Interested in International Security, Terrorism and Geopolitics. Constantly on the look out for my next travel adventure.
“Human beings are born free, and no one has the right to enslave, humiliate, oppress or exploit them.”
Thus proclaims the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, signed by every member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in 1990 – including Qatar.
The Gulf Emirate is unrecognisable today. There is no denying that the tiny statelet – with the world’s highest GDP per capita – has made impressive strides. Its airline and news broadcaster are genuinely world class: two shining examples of what Qatar is capable of. It would be an understatement to say that their acquisition of the rights to hold the FIFA World Cup in 2022 is mired in controversy, but it was a moment which undeniably heralded Qatar’s arrival on the world stage – and super charged a development boom already well underway.
The spotlight is now firmly on Qatar. Hosting the world’s premier sporting event has always been about much more than delivering a spectacle for its ruling royal family; they recognise the event’s immense potential as a conduit for greater international influence and legitimacy. But the great irony of it all is that until Qatar drastically improves the conditions endured by its large migrant workforce, who are building the tournament’s stadiums and infrastructure, this same spotlight will only serve to undermine their lofty geopolitical ambitions.
Qatar’s reluctance to part with its kafala system – under which indentured servitude remains entirely legal – epitomises the hollowness of its commitment to the essence of the 1990 Declaration. The control kafala gives to employers has resulted in widespread and systemic abuse throughout Qatar’s construction industry. Described as “modern slavery” by some human rights groups, it has not been uncommon for workers to have their wages, and their passports, withheld: obliging their silence and acquiescence. Construction companies in effect own their workers, who cannot change jobs or return home even when their country is rocked by an Earthquake, as in Nepal, without the (oft withheld) consent of their employer.
Just as when the Emir took slaves to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1952, a year after he had ‘abolished’ slavery, Qatar is adept at saying one thing while doing the exact opposite. Recent much-heralded reforms did little other than move the administration of the offending sponsorship system under the remit of the widely feared interior ministry. Leaving the fundamentally exploitative characteristics of the kafala system in place, the “reforms” have served to disincentivise challenge and dissent further still. If anything, Qatar has gone backwards: allowing employers to ‘lend’ their workers to other companies has in effect added human trafficking to the list of abuses now enabled under this abhorrent worker sponsorship system.
What of their Gulf neighbours? Bahrain repealed its kafala system in 2009. Kuwait has gone further, introducing labour rights for domestic servants earlier this year. And what of the United Arab Emirates, their main regional rival? They have been busy implementing reforms which the Qataris have also agreed to, but which they remain a long way from delivering on.
The inescapable truth is that, like the football we can expect should the 2022 World Cup be played in the blistering heat of the Middle East, Qatar’s ‘reforms’ to date are far more hot air than substance. Their failure to even remotely follow in their neighbour’s lead, or to bow to any sort of international pressure on working conditions, is shameful, morally objectionable and, most concerning for Qatar, something that defines their reputation on the world stage. Given the cloud that hangs over their hosting of the 2022 World Cup, you would have thought that improving conditions for migrant workers – an issue which so tarnishes Qatar’s global reputation – would be an easy PR win. Apparently not.
If Qatar fails to abandon its kafala system before it hosts the World Cup, an unparalleled opportunity for the Emirate to define itself for decades to come, the tournament will be hampered by perceptions that it is not only rooted in corruption, but was delivered with the blood and sweat of a 21st century slave workforce.