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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes spent the Thanksgiving weekend in Qatar, after the Middle Eastern country's government paid for his airfare, lodging and tickets to see the United States and England play to a 0-0 draw in the group stage of the World Cup.
The junket came because Reyes consulted with Qatari officials on ways to reduce human trafficking and improve cybersecurity in the lead-up to the 2022 World Cup, according to Reyes' campaign manager and spokesman Alan Crooks.
"In preparation for the World Cup, Qatar was reaching out to the world — it wasn't just the United States — to try to get expertise on how to handle all of this because they've never done that before," Crooks said. "Sean opened up a door for communication, which is helpful, and they wanted to have him come out and show them what they implemented."
Although the trip wasn't an official state visit, Crooks said it doesn't represent any conflict of interest or ethics violation because it was in part a follow-up to a previous working relationship.
Reyes himself was unavailable for an interview, Crooks said.
According to Crooks, Reyes began consulting with Qatari officials in November 2021 when Qatar reached out to the Attorney General Alliance for advice on human trafficking and cybersecurity. Reyes, who is one of 46 state and territorial attorneys general in the bipartisan organization, met with officials in person and virtually and had other "back-and-forth" communications on the phone leading up to the tournament.
Major global events like the World Cup, the Olympics and the Super Bowl are believed to result in increased numbers of sex trafficking, Crooks said, which is why Qatar reached out for help.
Law enforcement agencies have launched efforts to curb human trafficking in the weeks ahead of the Super Bowl in recent years, but reporting by the Washington Post has found "no causal relationship between large sporting events and an increase in sex trafficking."
Qatar has made "significant efforts" to combat human trafficking in recent years, according to a 2022 report by the U.S. Department of State, but still does not meet the minimum standards for trafficking mitigation.
It's unclear which — if any — of Reyes' suggestions were ultimately put in place in Qatar, but Crooks said he believes the trip was an effort by Qatar's government to thank Reyes for his help and demonstrate that they hadn't wasted his time.
"It's possible that there were some people that were saved because of what Sean does," Crooks told KSL.com. "We can't quantify that ... but I think that would be a big goal of him being there."
Reyes' trip to Qatar was relatively brief, but Crooks said he met with a few of the Qatari officials he knew while he was there. He left for Qatar Wednesday before Thanksgiving, attended the match that Friday, then flew home Sunday night.
Qatar's government paid for Reyes' trip through the Attorney General Alliance, and Reyes paid for his wife's travel, according to Crooks.
Qatar likely spent thousands of dollars on the trip, with round trip airfare from Salt Lake City to Doha costing between $1,600 and $3,500 for an 18-hour flight. Individual match tickets for the group stage of the World Cup cost between $68 and $220 for nonresidents of Qatar, according to FIFA.
It was a surprise to many when Qatar was selected to host the World Cup 12 years ago, and the U.S. Department of Justice in 2020 accused representatives of Qatar of bribing FIFA officials to secure hosting rights. The small gulf nation has faced further criticism for its human rights record and the harsh conditions foreign workers faced while working to build the stadiums and infrastructure to host 32 soccer teams and fans from around the world.
Qatar ended its kafala system in 2020 — under which foreign workers were bound to their employers and barred from changing jobs or leaving the country without permission — but more than 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died in the country, according to The Guardian. Qatar said between 400 and 500 workers have died in preparation for the World Cup.
Crooks said Reyes was aware of the allegations against Qatar, calling it "a very sensitive subject as they met, which was addressed very carefully."
"It's been mentioned that they're changing some of their practices and working on some of those things," he said. "That doesn't mean they're going to be all of a sudden perfect on that. ... We don't agree with some of their practices, but hopefully we can help them to improve the way they handle things."