PtG Article 02.10.2019

Inside Qatar: Business as usual

On the eve of the IAAF World Athletic Championship in Doha, new media reports of a corrupt bidding process tarnished the host country Qatar. Two weeks ago, Amnesty International accused the country of one more breach of the promise to improve workers’ rights. But according to the International Labour Organisation, Qatar has also made great progress and more is to come.

In three years, Qatar will be hosting its so far most prestigious sporting event, the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. As the window of opportunity is closing for the international society to call on the future host to live up to its promises to improve workers’ rights, daily life in the capital Doha seems to be business as usual during the city’s hosting of another major sports event, this week’s IAAF World Athletic Championship 2019.

On the eve of the opening ceremony at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha last Friday, media reports in the Guardian, Der Spiegel and Mediapart revealed that French judges are investigating whether Qatar paid 4.5 million USD to the former International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) president Lamine Diack’s son Papa Massata Diack hours before Doha on 18 November 2014 won the right to host the event. 

The new allegations of corruption in Qatar linked to IAAF and the Diack family were revealed only days after Amnesty International released a report in which the human rights organisation stated that hundreds of migrant workers in the country are waiting in vain for unpaid wages and compensation, despite Qatar’s promises to improve workers’ rights for the two million migrant workers living in the country.

But even though many similar allegations of corruption and breach of promise to improve workers’ rights have been presented to Qatar since FIFA in December 2010 awarded the hosting right of the 2022 World Cup to the small Kingdom in the Middle East, the new reports don’t seem to trouble the national government, the international sports organisations and the athletes in Doha.

After almost a decade of controversy surrounding the desert Kingdom which includes a heavy critique of an unusual high number of dead construction workers that by international human rights organisations are estimated to have reached thousands by the time the FIFA World Cup is kicked off in Qatar, the allegations now seem to be business as usual.

Reforms take time

In Doha, Qatar’s monarch and head of state Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, an influential member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), looks pleased to have the international media attention at Qatar’s billion dollar investments in sport at a time when the country seems to need powerful foreign allies in order to avoid an escalation of Qatar’s now two-year long political conflict with a coalition of neighbor countries led by Saudi Arabia.

The newly re-elected president of the IAAF Sebastian Coe, a former Olympic athletics champion and British politician, also appears to be satisfied by the latest news reports stating that he too is on course to become a member of the International Olympic Committee at the committee’s session in Tokyo next year.

And the many world class athletes gathered in Doha seem to care much more about how to deal with the heat in the desert and the recent four year doping ban on Nike’s famous athletic coach Alberto Salazar than they do about the police investigations into Qatar’s business with the IAAF and the human sacrifices of the migrant workers who built the Khalifa International Stadium.

In contrast, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are using the major sport event to make new calls on the government of Qatar to deliver its promised reforms. But according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), many of the promised reforms have already been delivered and more are to come.

“I can understand the frustrations. There is still a big challenge with unpaid wages to some migrant workers, as pointed out by Amnesty International. But in every country it takes time to implement major reforms. And in this case, Qatar’s new support fund for workers has not been able to help, because it is not operational yet,” the Head of the ILO Project Office in Qatar, Houtan Homayounpour, argues in an interview with Play the Game.

An ambitious programme

The ILO Project Office in Qatar was established in Doha in April 2018 as part of a three-year partnership programme that was kicked off by the ILO and the government of Qatar in November 2017. The agenda of the programme is to ensure compliance with ratified international labour conventions and achieve basic principles and rights related to work in the state of Qatar, including the replacement of the country’s kafala sponsorship labour system.

“It is an ambitious programme. But to me, the government of Qatar is truly committed to reform the kafala system because it knows the system is not good for the country. The government realizes that the system does not attract the best workers,” Homayounpour says of Qatar’s controversial labour system that denies migrant workers the basic human right to freedom of movement by confiscating their passports and travel documents in a way some critics has described as modern slavery.

“We corporate both with employees and ministers of the government every day and it is my impression that they are all truly committed to reform and they really want to succeed with implementing the reforms. And so far, they have made great progress, but there are also many milestones ahead of them.”

According to Homayounpour, the introduction of minimum wages is an example of the progress the reforms have made for workers in Qatar. And he believes that other major reforms will lead to a total replacement of the kafala system within just a few months.

But he also acknowledges that everything is not perfect yet and that the IAAF World Championship in Doha is an opportunity to make the government aware of the need for further improvements.

“The pressure on Qatar from the international media and the human rights and labour organisations has brought us where we are today. The public opinion has had a strong influence on the government’s commitment to reform,” Homayounpour says.

“And as long as the media coverage is fair, it is ok. But many journalists have already made up their opinion before arriving in the country and that has often demotivated our partners in the government who work so hard to succeed with the reform process.”

A missing link

In that sense, the decade long critical media coverage of Qatar could also be characterized as business as usual at a time when the country is delivering the progress the world has asked for. But even though Amnesty International’s Deputy Director of Global Issues, Stephen Cockburn, also sees many positive signs of reform in Qatar, he points out that so far it is only small steps in the right direction:

“We try to acknowledge the progress in Qatar. But given that it is the richest country in the world, more should have been done to implement the reforms. It is not enough to sign a declaration. The government also needs to act to make the reforms work.”

Cockburn believes Qatar both has the money and the good intentions. And he acknowledges that bureaucracy takes time. But he points at ‘a missing link’ that to him might be the real reason why Qatar’s money and intentions so far has resulted in slow progress:

“The government and the elite in Doha need to see the problems from the workers’ side. But they have a huge difference in life experience. Much more should be done to bridge the gap between living in Doha and living in the working camps outside of the city. The workers don’t have a voice. They don’t have the power to change things, especially not under the sponsor system,” he says of the missing link between the 450.000 residents living in the country and its two million migrant workers.

Many human right violations

To Stephen Cockburn, the window of opportunity for the international society to call on Qatar to improve workers’ rights is closing in three years after the country’s hosting of the FIFA World Cup. But both to him and Hiba Zayadin, a researcher at Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa Division, a number of other human rights are violated in Qatar. These include discrimination against women in the country’s laws and legislations.

“Women in Qatar, like in other Gulf countries, are subject to male guardianship laws. Unmarried women under the age of 25 cannot travel without their guardian’s approval. Sex outside of marriage is criminalised. Such offences are often discriminately carried out and disproportionately punish women, mostly low-skilled migrant women,” Zayadin says.

“Statelessness is also an issue. Human Rights Watch’s recent research on Qatar reveals how entire families arbitrarily stripped of citizenship years ago are still suffering today. The families belong to one particular clan, the Ghufran, and many remain stateless and deprived of key human rights.”

In September 2018, Qatar introduced the Gulf region’s first ever asylum law, setting out procedures and requirements for people to seek asylum in the country.

“The law demonstrates Qatar’s intention to respect refugee rights, but it has not yet implemented the law and has turned away two of its first possible beneficiaries this year,” Zayadin notes.

Risk of whitewash

To Zayadin, big international events like the IAAF World Championsship in Doha should, and often do, invite international scrutiny.

“In Qatar, they have also pushed authorities to make many promises of reform. Without continued pressure to hold Qatar accountable to said promises, big international events and the spotlight they garner will come and go and leave behind empty promises and half measures. In that sense, they end up helping whitewash a country’s human rights record instead of contributing to actual positive change,” Zayadin says.

From her point of view, this is a risk that should never be business as usual in any country.