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Qatar, a tiny country in the Middle East, is a controversial host for the World Cup

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The World Cup is being played in the Middle East for the first time. Qatar, a tiny country with an outsize role in the region, was a controversial choice as host. Our co-host Leila Fadel spoke to NPR's Middle East reporter Aya Batrawy.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

So, Aya, you've been covering Qatar for years. Let's take a step back before we get into the controversies of today and the games. How did Qatar end up being the host of the World Cup in the first place?

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Well, Qatar is a very small but very wealthy country. It has vast gas reserves. And it's really used that money to project its power and itself onto the global stage. And so this has been a huge moment of national pride for this country of just 300,000 citizens. They have spent $200 billion over the last decade on infrastructure, most of it for the games - highways, a new airport, hotels, beautiful new stadiums. So for this small country where 10 times as many foreigners live there than actual citizens, it's a very big moment. And most of those foreigners are there to really build this infrastructure, migrant workers. So it's a chance to showcase Qatar, a chance for people to look at Qatar and to look at it differently in a way that doesn't have to do with Mideast politics, oil and gas, its relationship with Iran and all the other issues in the region.

FADEL: So you mentioned migrant workers, and that's actually been a huge topic in the lead-up because they've built the stadiums, but there's a lot of concern about the human rights situation for migrant workers. If you could just talk about where all the criticisms are coming from - because a lot of people don't want the tournament in Qatar at all.

BATRAWY: You're absolutely right. Migrant workers have built this infrastructure that you see in Qatar today. And they've worked in really harsh, difficult conditions in extreme heat.

FADEL: Yeah.

BATRAWY: So this is a country where migrant workers for many years didn't really have rights. They were tied to their employers. They couldn't switch jobs or quit or even leave the country without a permission from their employer. A lot of that has been dismantled over the years, especially with scrutiny and attention on Qatar since they've won the bid to host the World Cup. But there still remain a lot of challenges with being paid on time and severance and, of course, just the extreme, harsh conditions that they work in.

FADEL: Right.

BATRAWY: But there are wider concerns about human rights in Qatar. This is an insular country where the amir inherited the throne from his father and a country where there is very limited political freedoms and speech. Homosexuality is criminalized. But Qataris are saying, look. We are welcoming everybody without discrimination. But there are concerns around that, of course. And that's something that people have raised.

FADEL: And then if you could just explain the reason that Qatar has such an outsized role in the region.

BATRAWY: Right. First of all, it hosts a massive U.S. airbase. It's a close U.S. ally. This airbase has been used to launch operations against extremists in Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan. It played a huge critical role in helping the U.S. during that chaotic evacuation out of Afghanistan last year through that air base and through its relationships with the Taliban and other groups. It's used its money to back Islamist groups like that short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, Syrian opposition fighters and others. That has caused tensions and, actually, a whole diplomatic fallout with its neighbors, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for years. But really, the crown jewel in the way that Qatar continues to project its power and its soft power is through the Al Jazeera news network, which is based in Qatar and was founded by the amir's father.

FADEL: NPR's Aya Batrawy, thank you so much for your time.

BATRAWY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Aya Batrawy