Qatar's sports minister says the 2022 World Cup will set a benchmark of excellence that will be "almost impossible to beat" and promised in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press that the Gulf nation will implement labor reforms in the next few months.
Salah bin Ghanem bin Nasser al-Ali also insisted that Qatar wouldn't jeopardize its hosting of the World Cup and ambitions of being at the front and center of sports by funding terrorism.
He was vague on whether alcohol will be sold inside World Cup stadiums and how gay fans will be welcomed at the 2022 tournament.
The minister left no doubt that Qatar wants its World Cup — financed with vast oil-and-gas wealth — to stun the world. He said the Middle East "needs something like this. It's hope. It's giving the youth in this region really a positive event that can change a lot of their hopes and dreams."
Qatar's name is now "a brand related to quality, to luxury. We will not jeopardize this brand (by) holding a World Cup that is not successful," the minister said. He anticipated that on opening night in 2022, he'll be saying to himself: "God help the country that will host the World Cup after us."
"Really. I will stick to that. You will see that we will put a benchmark that is going to be almost impossible to beat."
On allegations that Qatar supports the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria and other extremists, al-Ali insisted it would make no sense for "a country that wants to hold the World Cup and big events almost every year" to be financing terror.
"This is ridiculous," the minister said. The country's ruling emir has also said Qatar doesn't support terrorists, but the minister expanded on the reasoning for that.
Citing the example of Afghanistan, which became an al-Qaida and Taliban stronghold after the United States armed and financed anti-Soviet fighters there in the 1980s, the minister said: "If you support any terrorist group it will not bring you any good. It is only going to haunt you one day."
"So we don't believe in that, we don't do that," he said. "We are not ready anyway to take that risk because we know it's dangerous for us."
But it was al-Ali's vigorous insistence that Qatar will tackle the ill-treatment of migrant workers which stood out most in the 90-minute interview in a luxury hotel overlooking the Aspire sports academy in Doha, the capital, where young players who will make up Qatar's 2022 squad are being hot-housed.
Qatar qualifies automatically for the tournament as hosts.
The minister said his own father worked as a 12-year-old laborer in the oil industry in "very hard conditions" that today "would be like child abuse."
"We understand this problem. For us, it's a human question," he said. Qataris aren't "vicious people who are like vampires," he added. "We have emotions, we feel bad."
Human rights groups have documented ill-treatment in Qatar of migrant workers from Asia and Africa and conditions they say amount to forced labor.
Critics accuse Qatar's government of being slow to act and warn that laborers flooding into the country to build World Cup stadiums, rail networks, roads, hotels and other massive public works will be vulnerable to abuse if Qatar doesn't change and better enforce its laws. Such problems aren't unique to Qatar and have long been an issue across the Gulf, but the World Cup has shone the spotlight on the 2022 host.
"We are under focus now which, OK, it's tough," al-Ali said. "It is something that really needs big, big work from us. But we are really tackling this problem face-to-face. We are not hiding."
Although World Cup organizers introduced mandatory welfare obligations for contractors in the last year, changes to the labor law were only proposed by the Qatari government in May.
Al-Ali said those reforms have now been through cabinet and will get final approval in "the next few months."
Critics say the changes don't go far enough. But al-Ali said Qatar's measures could drive change across the Gulf, perhaps even upsetting some neighbors.
"It is going to be good for not only the laborers in Qatar but in the whole region, which might upset some people."
On other issues:
— Al Ali said "creative" solutions can be found to allow alcohol sales to visiting World Cup fans. For now, alcohol is only sold in selected Doha hotels and visitors must show their passports to enter these bars. Residents with a license to shop there can also buy alcohol in a government-run store. But World Cup organizer FIFA has a sponsorship deal with a brewer and it leaned on Brazil, the last tournament host, to allow beer sales in its 2014 World Cup stadiums. Asked specifically about alcohol in 2022 stadiums, the minister offered no guarantee.
"In the hotels and many areas we have alcohol but we have also our own system that people need to respect," he said. "As we bid for 2022, we will respect all the rules and regulations by FIFA. We can study this and minimize the impact on our people and tradition. I think we can be creative, finding solutions for all of this. But we respect all the rules and regulations."
— Asked how gay people will be welcomed in 2022, al-Ali replied: "It's exactly like the alcohol question."
He said Qatar doesn't want to create "this impression, illusion that we don't care about our tradition and our ethical values ... We are studying all these issues. We can adapt, we can be creative to have people coming and enjoying the games without losing the essence of our culture and respecting the preference of the people coming here. I think there is a lot we can do."
— The minister minimized the impact of an apparent sports boycott by two of Qatar's neighbors, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. They are pulling teams from the men's World Handball Championships that Qatar is hosting in January. This follows the withdrawal of their ambassadors from Doha in March. They and Saudi Arabia, which also withdrew its ambassador, are unhappy with Qatar's support of Islamist groups across the region.
Still, al-Ali insisted that the handball tournament "is going to be very successful" and said sports should unite nations.
"It makes me happy when people use sports to solve differences and get together and away from politics."
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