“A very nice, full day here in Qatar.” This is how Minister Conny Helder (Long-Term Care and Sport, VVD) defined the controversial lightning visit of less than 24 hours, which she made on behalf of the cabinet to the World Cup in Qatar. “The relationship with Qatar is important. And the fact that you are here opens doors,” she said on a strip of grass near the Al Bayt stadium, just north of Doha, where the Netherlands had just won 2-0 against Qatar on Monday night.
Until just before Helder’s visit, it was still unclear who she could talk to in Doha. That’s how it always goes, said an embassy employee; Qatar is a country where deals are “shot at the last minute”. Awkward, because there was a lot at stake for the minister.
A majority in the House of Representatives – including the coalition parties D66 and ChristenUnie – previously called on the government to boycott the tournament due to the large-scale exploitation of migrant workers who worked on World Cup facilities. It went clear because Qatar is economically and politically important to the Netherlands, and because a boycott would hinder the “constructive-critical dialogue with Qatar, also in the field of human rights, [zou] undercut”. What was ‘at stake’ was therefore a discussion with the Qatari authorities about human rights and working conditions.
Managed. She spoke with Ali bin Samikh Al Marri, Qatar’s labor minister, on Tuesday morning. Later, she had an appointment with Minister of Social Affairs Mariam Al-Misnad, and she visited the International Labor Organization, which monitors working conditions. She also spoke to migrant workers.
The talks took place in an “open and constructive atmosphere,” said the minister, who gave no further details. Except that the labor reform and human rights have been ‘fixed’.
A football World Cup attracts billions of viewers, so it forms a grateful stage for statements intended for the host country, the rest of the world and the domestic market. Certainly this edition, one of the most controversial ever due to the thousands of victims who, according to human rights organizations, have fallen during the construction of stadiums and other infrastructure.
Statements can regularly be seen in the stands, such as Palestinian flags or statements of support for the protests in Iran. And while political leaders such as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (prominently present at the opening ceremony) and Chinese companies such as Wanda (visible everywhere as a sponsor) emphatically seek the World Cup limelight, European governments and football associations try to express criticism without damaging relations with Qatar and damaging FIFA too much.
How complicated it is is shown by the uncomfortable situation that the Dutch cabinet and the KNVB have found themselves in. Barely a week after the start of the World Cup, the public discussion about human rights and working conditions has narrowed down to a debate about ‘OneLove’, a statement against all forms of discrimination and of ‘inclusion’.
The captains of the Western European WC participants initially wanted to convey that message with a special captain’s armband. But the OneLove symbol, a multicolored heart often interpreted as a rainbow symbol and therefore an explicit statement of LGBTI rights, is so sensitive in the Muslim country of Qatar that FIFA threatened a yellow card. It was not worth it for the footballers and the associations, who put the ball in the hands of government representatives.
German Sports Minister Nancy Faeser took to the stands last week with a OneLove band around her arm. Without too many consequences, it turned out: On Monday, Germany announced that it had concluded a large long-term gas agreement with Qatar.
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There was division within the Dutch government. In the Council of Ministers last Friday, D66 ministers in particular insisted on a strong declaration for LGBTI rights from Helder. D66 emancipation minister Robbert Dijkgraaf tweeted last week that it was “disappointing” that FIFA banned footballers from wearing the OneLove armband and that the Netherlands “must continue to spread that message”.
According to government sources, that tweet annoyed Helder and also CDA minister Wopke Hoekstra, who felt that Dijkgraaf was getting in the way of his colleagues. “You’re part of the team, you don’t just have to think about your own portfolio,” says one person involved. “Human rights are more than a bracelet.”
On Monday, Helder opted for a modest pin – or a “miniscule pin” in the words of a disappointed D66 member – as did KNVB directors Marianne van Leeuwen and Gijs de Jong. The band would be considered “unnecessary provocation”, De Jong had already announced on Sunday morning. Helder thought the pin was “most appropriate” for this evening. “We are still playing against the host country.”
Also read: The Dutch national team is group winner without shine after the victory over Qatar
Remarkably, the Qatari dignitary sitting next to Helder – the emir was a little further away and has not met Helder – wore a black and white captain’s armband to draw attention to the Palestinian cause. “The whole OneLove discussion has caused a backlash that has driven us apart a little bit,” Helder said. But according to the minister, the atmosphere had been good during the match.
A few hours after the match, Minister Helder flew back to the Netherlands. The cabinet will be relieved that the visit is over. At least for now. If Holland goes far in the tournament – the orange squad has reached the round of 16 – the government must again decide whether and, if so, who to send. And whether to pronounce.