By Rebecca Lowe
Whether due to cultural respect or subjugation, the Emir – who appoints both the judiciary and government – is generally viewed as above politics. Such lack of accountability clearly has consequences. Human Rights Watch (HRW), which recently published a detailed report into abuses against migrant workers in Qatar, points out that part of the reason for the lack of dissent is the fact that nearly 90 per cent of its two million inhabitants are foreigners with few legal rights. In the report, HRW describes how workers from South Asia frequently incur thousands of pounds of debts to recruitment agents and have their passports confiscated by employers. Of the 73 construction workers they interviewed, all but four paid recruitment fees between $726 and $3,651, at interest rates of up to 100 per cent per year.
Such workers cannot change jobs or leave the country without their employer’s permission, must get their employer to sign an ‘exit permit’ before they can leave and are prevented from unionising. With the World Cup looming in under a decade, such problems are particularly pressing; HRW estimates that up to a million additional migrant workers may be recruited to fulfil construction contracts for the tournament. While the local organising committee, the Supreme Committee for Qatar 2022, has said it will establish labour standards that all builders and contractors must meet, HRW remains sceptical.
‘I don’t think that in the two years since winning the bid they have made any reforms to the legal or regulatory framework, which is seriously lacking and which facilitates the sorts of abuses that are entirely inconsistent with the 21st century,’ says Nick McGeehan, special advisor to HRW. ‘We travelled to labour camps in February and saw the most horrendous conditions and exploitation.’
One of the worst injustices, says McGeehan, are the travel bans imposed on workers after employers have filed legal complaints. Workers are reportedly often not informed of the legal basis for the ban and lack the right to challenge it. While the ban is in place, the employee cannot find work elsewhere and has no way to earn money or gain medical insurance. ‘Obviously bans are legitimate in certain cases,’ says McGeehan, ‘but in Qatar they seem to be imposed arbitrarily and there [are] no legal means to contest it. It is a big problem.’
While the Qatari citizenry remains prosperous and the migrant population powerless, there seems little scope for rebellion or reform. There are those, however, who believe the country may be in danger of over-reaching. ‘Whenever there is a new political development taking place in the region, Qatar is interested in being a stakeholder,’ says Khatib. ‘But when you choose to be involved in everything all the time, you are not necessarily involving yourself in something that will be in your best interests in the long run.’
By engaging in mediation between conflicting factions – such as the Houthis and Yemeni Government or between Hezbollah and Lebanon – Qatar hopes both to contain those conflicts and gain an influence over the competing factions, Khatib explains. Yet the country is too short-termist in its outlook, she says, lacking the resources to follow up on its commitments. In both Yemen and Lebanon, mediation failed to result in lasting peace, while the Arab Spring has served to complicate Qatar’s identity as consummate diplomat and friend to all.
‘There is no chance of reform if the current state of general freedoms continues as it is, if transparency remains absent, and if public and private finance affairs remain intertwined’
Dr Ali Khalifa al-Kuwari
Author, The People Want Reform in Qatar Too
The consequences of such meddling may prove most severe where regional extremist groups are concerned, Khatib believes. The regime has long been accused of funding Islamist groups across the Middle East and North Africa – including in Mali, where French troops recently intervened to combat terrorist groups threatening the government. ‘Because of its interest in being influential, Qatar ends up engaging with groups that are potentially volatile,’ she says. ‘It’s a very risky policy that Qatar has been following for a number of decades and which may well backfire in the long run. These groups may be loyal today, but that doesn’t mean they won’t turn against you in the future.’
However, Qatar’s opportunistic, short-term policymaking is not confined to politics. Currently, oil and gas exports account for 70 per cent of government revenue, and there are concerns over the economy’s inherent lack of sustainability. For Dr Ali Khalifa al-Kuwari, one of 60 Qatari writers who met after the start of the Arab Spring to discuss political and economic reform, such statistics are troubling. In a book entitled The People Want Reform in Qatar Too, which resulted from the year-long talks, he voices concern for Qatar’s ‘random and unpredictable’ economic policy, and urges the regime to improve its political and economic accountability.
‘There is no chance of reform if the current state of general freedoms continues as it is, if transparency remains absent, and if public and private finance affairs remain intertwined,’ he writes in the introduction. ‘Qatar’s political imbalance in the relationship between the government and its people is best expressed in the phrase, “a more than absolute authority and a less than powerful people.”’
While the writers’ recommendations went unheeded, their open dissent is proof the regime is far from impenetrable. A ‘less than powerful people’ are not always the most obedient, after all – as recent history has shown.
Rebecca Lowe is Senior Reporter at the International Bar Association and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org