At Qatar’s world cup, Blinken balances firmness and flattery

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DOHA, Qatar — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday pushed back against criticism that his appearance at the World Cup in Qatar led to indifference to human rights, as some activists denounced the Persian Gulf country’s treatment of migrant workers and LGBTQ people.

Blinken, a devoted football fan, said his visit meant the opposite.He said this led to a deeper U.S. cooperation with Qatar on human rights, labor standards and the fight against human trafficking also provided an opportunity to support the U.S. national team, which drew 1-1 with Wales in their opening match.

Asked by reporters at a news conference how he justified the trip, Blinken said: “I’ve made no secret of saying it’s an honor to actually be on Team America and root for Team America.” Members of Congress, including Rep. Ilhan Khan Omar (D-Minnesota) and Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) were also in attendance.

Blinken’s visit represents a difficult balancing act for the Biden administration on Qatar, which is fast becoming one of Washington’s most valuable partners in the Middle East despite its policies on migrant workers and the LGBTQ population. The secretary made pointed statements on both issues.

For Qatar, the World Cup is a high-stakes test and a showcase of impact

The Persian Gulf gas-rich country has transformed itself into the first Middle Eastern nation to host the World Cup, spending $220 billion to build seven stadiums, renovate an eighth and build a road and rail network to connect fans to the World Cup. matches.

To complete the transition, it employed hundreds of thousands of workers from impoverished countries such as Pakistan and India, but has been criticized for dangerous working conditions that have resulted in an undisclosed number of migrant deaths.

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In response, Qatar implemented labor reforms lauded by some independent analysts, which Blinken also pointed to on Tuesday. “We appreciate Qatar’s work to improve labor practices,” he said, noting efforts to investigate, prosecute and convict traffickers. “Our hopes and expectations [is] Some of the progress already made has continued and expanded after the World Cup. “

It has also provided vital assistance to the United States during the most challenging chapter of Biden’s presidency as Qatar has grown wildly.

Its sprawling Al Udeid Air Base, home to thousands of U.S. troops, is the central node for a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, evacuating more Americans and Afghan civilians than any other base in the world. The Qatari ambassador to Afghanistan personally boarded a bus carrying fleeing Americans and negotiated their passage through Taliban checkpoints.

“The U.S. owes Qatar a lot, and that outweighs the current widespread criticism of its mistreatment of foreign workers,” said David Otavi, a Gulf expert at the Wilson Center.

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After Russia invaded Ukraine, it supported the U.S. push to diplomatically isolate Russia and help stabilize the European LNG market.

Unlike Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, or Israel, “Qatar has taken a clear political stance toward Ukraine, and while that has not translated into active efforts to weaken Russia’s position in the gas market, it has translated into providing Ukraine with a high-profile platform For example, President Zelensky,” said Cinzia Bianco, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“Blinken’s presence in Qatar is a recognition of those efforts and his presence at a high level is very important because of the controversy surrounding this World Cup,” she said.

Qatar’s staunch support for U.S. interests in the Biden era stands in stark contrast to its relationship with other Middle Eastern allies.

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Saudi Arabia, for example, angered U.S. officials in October when it announced its decision to cut its oil production just weeks before midterm elections. Relations with Israel are expected to deteriorate further with the return of right-wing firebrand Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, in flagrant defiance of Biden’s wishes to reopen a consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the UAE has meddled in U.S. politics in recent years, raising concerns in the U.S. intelligence community about its influence in Washington.

“Qatar is the most reliable Arab partner of the United States today, and despite its refusal to establish diplomatic relations with Israel like the UAE and Bahrain, it remains relatively immune to criticism from Congress,” Altavi said.

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But Blinken’s visit wasn’t all praise.

The diplomat sharply criticized football’s governing body FIFA for a decision to yellow World Cup players if they wear the “OneLove” armband in support of diversity and inclusion.

“When we see any restrictions on free speech, from my perspective it’s always worrying; that’s especially true when expressing diversity and inclusion,” Blinken said in a meeting with Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammad bin Abdulrahman al-Thani said at a news conference. “No one in football should be forced to choose between supporting these values ​​and playing for the team.”

Many fans who flocked to the Qatari capital for the game said economic and social concerns should give way to the sport on display.

Chris Wixson, who flew from Colorado to Qatar with his wife and son to watch the World Cup, said he was glad the secretary came to support Team USA despite the controversy.

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“It’s something you want to see, right? A team like this is supposed to bring everyone together, but everything is so divided,” he said.

Not everyone feels the same way.

Michael Page, a Middle East expert at Human Rights Watch, said he hoped Blinken would use his public rhetoric to more forcefully defend migrant workers. “It is disappointing that Secretary Blinken has chosen to ignore widespread demands from immigrant workers and their families, as well as football players and fans, to publicly call on FIFA and Qatari authorities to create a compensation fund for workers facing severe abuse.”

Qatar World Cup

emphasize: Saudi Arabia kicked off the day with a win over Argentina, which also included victories over defending champions France and two draws in Denmark-Tunisia and Mexico-Poland. Here are seven more games in World Cup history where underdogs beat memorable and shocking upsets.

United States Marine Corps: On their return to the World Cup, the young United States drew 1-1 with Wales in their Group B opener. The U.S. men’s national team faces a tougher task on Friday against Group B favorites England, who beat Iran 6-2 earlier on Monday.

Qatar dispute: Football fans wearing rainbows symbolizing LGBTQ inclusion say they have been denied entry to World Cup stadiums and have been heckled by members of the public asking them to remove their badges.

Group Guidelines: The U.S. men’s national soccer team, led by coach Gregg Berhalter and star striker Christian Pulisic, qualified for the 2022 World Cup, a step up from a disastrous and unsuccessful 2018 campaign. Here’s a closer look at how all the teams in each group stack up.

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