FC Bayern and Qatar: a critical examination

Justin Separator February 11, 2021

In 2011, FC Bayern München travelled to Qatar for their first annual training camp. In 2015, the club struck the first sponsorship deal with a company from Qatar, a high-dollar contract with Doha Airport. In 2018, the record champions announced that they would enter into a business partnership with Qatar Airways, a company that is wholly owned by a state that has repeatedly been and continues to be perpetrating human rights violations. The concrete criticism of FC Bayern is that they support all this through their business relations with Qatar and help divert attention from the abuses.

The most widely documented issue in this context is no doubt the situation of the migrant workers. More than 1,400 workers lost their lives in Qatar between 2009 and 2019, mainly due to a system of exploitation known as the “Kafala” system. Although there were increased efforts to phase the system out in 2020, human rights organisations have remained critical because it still persist in many places. The Bayern sponsor Qatar Airways has also been criticised several times for the working conditions of their employees. 

Even though the situation of the workers is probably the most frequent point of criticism, it is by far not the only one. Structural racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and misogyny are big problems, too, despite slight improvements in recent years – although it is important to mention that not all people in Qatar should be painted with the same brush. Another major criticism is that the law allows press censorship and even imprisonment of critical journalists – freedom of the press is little more than a pious wish. In addition, there is the country’s financing of terrorism and entanglement in corruption in sport – for example, in the awarding of the 2022 World Cup.

Despite pushback: Why Bayern are holding on to Qatar

So far, any criticism aimed at FC Bayern has always been like water of a duck’s back. The club argues that it is in constant dialogue with Qatar and therefore actively contributing to improvements within the country. Indeed, there is a broad consensus that football as a whole has played a certain role in initiating change in the country. Although it is difficult to measure how big FC Bayern’s contribution to this actually is, there is no question that in recent years the attention for the human rights situation in Qatar has reached a new level and the international pressure has increased. 

Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Herbert Hainer are always eager to point out that the club acts according to the recommendations of NGOs. However, there is no proof to substantiate that claim. On the contrary, the human rights activist Nicholas McGeehan, who worked for Human Rights Watch for a long time, actively collaborated with the club on a recommendation for action in this regard. In early 2020, he told during a panel discussion that the club had completely ignored it.

The panel discussion was organised by fans, and representatives of FC Bayern were also invited – at Säbener Straße, however, they declined. It is perhaps a big part of the problem that FC Bayern are reluctant to speak out on the issue. Talks with critical fans or observers have been extremely rare, and when the club states that they are actively involved in initiating societal progress in Qatar, there is almost never any real evidence or examples given.

FC Bayern’s interest in the business relationship

And so not least many fans wonder: What is the reason for the sponsorship deal with Qatar Airways and what, above all, do FC Bayern get out of it? Is this a business relationship worth abandoning in the interest of the values the club should actually stand for? Or would it destroy the club’s credibility in the country with respect to promoting Western values?

The answer to these questions is not quite so simple. German football journalist Ronny Blaschke has been dealing with the political and social background of sports for years and has also addressed these topics in his book “Machtspieler”. In an interview with us, he revealed what else FC Bayern’s interests are besides the economic benefits the partnership brings: In part, the collaboration is also about access for the club’s main shareholders and the networking opportunities it affords them in the region.

The entire region is considered one of the few growth markets in the world for football, which makes it important from an economic perspective to gain a foothold there in order to be able to access this large untapped market. Many other (German) companies like Deutsche Bahn and Volkswagen are leading the way. That also makes it easier for the “global players” to justify their presence in this market. “In football, people always get upset about it because it is such an emotional issue and it doesn’t take much to generate significant outrage, but this is a globalised economy,” says Blaschke.

What are Qatar’s interests?

Oh the other side of the equation is Qatar. Blaschke already told us in an interview last year what the country gets out of the deal: “One of many drivers for them is national security. The Middle East is a complex region with many power-conscious regimes. Qatar, as a small peninsula with only 2.5 million inhabitants, is a clearly inferior militarily power than states like Iran and Saudi Arabia.” That is why the state is investing in “soft power”. Their contacts in the fields of culture, sport, but also politics, are vital for the country to protect itself from an invasion by neighbouring states.

Just like FC Bayern, Qatar also benefits from contacts and a larger international network. However, there is no dependence on the German record champions. “In Qatar, there is not such a pronounced sports culture as in Germany. The people there are far less emotional, whereas football is followed almost with religious passion in this country,” says Blaschke. It would therefore also be arrogant of FC Bayern to seek to change things like the human rights situation with a wagging finger, he warns.

Qatar also had a great interest in maintaining its long-term prosperity, for which it would be imperative for the country to develop alternative sources of income to gas exports, Blaschke continued. For them, it were not so much a matter of attracting public attention. Instead, national security and continued prosperity were the primary aim. 

As far as FC Bayern are concerned, the journalist says that one must clearly differentiate between criticism and the economic perspective. The bleak reality is that FC Bayern have been very successful with this strategy in recent years. Their enormous increase in followers, revenues (before COVID-19) and, last but not least, the sporting success speak for themselves.

“FC Bayern have no interest in change”

The criticism has had no effect on the club so far, especially since it is not sustained and loud enough to really be heard. The odd incoming volley is blithely sat out. Not least the blown-up would be ‘scandal’ of FC Bayern’s missed flight to Qatar shows that such side issues are given much wider coverage and receive much more attention in the public than the human rights situation or the many other points of criticism of Qatar. Yes, those have gained media attention, too, but they are not highlighted consistently enough and do not generate enough resonance.

Blaschke even goes so far as to say that “FC Bayern tend not to have much interest in actively changing anything there.” They have not been pushing for change actively enough in recent years. And so the perhaps sobering reality is that tapping into a new market is more important than responding to criticism.

But the moral perspective is a complicated one anyway, Blaschke also thinks, because it is liable to appear condescending in connection with Qatar. Especially when there is an all or nothing insistence on maintaining Western moral standards, the debate often tends to become patronising or disdainful. Instead, says Blaschke, it were a matter of finding diplomatic ways to tickle an autocratic regime and not to express know-it-all criticism based on a different canon of moral values.

FC Bayern’s arguments are often only a cover

This certainly makes it more difficult for FC Bayern to actively work to improve the situation, if they actually intended to do so. However, not only Blaschke, but also other experts who did not want to be named assured us that there were little signs of such intentions. During their training camp visits to the country, the club has made some minor efforts from time to time, but they were at best a drop in the ocean.

In the eyes of the experts who talked to us the language used by those in charge at FC Bayern did not suggest that the issue had been given much thought, causing much astonishment about many of the statements, especially among those who were actually trying to bring about change on the ground. If the club had a genuine interest in this as well, it would engage more with these people and support them. Also, the argument that the business relationships opened the door to other areas as well, giving the club more opportunities to address critical issues, is seen as a pretext at best. Many experts agree that the club would be perfectly able to do this without the Qatar Airways sponsorship deal – if it wanted to.

In practice, rather the opposite is true, The business relationship with Qatar forestalls the opportunity for a serious, critical discussion. Too many financial and other economic aspects are at stake for the club to dare to take a more offensive approach. According to one expert, FC Bayern would best improve the human rights situation in Qatar by ending their business relations and instead actively supporting the work on the ground.

FC Bayern is a “global player” and not a football club from Munich

However, Blaschke is not surprised that economic interests win out in the end. In fact, the club acts much more like a “global player” than a traditional football club. They already have set up offices in China and the USA, and have been steadily advancing their internationalization for years. The club’s corporate communication and public PR have become equally professional. As they cannot please everyone, especially regarding such a sensitive issue, they choose to not say anything at all, thus keeping a potentially controversial public debate at bay.

If there were greater pressure from the outside or perhaps even from within, a change of course at the club might be possible. But there is no such pressure. According to Blaschke, FC Bayern are so big and the criticism is so incidental that simply nobody takes notice or cares. Especially since ending business relations with Qatar would automatically raise a much bigger question: If we sever our connections for moral reasons there, where do we draw the line in other partnerships, for example when it comes to states like China? But also when it comes to companies like Adidas, which have a lot of influence at FC Bayern and are involved in business arrangements one may rightly be concerned about?

However, not being able to exit all questionable business relations at once does not justify FC Bayern’s staying on with Qatar. A step in the right direction in one area is still a step in the right direction even if at the same time there are multiple steps backwards in other areas. Going by train once and by plane nine times is still better for the environment than flying ten times. But the examples show the complexity of the issue and that especially the definition of “values” is often very vague. FC Bayern also currently have no corporate social responsibility (CSR) guidelines that would describe what kind of business conduct is off limits. This makes an assessment of limit cases even more difficult.

If, however, at one stage Bayern were to give themselves a CSR code, such guidelines would have to be drawn up not by the board alone but under inclusion of a broad set of stakeholders in order to lend them sufficient authority. A commission made up of the board, fans, players, staff, and even organizations from outside the club, could jointly develop such guidelines as would make the club’s decisions and statements more transparent and consistent.

Change? Unlikely

It would also be desirable if the club exhibited a measure of self-critizism and showed itself more open to exchanging ideas. This would not even require much transparency. Blaschke believes that the club could do much more, especially on location in Qatar or with critical fans. Ideally, such a dialogue, even behind closed doors, would at least provide a frank exchange of views and give insight into each other’s perspectives. At the moment, however, the club only seems to pretend to be interested in hearing other people’s opinions. FC Bayern fan organization Club No. 12 has complained about this, too.

Unfortunately, the current state is not likely to change anytime soon. At the moment, it is hard to imagine that the public criticism leveled at the club will be strong and loud enough to seriously persuade FC Bayern to reconsider their actions. If one takes the club at its word, it unerringly vows to never forget its roots despite concessions to globalization and internationalization. But the links to Qatar make it amply clear that there is a lot of wishful thinking at play here. 

The conflict over Qatar is also a conflict between “modern football” and “football romance”. Blaschke believes that the club’s reputation is not really in danger, at least on a perceptible level. This is the harsh and, to a certain extent, sad reality for all those who, with good reason, speak out against FC Bayern’s more than questionable involvement with Qatar and hope that the club will more clearly commit to those values that it has sought to exemplify in various campaigns – for example, most recently at the “Never Again!” Remembrance Day. But if the criticism of FC Bayern cannot generate more resonance than in recent years, it will continue to go unheard by this “global player”. Unfortunately.

»Eier, wir brauchen Eier!«

— Oliver Kahn

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