Will Qatari backtracking squander the Gulf state’s unique opportunity with the 2022 World Cup?
After four years of engagement with its critics in a bid to turn its hosting of the FIFA World Cup into a successful soft power tool, Qatar appears to have decided that the Middle East’s tendency to intimidate those who don’t fall into line may be a more effective strategy. In doing so, Qatar appears to be backtracking on its record of being the one Gulf state that, instead of barring critics from entry or incarcerating them, worked with human rights and trade union activists to address concerns about the working and living conditions of migrant workers.
The cooperation resulted in key Qatari institutions adopting forward-looking standards that would improve conditions and modernize, but not abolish, Qatar’s controversial kafala (sponsorship) system, which puts workers at the mercy of their employers.
Qatar’s engagement sparked understanding among major segments of the international human rights community, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, of the existential issues involved in labor reform in a country where citizens only account for 12% of the population. Many Qataris fear that tinkering with the labor system would open a Pandora’s Box that could lead to them losing control of their society and culture.
Labor has emerged as the major distraction from Qatar’s success in winning the right to host the 2022 World Cup, against the backdrop of a relatively high migrant workers’ death rate and criticism of their living and working conditions. Qatar has conceded that it needs to reform its labor system in a bid to fend off calls that it be deprived of its World Cup hosting rights, but it has been slow in implementing reform.
Theo Zwanziger, the outgoing member of the executive committee of FIFA, who is also in charge of monitoring Qatari progress on labor reform, has warned that the Gulf state’s snail pace approach could result in a resolution being tabled at the group’s congress in late May, demanding that the World Cup be moved away from Qatar.
Zwanziger’s warning rings hollow against the backdrop of guarantees given to FIFA by Russia, the host of the 2018 World Cup, that it would suspend labor laws with regard to World Cup-related projects. FIFA has said the German television report had taken the agreement with Russia out of context.
Qatar’s backtracking with the detention of foreign journalists who investigate workers’ living and working conditions — and warnings to those in Qatar who have worked with Qatari institutions, human rights groups and trade unions — comes as Gulf states adopt more assertive regional and foreign policies. In doing so, Qatar joins the conservative Gulf mainstream.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has in recent weeks barred entry to a New York University professor, who was scheduled to attend a conference at the university’s Abu Dhabi campus, and two prominent artists because of their criticism of the country’s labor regime.
Gulf states distrust US policy in the Middle East, particularly the Obama administration’s handling of nuclear negotiations with Iran, which could return the Islamic Republic to the international fold. They also feel that Iran is projecting its power in the region through proxies that are encircling the Gulf. In response, Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, have become militarily and politically more assertive as in Yemen, where they have waged a destructive bombing campaign, and in Syria, with stepped-up support for rebels fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Gulf assertiveness began with Saudi troops helping in brutally suppressing a popular revolt in Bahrain in 2011, and the kingdom, together with the UAE and Kuwait, backed a military coup in Egypt in 2013. Qatar, with its close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, appeared at the time of the coup to be the one Gulf state charting an independent course.
With Qatar falling more in line with the more hard-line mainstream Gulf approach, Oman is replacing Doha as the odd man out in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the regional group that brings together Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, the UAE and Kuwait. Oman has refused to join the bombing campaign in Yemen; it has mediated US contacts with Iran; and it has rejected militarization of the GCC.
In the latest evidence of a reversal in Qatar’s approach, security forces detained a BBC television team that had been invited by the government to report on the labor issue. “We were invited to Qatar by the prime minister’s office to see new flagship accommodation for low-paid migrant workers — but while gathering additional material for our report, we ended up being thrown into prison for doing our jobs,” wrote Mark Lobel on the BBC’s website.
The 13-hour detention of the BBC journalists followed the arrest earlier this year of a German television crew. Both teams had their equipment confiscated, which in the case of the Germans was returned only after all data had been deleted. In a meek defense, the Qatar Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, which is responsible for the 2022 World Cup, said the German crew had failed to obtain permission to film. It is an argument that doesn’t hold up in the case of the BBC.
FIFA’s rejection of the German documentary’s findings, and particularly the fact that it expressed surprise that one of its media partners would report independently and critically about the group, raises questions about the sincerity of its pledge to investigate the detention of the BBC journalists. “Any instance relating to an apparent restriction of press freedom is of concern to FIFA and will be looked into with the seriousness it deserves,” the group said in reference to the BBC case. It did not issue a similar statement when the German team was detained.
It is unclear as to whether the hardening attitude of Qatar, which is also reflected by sources in Qatar being hesitant to speak out, is simply security forces taking a tougher position as they forge closer security and intelligence ties to other GCC states, or whether it reflects an overall change in the country’s approach.
Qatar’s changed stance could signal a partial shift away from seeing soft power as the main pillar of its security and defense architecture, in the absence of the manpower or strategic depth to project hard power in adherence to a Saudi-led projection of military force. In 2014, Qatar stepped up its arms purchases with an $11 billion deal to acquire US Patriot missiles.
Yet given that it is sandwiched between Iran across the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, Qatar sees Riyadh as both an ally and a threat. Qatar is likely to walk a fine line, even if it adopts some of its big brother’s more repressive tactics.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter in an autocratic state in which decision-making is highly centralized. But at risk is Qatar’s potential of becoming a rare example of a mega-sporting event that leaves a legacy of social if not political change, rather than white elephants and financial loss. The World Cup offers Qatar an opportunity to put its best foot forward and emerge as a forward-looking 21st century regional model. The question is whether Qatari backtracking will squander the Gulf state’s unique opportunity.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.