DOHA: FIFA's drive to expand World Cup 2022 and stage it beyond Qatar risks including host countries that do not meet the soccer governing body's own standards on rights and labour, campaign groups said on Tuesday.
FIFA will discuss expanding the tournament to 48 teams from 32 at a council meeting this week - a format it says will likely require it to stage matches in neighbouring Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait or Oman.
"There are clear human rights risks associated with adding new hosts for the 2022 World Cup," said Stephen Cockburn, Deputy Director of Global Issues at Amnesty International.
"Not least the potential widespread exploitation of migrant workers providing construction and other services for the World Cup that could cast a major shadow over the world's biggest sporting event," he said.
Qatar has come under fire from rights groups in recent years that say its sponsorship system for workers restricts their ability to leave the country, change jobs, and collect owed wages, leaving them vulnerable to abuse.
Doha says it is committed to reform and has enacted measures such as introducing a minimum wage, ending a requirement for permits to exit the country for most workers, and setting up dispute panels to hear workers' grievances.
There was no immediate reaction from other Gulf Arab countries on Tuesday.
While some such as the United Arab Emirates have introduced labour reforms, such as guaranteed time off for domestic workers, rights groups say their sponsorship systems still often leave workers vulnerable by restricting freedom of movement.
In a letter to FIFA head Gianni Infantino, groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Trade Union Congress said FIFA must ensure any additional hosts meet rights standards introduced by the soccer body in 2017 and make similar reform pledges.
A FIFA spokesperson said its commitment to human rights are "unequivocal" and written into the hosting requirements of all future tournaments.
The FIFA spokesperson said the feasibility study being presented on Friday confirmed that these standards would apply to any co-hosting country.
The prospects for expansion have been complicated by a Gulf dispute under which Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain imposed a political and economic boycott of Qatar in mid-2017 over allegations it supports terrorism, which Doha denies.
FIFA has courted Kuwait and Oman, which have remained neutral in the dispute, as alternative sites according to a New York Times report.
(Reporting by Eric Knecht; Additional reporting by Ahmed Haggagy; Editing by Andrew Heavens)