents diversity and inclusion,” Blinken said at a news conference alongside Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani. “No one on a football pitch should be forced to choose between supporting those values ​​and serving their team.”

Many of the numerous fans who flocked to the Qatari capital to watch the matches said that economic and social issues should take a backseat to the sports on display.

Chris Wixson, who flew from Colorado to Qatar for the World Cup with his wife and son, said he was glad the secretary had come to support the US team despite the controversy.

“It’s something you wish to see, isn’t it? A team like this should bring everyone together, but everything is so damn divisive,” he said.

Not everyone felt the same.

Michael Page, a Middle East researcher with Human Rights Watch, said he wishes Blinken had used his public statements to speak out more strongly on behalf of migrant workers. “It is disappointing that Foreign Minister Blinken has chosen to ignore widespread calls from migrant workers and their families, as well as football players and fans, to publicly call on FIFA and the Qatari authorities to set up a compensation fund for workers who have been subjected to serious abuse. “

World Cup in Qatar

Highlights: Saudi Arabia stunned Argentina, opening a day that also included holders France with a win and two draws from Denmark-Tunisia and Mexico-Poland. Here are seven more games in World Cup history where the underdog swept all odds for a memorable and stunning upset.

USMNT: On their return to the World Cup, the young Americans settled for a 1-1 draw with Wales in their Group B opener defeated Iran 6-2 on Monday.

Qatar controversy: Football fans who wear the rainbow, a symbol of LGBTQ inclusivity, have said they have been denied entry into World Cup stadiums and have been confronted by the public to remove the emblem.

Group leader: The USA men’s soccer team, led by coach Gregg Berhalter and star forward Christian Pulisic, has qualified for the 2022 World Cup, an improvement on a disastrous and unsuccessful 2018 season. Here’s a close look at how all the teams in each group are faring stack.

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