Workers’ rights and football collide in Qatar

Oliver Bullough


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This week, how the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is bringing workers’ rights in the Gulf into focus; returning embezzled money is great, but what else needs to be done?


There was exciting news in English football this week where mega-club and would-be European Super League participants Chelsea (owner’s net worth: a vast $15.5 billion) lost to minnows Leicester City (owner’s net worth: a mere $3.7 billion) in the FA Cup Final (sponsored by UAE-owned airline Emirates). It’s a tale to warm the heart of every sporting underdog out there — you too can defeat a billionaire-backed sporting giant, as long as you’re also backed by a billionaire.

The news from Qatar, which will host the World Cup next year, is grim, however. Football’s governing body and the Qatari authorities have both pledged that the tournament has helped improve workers’ rights in the kingdom as a “catalyst for broader positive social change”. However, the fate of Malcolm Bidali suggests otherwise.

Bidali, a Kenyan who came to Qatar to work as a security guard, has been documenting his experience as a migrant laborer in a series of blog posts.

  • “Six people in one room seems tolerable if you compare it to those sleeping eight in a room. I personally have been a guest of such hospitality. It was dehumanizing. I have also peeked into certain rooms, belonging to different companies, that carried a similar number, albeit with deplorable hygienic conditions. I remember feeling a blend of emotions. First was disgust at the state my eyes beheld. Second was pity for the inhabitants. Third was appreciation for the better conditions on our side. Fourth was confusion over how and why such a thing happened. Fifth was ire. Sixth was melancholy,” he wrote, in May last year.

He also shared the experiences of his fellow laborers on Twitter, on Instagram, and in lengthier posts on Medium.

  • “I suppose I’m just frustrated, more than usual, at how the very people with the responsibility to look after our welfare are complicit in our misfortune, AND how they manage to get away with it every time, all while being celebrated members of society,” he wrote in March after an encounter with literal royalty.

In late April, Bidali spoke to a group of civil society organizations and trade unions about his experience working in Qatar. Shortly afterwards, on May 4, state security service agents came to his accommodation and detained him. He has not been heard from since. According to a joint statement from five human rights organizations, Qatari authorities say he is under investigation for violating security regulations.

  • “We urge the authorities to disclose Malcolm’s whereabouts, and ensure he is protected from torture and other ill-treatment. Further, they must outline any internationally recognizable offense against him and ensure his right to due process is fully respected, including ensuring he has legal assistance,” the organizations said.

Thousands of migrant workers – overwhelmingly from India, Bangladesh, and other countries in South and Southeast Asia – have died working in Qatar since it won the right to host the World Cup a decade ago, and several European teams have demonstrated against the workers’ living conditions. In March, Amnesty International publicly appealed to Gianni Infantino – president of football’s governing body FIFA – to do more to force Qatar to treat its workers better.

The workers did recently gain the promise of a $275 a month minimum wage, but Infantino (who earns slightly more than a thousand times that amount) is yet to comment on Bidali’s treatment, or to reply publicly to Amnesty’s statement. Separately, US prosecutors have accused Qatar of paying bribes to secure the right to host the World Cup, but that’s a matter for another newsletter altogether, or we’ll never finish.

Incidentally, after the European Super League fiasco, the British government promised a review of the way the game is run. Looked at from one perspective, this is a big deal because England hosts the world’s most important league, and many of its wealthiest and best-supported clubs. If England changes how football is run, and how clubs are owned, it could have cascading effects all around the world. Looked at from another perspective, however, the review is almost certain to amount to nothing: expecting England to overhaul of its own accord its extremely successful football league is a little like expecting the British Virgin Islands to voluntarily clean up its company registry.


And now it’s time for news from Moldova (the poorest country in Europe, which is sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania). It has received more than $600,000 from the UK, which confiscated it from the son of the former prime minister, after he ran out of legal options. Vlad Luca Filat moved to London as a student in 2016, and rented himself an apartment for more than $1,000 a day.

Filat’s father – also called Vlad – was arrested in 2015 on suspicion of involvement in a scam that saw $1 billion vanish from the Moldovan banking system. A year later, he was jailed for nine years, though his sentence was later reduced on appeal. The money confiscated in Britain was deemed to derive from Filat senior’s misdeeds.

Moldova has been looted for years, and the banking fraud is the most egregious example of how its elite has treated the country as a cash machine, so it is heartening that a foreign country is helping it recover a bit of its stolen wealth. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that the last known owner of that billion dollars was a shell company registered in Scotland, so Britain is at least partly responsible for it having been stolen in the first place. Not only has the vast majority of the stolen wealth has never been accounted for, but the UK has failed to close the loophole that allowed one of its corporate structures to be used as getaway vehicle, despite repeated government promises to do so.

Personally, I’d like Boris Johnson’s government to focus on preventing new nine-figure thefts, rather than crowing about returning barely a two-thousandth of the money seven years after it’s been stolen, but perhaps that’s just me. If you’d like to know what I think about the UK’s current priorities more fully, here’s a piece I just wrote about them.

There is interesting news from France, which has been struggling with the question of how to return kleptocratic wealth confiscated in the “Biens mal acquis” cases targeting the wealth of politicians from Gabon, the Republic of Congo, and Equatorial Guinea. The cases were originally brought by Sherpa, a small but mighty legal activist group which had to overcome opposition from state prosecutors before bringing the matter before a judge, but eventually ended up confiscating tens of millions of euros. Under a new French law, that money will now be used to finance “co-operation and development initiatives”.

  • “Ring-fencing the revenues in this way gives the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the flexibility to decide on a case-by-case basis how funds will be returned. For example, funds could be allocated to the French Development Agency, to international organisations like the World Bank, to local or international NGOs, or directly back to the national treasury of countries of origin,” noted U4, the anti-corruption resource center.

Returning embezzled wealth to the country where it comes from is hard (because the country is normally run by the people that did the embezzling), and there are many cases where it has failed. Still, if the damage done by corruption is ever to be reversed, the stolen wealth must be returned to its true owners, so it’s good to see the French taking steps to ensure that happens.


There has been a lot written about the climate crisis of late, and the latest assessment from the International Energy Agency suggests we are reaching a tipping point in terms of the issue being taken seriously. Considering how many oligarchs’ fortunes derive from fossil fuels, this process of decarbonizing the world economy is unlikely to be a straightforward one, but it’s good to know there are so many activists committed to making it happen.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time this week re-reading the statement that my brother Tom Bullough read in court as he faced sentencing for taking part in Extinction Rebellion protests last year. Read it for yourself, it’s beautifully written (but then, he is a novelist). The question I keep coming back to is this: how come he now has a criminal record, when so many of the people I spend my life writing about do not?

This story was originally published as a weekly newsletter written by Oliver Bullough. Sign up here to get it delivered straight to your inbox.