There is one simple reason I was immensely happy that Qatar won its World Cup bid and would be heartbroken if, as a FIFA executive has said today, it is about to lose the event.
Okay, two simple reasons.

One was purely selfish: Doha is my hometown and the opportunity to watch a Cup at home is something that most people on earth can only dream of. The other was the attention the world’s biggest sporting event would bring to a country that could do with generous doses of scrutiny.

Starting December 2, 2010, when FIFA announced the winners of the World Cup bids, Qatar stopped being “that place next to Dubai.” It became “that tiny, embarrassingly rich and incredibly hot country that somehow just got the World Cup”.

Initially, this meant hundreds of news stories about how a country smaller than India's National Capital Region was starting to become a player on the world’s stage. Thanks to its accompanying foreign policy outreach, it soon become impossible for a Western journalist to mention Doha without using the phrase “punches above its weight” or referring to the “oil-rich emirate”, though Qatar’s wealth comes primarily from natural gas.

A backlash

Even before the novelty ran out, though, the backlash began.

Qatar is hot, they complained. It’s also too small. It doesn’t allow alcohol in public. It’s not actually any good at football. It has a regressive stand towards the LGBT community. It treats construction workers terribly. And it has too much money, which means it must have bribed its way towards a winning bid.

None of those things are necessarily untrue, but it would also be difficult to find a competing nation – say Russia, which hosts the Cup in 2018 – without its own litany of troubles. Even Brazil, the cultural homeland of football was, for many, a tremendously problematic place to host the Cup. (This approach of course means that the only “appropriate” places for the event would end up being Western European nations).

Western hypocrisy aside, the coverage meant that subjects that were always taboo in the tiny, benign dictatorship were suddenly fair game. Those of us who have lived in or visited the rich emirates of the Arabian Gulf have always known how labourers are treated there.

Human rights abuses

When middle-class Asian expatriates are themselves dealt with like second-class citizens, paid less than Westerners and needing the permission of their employers to leave the country, the chances of the labouring classes being treated fairly have always been near-impossible. But before the World Cup, we could barely even mention the issue, let alone write about it in the local media or take it up with the government.

The Cup changed all of that. Suddenly, anytime you wanted an excuse to talk about human- rights abuses, all you had to do was append the words “in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup” to your news story and it would get read. The foreign media began to pay real attention to Qatar's problems, giving more leverage to those who had been working few years to improve things.

Imagine the World Cup is taken away from Qatar now. Who is really going to stick around to report on what happens to the country's massive labour class? Would any news editor or human rights organisation pay as much attention to the plight of those in Doha if the words “World Cup 2022” don’t go alongside the report?

Conspiracy theories

It’s not as if the World Cup brought human rights abuses to Qatar. The kafala system, a regressive approach to dealing with expatriate labour that is reminiscent of indentured servitude, had existed for years before Qatar even thought about bidding for the Cup. It is only the international exposure of the world’s biggest sporting event that has forced authorities to admit that it is a problem and needs to be altered.

Making things worse, all the negative coverage about Qatar has put locals on the defensive. Misguided articles suggesting that more than 4,000 Nepali labourers will die working on World Cup projects over the next ddecade (based on spurious extrapolations) have many Qataris believing there is a racist international conspiracy to take the World Cup away from them, with human rights as the excuse.

If the Cup is indeed taken away, this lot will feel vindicated in their arguments that Qatar should not have tried opening up to the rest of the world in the first place. The small momentum generated by those working to expose human rights abuses, often having to spend time behind bars, will be lost.

It’s all very well to insist that things won’t go back to the way they were before, even if Qatar loses the World Cup. To an extent, a relative culture of openness has been fostered and there are more institutions in the country dedicated to examining and upholding human rights. But there’s no doubt that, soon enough, the international media will move on.

Think about it. If a headline about human rights abuses did not have the words “World Cup” in it, what are the chances you would have read this story?