Qatar untouchable | Eurozine


The greatest sporting spectacle on earth – the finals of the football World Cup – is underway. The tournament is taking place in Qatar, of all places, a small peninsula in the Persian Gulf, penned in between the regional powers of Saudi Arabia and Iran. 

The World Cup is of central importance to Qatar in the geopolitical battle for power and influence in the Middle East. The fossil fuel era, with its high gas and oil exports, has no long-term future, forcing the emirate to look elsewhere for new economic sectors. Qatar competes for investment, skilled workers and tourists with its larger neighbours Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The country feels surrounded by enemies and is seeking to counter its own vulnerability through large-scale projects such as the World Cup, according to Sebastian Sons of the Middle East Research network Carpo.

Doha is vastly inferior to its Gulf rivals in military terms. But the closer its relations with the West, through football or otherwise, the less likely an attack by superpower Saudi Arabia seems to the Qatari government.

Relations in the Gulf were not always so strained. Qatar – a small, Bedouin-influenced community of pearl fishers – did not play a major role on the Arabian Peninsula for most of the 20th century. This all changed at the beginning of the 1970s, with independence from Great Britain and the discovery of the largest known natural gas field in the world. Qatar started a process of modernization, at the time under the auspices of Saudi Arabia. Doha wanted to be a thriving state with credible institutions and a shiny new infrastructure. The modern metro lines in the capital have now been running for years. In the West Bay business district, new hotels, shopping centres and corporate headquarters are being opened all the time. This rapid growth would have been unthinkable without the award of the World Cup in December 2010. 

All this needs to be built. This small country – until the 1970s Qatar only had about 150,000 citizens – has always relied on migrant workers. In the nation’s first modernization phase, they came mainly from Egypt, the Palestinian territories and Yemen. The immigrants spoke Arabic, but many harboured anti-monarchical sentiments. The government feared opposition and ‘foreign infiltration’ and from the 1990s started seeking out workers from south Asia, who could be more easily sealed off linguistically and culturally from Qatari society.

Since then, millions of migrants from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan have been assigned a kafala, or sponsor, who can retain their passports, make it difficult for them to leave the country and stop them changing jobs. Officially this was to prevent crime, since their home countries had no extradition treaties with Qatar. The West only began taking an interest in this system, also practised in other Gulf states, after Qatar was awarded the World Cup in 2010. ‘This was the start of an important process,’ says trade unionist Dietmar Schäfers, who has visited Qatar many times since. ‘Since then a lot has improved on the building sites. But where the general public is not looking so closely, there is much still to be done.’

This article first appeared in Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 11/2022.

‘As early as 2015, the Qatari government claimed that the kafala system had been abolished,’ says activist Binda Pandey, a campaigner for the rights of Nepalese workers in Qatar. ‘It’s true that many new laws have been introduced, but there is often a lack of implementation and oversight.’ In the past five years the Qatari Ministry of Labour has established guidelines similar to European standards on working hours, rest periods and opportunities for complaint. But these reforms are sometimes undermined by the more powerful Ministry of the Interior. ‘Many workers do not dare take legal action against their employers,’ Pandey says. ‘They are afraid that they will be deported and then won’t earn any money at all.’ In Nepal, almost 60 per cent of households are dependent on labour migration and remittances from abroad make up almost a third of GDP. There are around 350,000 Nepalese workers in Qatar alone. Families in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are also often dependent on money transfers.

Many employers, who often have family links to the ruling dynasty, apparently feel untouchable. NGOs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch document numerous violations of the new laws. Passports are still frequently confiscated and wages never paid. Employers often threaten their staff and prevent them attending court hearings. Recruitment agencies still sometimes demand exorbitant ‘mediation fees’ before workers can get a job at all. All this and more shows that the situation has not really improved in recent years. Trade unions, fan groups and human rights organizations are therefore demanding a comprehensive compensation scheme for migrant workers from FIFA.

It is unlikely, however, that FIFA will implement such a scheme. FIFA president Gianni Infantino and many of his colleagues repeat that the World Cup has prompted improvements in Qatar. One example they cite is the ‘dispute settlement committees’, responsible for mediating between employers and workers. The International Labour Organization has an office in Doha and trade unions are also on site for inspections. No such concessions exist in neighbouring countries such as Saudi Arabia. Precise figures for Qatar are all but unverifiable, but supposedly over 20,000 workers have successfully sued for outstanding wages. But there are around 2.4 million migrant workers in the country, making up 90 per cent of the population. The few complaints offices are still unable to process the claims in a timely fashion.

Migrant workers in the West Bay area of Doha. Image: Alex Sergeev / source: Wikimedia Commons

The women’s national team: a fig leaf?

As for the recognition of other human rights, the state is very far from accepted norms. Qatari women often have to obtain the permission of a male guardian in order to marry or to take on a public job. Women must also prove their marital status to have gynaecological examinations. These laws are widely accepted across large sectors of the patriarchal society, says Anna Reuß, a researcher on the foreign policy of the Gulf states at the Bundeswehr University in Munich: ‘In Qatar, the family is mostly seen as the smallest common social unit. Even if a woman contributes a lot to the family income, she is not seen as head of the family, but as its mother.’ When addressing western politicians and media, however, the Qatari regime cultivates the narrative of the ‘strong woman’, pointing to top female executives in culture and administration. ‘The Qatari state wants to paint a nuanced picture of independent women,’ Reuß says. ‘Images of sweaty women footballers with ponytails, hugging as they celebrate a goal, can be useful to them.’

In the 2000s Musa bint Nasser al-Missned, the second wife of the then emir, began setting up the Qatar Women’s Sport Committee. The aim of this organization was to campaign for the ‘equal status of the sexes in sport’. The country’s main aims at the time was winning the bid to host the men’s World Cup. But for FIFA to accept the bid, applicants had to prove that they supported the advancement of women and girls in sport. A women’s national team was therefore established in 2009 and played its first international match in October 2010. Six weeks later the men’s 2022 World Cup was awarded to Qatar. ‘At first the shock was considerable, because the other national teams had a big advantage,’ relates Amna Al Qassimi, the director of the Women’s Sport Committee. ‘Twenty years ago I would never have thought such progress possible. In our culture, the norm was for girls to exercise at home or at school. That was it.’

The Aspire Academy in Doha is one of the most modern sport academies in the world, with a particular focus on male talent. The Women’s Sport Committee is located outside the Academy, in a former school. On the walls are photos of sportswomen; cups and medals are displayed in cabinets. But how seriously are they promoted? The women’s national football team was for a long time all but inactive and did not feature in FIFA’s world ranking list. The women’s league is not run by the football association, the Women’s Sport Committee – an unusual setup. A sporting operation with youth support for girls and women, with sponsors and local media, has not yet been established.

By European standards Qatar seems backward. But by Gulf standards it is a model of progress, given that female participation in sport in Saudi Arabia and Iran is even more heavily restricted. ‘When I visited Qatar for the first time in 2008, the most common exercise for women was walking from A to B,’ says communication scientist Susan Dun of Northwestern University, which has an outpost in Doha. ‘Lots of gyms for women have since opened. Cycle paths have been built and there is also a market for activewear.’

The Qatari emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and his entourage claim to be the highest authority, also as regards social norms and gender roles. Non-heterosexual people can expect intimidation, persecution and criminal charges. Qatari doctor Nasser Mohamed knows this better than most. After refusing to go on concealing his homosexuality, he gave up his possessions in his home country, cut ties with family and friends and now lives in San Francisco. ‘In Qatar they try to censor us out of existence,’ he told the BBC. ‘Waking up in fear every day is exhausting. What a relief to just wake up and not feel that I have to calculate every step of my day, not to slip and out myself, and risk my life.’

How exactly is the homophobic legislation implemented in Qatar? There are only a few indicators here, mostly concerning foreign nationals. In 1996, according to the US State Department, an American citizen was sentenced to 90 lashes in Doha. Two years later, several gay workers from the Philippines were apparently expelled. In 2016, a Polish social media activist is said to have spent two months in prison for homosexuality. ‘There are indications that there are still people in prison because of their homosexuality,’ says Piara Powar of football anti-discrimination network Fare. ‘The state monitors social media and scrutinizes messages that might originate from the LGBTIQ+ community. It seems that there is also an informal telephone hotline, where family and friends can report specific people to the authorities. And then the state can take action against them.’

Members of the Qatari government tend to stay out of the public discussion, not wanting to jeopardize their connections with the West. Now and again, however, the topic appears in government-affiliated media sources. One adviser to the Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs described homosexuality in an Arabic language newspaper as a ‘grievous sin’. In online media, the idea has been discussed of introducing a test for the sexual orientation of tourists. 

FIFA tends to leave homophobic remarks unchallenged. In an appearance on the Qatari channel BeIN Sports in 2021, the Egyptian footballing icon Mohamed Aboutrika described homosexuality as a ‘dangerous ideology’. Aboutrika received a lot of support in the Arab world, including from Mahmoud Al Mardi, the captain of the Jordan national team. The glorification of such statements was a contributing factor in Nasser Mohamed’s decision to leave the country.

‘Unfortunately,’ Piara Powar says, ‘we started talking about the rights of gay people at the World Cup far too late.’ He explains that it is almost impossible to have a conversation with the hosts about homosexuality – possibly partly because members of the ruling family want to save face towards their neighbours in Saudi Arabia. ‘The Qataris offered general messages of welcome, but there is no real guarantee of safety for gay fans,’ says Powar.

Towards the West Bay district of Doha. Image: Darwinek / source: Wikimedia Commons

Climate offsets: absolution for sale?

Enquiries about human rights violations hit a brick wall with FIFA and the World Cup organizers, who prefer to spread very different messages. ‘We are planning the most sustainable World Cup ever,’ claims Boudour Al-Meer, the director of sustainability on the organizing committee. ‘We have the first ever completely removable stadium at a World Cup.’ She is referring to ‘Stadium 974’, named after Qatar’s international dialling code – and after the number of shipping containers used to transport the building material for the stadium.

‘Stadium 974’ is the showpiece among the eight stadia in which the 64 World Cup games will be held. ‘Our stadia are energy-efficient, and the transport routes for fans are short. We use LED systems for our lighting,’ says Boudour Al-Meer. ‘Our aim is for low water consumption. Some stadium areas will be converted later on. Cafés, offices and a medical centre will be built.’ Indeed, never before has a World Cup host given so much thought to the question of sustainability. But can a sporting event really kick off a revolution? 

Qatari citizens pay nothing for their electricity or water. Their per capita output of climate-damaging emissions and water consumption is one of the highest in the world. Shopping centres are air-conditioned, as are many stadia. Many Qataris drive big cars and shun the new metro. Yet senior executives like Al-Meer persist in cultivating the narrative of the ‘first climate-neutral World Cup’. In order to reach this ‘neutrality’, Qatar participates in offsetting schemes. For instance, the hosts intend to plant thousands of new trees. Tobias Zumbrägel, a political scientist focusing on the climate policy of the Gulf states, compares this to the old Catholic practice of indulgence selling. Before now, Qatar had invested very little in renewables. It was only with the World Cup that a large solar power system was built. ‘That has to be viewed as the World Cup’s prestige project,’ Zumbrägel says. ‘This system mainly powers the air conditioning units that will then cool the stadia.’

‘Prestige project’ is a phrase that we hear again and again. Qatar must reduce its dependence on fossil fuels in the long term. Major events were intended to publicize this strategy long before the World Cup. At the end of 2012, the UN climate conference took place in Doha. Environmentalists criticised the Qatari government for its ‘extravagant lifestyle’, its luxury buildings, artificial islands and air-conditioned ice rinks in shopping centres. ‘There has been a real construction boom in Qatar,’ Zumbrägel says. ‘The entire infrastructure is based around driving cars. Structurally speaking, the wrong incentives are being offered, which can’t be changed overnight.’

Progressive global warming could make the Arab Peninsula uninhabitable by the end of the 21st century. Qatar has enacted stricter environmental regulations, but they are often circumvented by construction firms close to the government. Moreover, the Qatari government does little to inform people about the climate crisis. When inhabitants complained about polluted groundwater in a village near Doha, the government promptly set up an investigative commission. The conclusion: everything was fine. ‘There is fear that increased awareness of climate issues could jeopardize the legitimacy of the ruling family,’ Zumbrägel says.

As a rule, Qatar government does not want any controversies to leak out that might be construed as weakness. The emirate does not allow free elections. In The Economist’s democracy index, the country sits in 117th place, of 167 evaluated. In the league table of press freedom drawn up by Reporters without Borders, Qatar occupies 119th place out of 180. Independent journalism is almost impossible in Qatar, a fact cemented by the press law of 1979 that allows for the pre-censorship of publications. The 2014 law against cyber-criminality sanctions the dissemination of purported fake news. ‘Laws are often so vaguely formulated that the government can interpret them in its own interests,’ says Justin Shilad of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). In the past few years, journalists have repeatedly been arrested in Doha for the alleged violation of Qatari laws.

Kenyan blogger Malcolm Bidali was one such to experience this. He had worked as a security guard in Qatar and was forced to share cramped accommodation with six others. He chronicled his exploitation and discrimination on the internet under a false name. In May 2021, Bidali was arrested and interrogated for several days. Later he was forced to sign a pre-formulated confession in Arabic. He was refused a lawyer. After almost a month in solitary confinement, Bidali was released. But first, as he explained in a series of talks organized by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Germany in September 2022, he had to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

Cases like this hinder the work of media professionals in Qatar, explains Justin Shilad of the Committee to Protect Journalists. For one thing the authorities  react by using spy software against their critics. ‘In this climate self-censorship has long been widespread among domestic journalists. Whistleblowers back off and no longer want to be quoted under their real names.’

Interests more than ideology

Here we see parallels with other authoritarian regimes such as Russia, China or Egypt. But Qatar also focuses more than almost any other state on ‘soft power’ – on multi-billion dollar investments in technology, culture, sport and media. Prominent examples include the airline Qatar Airways, the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, the acquisition of football club Paris Saint-Germain and news channel Al-Jazeera – four institutions intended to ensure that Qatar continues to be talked about positively on the global stage.

Al-Jazeera is considered the flagship of journalism in the Arab world, but the outlet holds back on any criticism of the Qatar regime or the state religion, Islam. The ruling family realized early on that while it could not prevent criticism from the West, it could soften such criticism through its own media networks. Doha has been responsible for human rights violations, but in 2002 established a ‘National Committee for Human Rights’. The regime prohibits strikes and bans large-scale demonstrations, but in 2018 signed the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Qatar is a place of ambiguities, as becomes clear in the ‘Education City’. Since the early 2000s, a dozen satellite institutions have settled on the campus in the west of Doha, originating from the USA, Britain and France – three of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. ‘The networks with the West are a kind of life insurance for Qatar,’ says German political scientist Danyel Reiche, who teaches at Georgetown University in Doha. ‘Without these networks, Qatar might already have been attacked.’ Many Qataris are worried that a similar fate might befall them to Kuwait in 1990. Since then, Qatar has forged networks in all directions for its own security.

Of Qatar’s approximately 2.7 million inhabitants, a mere 300,000 have a Qatari passport. State, economy and culture are intertwined. The corridors of power are dominated by the Al Thani dynasty, with over 20,000 people probably belonging to the extended family. Its income per capita is one of the highest in the world. To avoid jeopardizing its own prosperity, Qatar engaged with western criticism at an early stage. Qatar spends millions on its own image, for PR agencies, lobbyists and a certain state flexibility.

This strategy has enabled the country to grow into a power base in the Middle East. Doha intervenes in regional conflicts with increasing confidence and supported the Arab Spring from 2011 in Egypt, Syria and Libya. In 2012 the then emir was the first head of state to be received by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, a group classified as a terrorist organization by many western countries. Qatar also maintains links with the Muslim Brotherhood and in 2013 arranged for the Taliban’s first ‘diplomatic office’ outside Afghanistan to be opened in Doha.

In Germany these relationships are often dubbed as ‘supporting terrorism’. But experts in the German Foreign Office or in the State Department tend to regard Qatar as a reliable intermediary, guided less by ideology than pragmatism, explains Eckhardt Woertz, director of the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA) in Hamburg. Following pressure from Washington, the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan by February 2020 was negotiated primarily in Doha. Later Qatar helped with the evacuation from Kabul. Doha will continue to be in demand as a mediator in crisis regions, in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

Other monarchies in the Gulf have for years looked warily at Qatar’s political ascent. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates increasingly coordinate diplomatic letters of protest or hostile social media campaigns against Qatar. In 2017 a new level of escalation was reached: an alliance led by Saudi Arabia imposed an economic blockade on Qatar and cut diplomatic ties with Doha. With help from Turkey and Iran, the emir arranged new import routes for food and new flight paths for his airlines.

The German government also has a vested interest in the Qatar’s stability. In 2018, during the blockade, the German chancellor Angela Merkel received the emir at an economic summit in Berlin. Both governments maintain a joint economic commission. Qatar is one of the biggest economic investors in Germany, with a volume probably more than 20 billion euros. Through its sovereign wealth fund, Doha has shares in Volkswagen, Deutsche Bank and the international shipping company Hapag-Lloyd. Most recently Qatar invested in the German vaccine manufacturer Curevac. 

German corporations have also been involved in major infrastructure projects in Qatar: Deutsche Bahn and Siemens in the development of local transport, SAP in its digitalization. Before the pandemic, Germany was Qatar’s third most important trading partner, its exports to Doha reaching a value of 1.5 billion euros. Approximately 150 German companies are active in the country. The Federal Association of Medium-Sized Businesses has just opened an office in Doha.

Yet Germany is not even among Qatar’s most important partners. The Qatar Investment Authority, one of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world, is said to have invested over 350 billion euros in a dozen countries, more than a quarter of them in the USA, UK and France. Qatar has shares in capital markets such as the London Stock Exchange and banks such as Barclays and Credit Suisse. It is also involved in the US film production company Miramax, London’s department store Harrods, and the British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s. The country makes long-term investments in future-proof sectors.

Problematic relationships with autocratic regimes

Until the World Cup final on 18 December, human rights in Qatar are likely to remain a constant theme in the western media. But criticism from politics has gone quiet. In 2020, of all gas imports to the EU 40 per cent came from Russia and only four per cent from Qatar. Since the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine, the German government is intent on radically changing these figures. In May the German president and chancellor received the emir of Qatar in Berlin. At the end of September Olaf Scholz made a special stop in Doha on his trip to the Gulf with a trade delegation. The environment minister Robert Habeck’s deep bow to Qatar’s energy minister made abundantly clear that even supporters of an ‘ethical foreign policy’ must now acknowledge that securing heating at home will require cooperation with autocratic regimes. Assuming, that is, that we want to be free of our dependency on a bellicose autocracy like Russia. 

Qatari diplomats can hardly conceal their satisfaction that Europe’s largest economy is dependent on little Qatar – all the more when Doha can now choose its own purchasers for its liquid petroleum gas and insists on long contract durations. What’s more, the proud Qataris do not want simply to be reduced to the status of gas suppliers. And herein lies an opportunity for both sides.

There are a number of issues on which Germany and Qatar can cooperate, for instance waste management, water processing and the production of renewable energy sources – an area in which Qatar has made hardly any progress. The medical sector is another: according to the World Health Organization, roughly 17 per cent of adults in Qatar have diabetes. Over 70 per cent are overweight. Heart conditions, vascular disease and the mental health problems that frequently result from them will place a long-term burden on the country’s health and social care systems. The ruling family wants to keep the costs of all this in check – with mass participation in sport as a preventative measure.

Since 2012, Qatar has therefore observed a national sports day every year. The emir and his relatives are filmed running and playing tennis or basketball. Cycle lanes, gyms and sport centres have been set up. It is hard for outsiders to judge how effective these ideas will prove in the long term; in any event, the government’s proposals are overwhelmingly aimed at the approximately 300,000 Qatari citizens, not the migrant workers. 

How big an influence the World Cup will actually have on nation and society in Qatar will probably only become clear in a few years. The debate has given the German sport industry plenty to think about. In early June, the German national football team took part in a road show with critical activists and NGOs. Even Bayern Munich, a club that every year for over a decade has made the trip to Doha for a winter training camp, after some hesitation invited critical fans to a round table with Qatari representatives. Such a thing would have been inconceivable a few years ago.

But these exchanges cannot be the end of the matter. In summer 2024 football’s European Championship will take place in Germany. A number of guest cities including Berlin have been working since the application phase towards a sustainability concept with human rights organizations. Several venues for the 2026 World Cup in the USA, Canada and Mexico are going down a similar path. ‘The discussion about Qatar will hopefully lead sport associations to link the award of bids for major events to conditions at an early stage,’ says Jonas Berghaim, co-founder of the German Centre for Human Rights and Sport. ‘Professional clubs should look at the production conditions of their sponsors and shirt manufacturers.’

At least FIFA has now developed a human rights policy. Yet it unhesitatingly moved its 2021 Club World Cup from Covid-ravaged Japan to the United Arab Emirates, which languishes below even Qatar in ‘Reports without Borders’ world ranking list. Qatari politicians have also reacted with increasing irritation to the numerous critical articles on the human rights situation in the Gulf. There are plenty of reasons to believe that the conservative powers that be in Qatar will undo their tentative reforms – only after the World Cup is over, to be sure, when the media circus has moved on and international attention has long since moved elsewhere.



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