Ever since FIFA awarded Qatar the 2022 World Cup and representatives from the country cheered as they held the most esteemed trophy in sports, there has been almost continuous controversy, much of it stemming from the rights (or lack thereof) afforded to immigrant workers who are building much of the new infrastructure.
Now, a professional soccer player participating at the country's club level is also protesting the Qatari government for its restrictive treatment of him as a foreign national. For much of the past two years, Zahir Belounis of France has been embroiled in a legal fight against his Qatari club and the government's tightly controlled power structure, one that he claims has now essentially made him a prisoner.
The situation came to a head late last week when Belounis, who has not been allowed to return home to see his extended family in France for almost 18 months, wrote an open letter to two well-known international soccer stars with ties to Qatar's successful World Cup bid: Zinedine Zidane, perhaps France's most famous soccer player, and Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola, who used to play in Qatar.
His letter, published last Thursday by The Guardian, read in part:
After a legal dispute with my club, I am being prevented from returning home to France.
I haven't seen my family in France since June 2012 because my employer refuses to give me the exit visa needed to leave the country. This is a special document that only exists in this country and Saudi Arabia.
I am not alone in this predicament. Many workers who are to build the stadiums for the 2022 World Cup risk finding themselves in the same situation as me.
When someone suggested that I write to you, I figured that you have been great footballers but also great men so I would appeal to you to use your renown to intervene, or try to intervene, to end the impasse.
I know that you have many demands for your time but I ask you to please help me. Please understand that I am a victim.
Belounis' fight became international news in May when Human Rights Watch wrote of his fight, using the moment to showcase how Qatar was exploiting its exit visa program:
Law No. 4 of 2009 regulates the entry and exit of expatriates in Qatar and their residence and sponsorship. It is Qatar's version of the kafala or sponsorship system, forms of which regulate the residence and employment of expatriate workers across the Gulf region. All expatriate workers in Qatar and some visitors require a residence permit, which is provided by a resident sponsor, who can be an employer, a father of the visitor or the person inviting a visitor on his or her sponsorship.
However, resident sponsors can also effectively prevent the people sponsored from leaving Qatar. Article 18 states that "other than women sponsored by the father and the minors and visitors visiting the state for no longer than 30 days, expatriates may not leave the state temporarily or permanently unless they provide an exit permit issued by the Residence Sponsor."
Residence sponsors do not need to justify their failure to provide an exit permit.
Belounis' case seemed to be coming to a close a month ago when a fresh wave of attention reportedly compelled the Qatari Football Association into allowing him — and his wife and two young kids — to return home to France, but they are all still in Qatar.
Since Belounis' plea for help was published last week, the Qatari Football Association has outright disputed his claims that he is "trapped" in the country, while further denying that he ever played for the club for which he is demanding back pay.
FIFA, soccer's international governing body, is pleading ignorance on the entire situation, claiming there is nothing it can do:
"FIFA has to date received no contractual claim from Belounis against his Qatari club as well as any accompanying documentation to support his case," FIFA said.
"FIFA fully respects basic human rights and also requests that its member associations and the hosts of its events fully respect them. FIFA was actually made aware of Zahir Belounis's predicament through the civil authorities in his home town.
"FIFA is unable to intervene in this matter given that Mr Belounis chose the option of contacting an ordinary court in Qatar."
When reached by phone last week, Belounis told Euronews, "I don't think I can take it anymore. ... I'm desperate. I'm not a criminal. I've done nothing wrong. Please help me."