Bayern Munich defend disputed sponsorship deal with Qatar

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BERLIN – FC Bayern Munich recognizes that not all publicity is necessarily good publicity.

Bayern boss Oliver Kahn on Monday defended the German football club’s controversial sponsorship deal with Qatar, saying he was certain their partnership had helped bring about positive change in the oil-rich Persian Gulf state.

“I think a lot has happened,” said Kahn at a panel hosted by Bayern to address his fans’ concerns about Qatar’s involvement with the club. “Because we are sitting here today and discussing this very important issue.”

Referring to “many meetings” FC Bayern had with Qatari officials, Kahn said “sport can change a lot”.

But given exactly what had been achieved, Kahn was unable to provide examples of specific measures taken by the club, or by Qatar at the club’s behest, to improve working conditions for migrant workers in the country.

Qatar is due to host the World Cup later this year, but preparations have been marred by allegations of human rights abuses against migrant workers, with thousands of unexplained deaths and widespread exploitation of workers.

Kahn said FC Bayern recently met with representatives from Qatar in London and spoke to them about diversity and tolerance.

“These are the talks that are very, very important to me personally,” said Kahn. “I think that’s how we can move forward step by step.”

Bayern President Herbert Hainer agreed.

“Of course, that doesn’t happen overnight,” said Hainer. “But democracy in Germany did not come about overnight. It was also a development process.”

Monday’s little-publicized panel was the result of a call for dialogue from fan representatives after Bayern’s tumultuous annual general meeting last November, when Kahn, Hainer and other board members were booed for not allowing a debate on Bayern’s lucrative partnership with Qatar Airways.

Bayern’s players wear their airline’s logo on their shirt sleeves. The sponsorship contract runs until 2023.

Christoph Heusgen, Germany’s former ambassador to the United Nations, moderated Monday’s discussion, which was not announced by the club on social media. There were no women on the panel. No media were present either, but anyone who was interested could watch after logging on to the Bayern website.

Sigmar Gabriel, former German foreign minister, first said that every country needs time to reform and warned against applying German standards elsewhere.

Both Hassan Al-Thawadi, the general secretary of the top WM committee, and Max Tuñón, head of the International Labor Organization in Doha, pointed to improvements in the conditions for migrant workers in recent years. The Tuñón ILO has been working with the government of Qatar on labor reform since 2018.

Abdulla bin Mohammed bin Saud Al Thani, Qatar’s ambassador to Germany, highlighted the vote-buying allegations when Germany won the 2006 World Cup and said that undue attention was paid to Qatar’s involvement in French club Paris Saint-Germain. He also disputed the reported figure of 6,500 deaths of migrant workers in Qatar.

Amnesty International’s Stephen Cockburn said it was not possible to know exactly how many migrant workers had died building stadiums in Qatar.

“There were thousands of deaths that went uninvestigated,” Cockburn said, before pointing out that the lack of checks was deliberate to avoid paying compensation to surviving family members.

Michael Windfuhr from the German Institute for Human Rights suggested that Bayern should be more open about their involvement in Qatar.

“It is also important for companies to communicate openly about what they are doing, what they can do in a country like this,” said Windfuhr.

Bayern SLO Michael Ott highlighted Qatar’s attempt to influence former DFB President Theo Zwanziger through a former CIA agent and he wondered about press freedom in the country.

“Why are critical migrant workers or journalists being imprisoned under questionable circumstances in Qatar? If you take the reforms so seriously, you can discuss with them,” said Ott.

Another Bayern fan, Robin Feinauer, helped organize a public gathering titled “Qatar, Human Rights and FC Bayern” in Munich in January 2020. In it, two migrant workers talked about their experiences building the stadium. FC Bayern was invited to this meeting at the time, but did not send a representative.

On Monday, Feinauer regretted that there was not enough time at the more than two-hour meeting to ask Kahn and Hainer all the questions they wanted to ask.

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