By DAVID MEDNICOFF
With the start of the World Cup on Nov. 20, 2022, soccer teams from 32 countries and tens of thousands of fans have converged on Qatar, a tiny Arab country on a peninsula in the Persian Gulf. But search “Qatar 2022” online, and the first nonsport results are about the country’s human rights issues.
Like its fellow oil-rich Arab countries, Qatar has enjoyed immense wealth that nurtured grand ambitions of economic growth among rulers and citizens alike. Qatar and its neighbors, including Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, have brought in millions of workers from other countries to support their fast-growing cities and businesses over the past few decades.
In particular, about 30,000 workers came from Bangladesh, India and Nepal to construct the World Cup stadiums. At least 37 died, according to official Qatari counts, while building the US$220 billion infrastructure for the games.
I am a political scientist and legal scholar of the Middle East who has lived and worked in Qatar. Given the sudden media focus on the country, I think it helpful for both World Cup fans and people who don’t know a soccer ball from a hockey puck to understand four aspects of Qatar’s politics that relate to its human rights challenges.
1. Qatar is ruled by a popular king
Qatar’s ruler is popular among citizens. Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani is part a family dynasty that has run the area’s politics since the 1800s, even under Ottoman and British control. This makes Qatar one of eight Arab countries governed by hereditary kings.
Hereditary ruling monarchies may seem archaic to people living in societies with elected leaders. Yet these systems have held onto power, outlasting the Arab uprisings of 2011. The lack of democracy in Arab countries is also part of a broader trend, as autocratic governments are generally on the rise globally.
2. Yes – workers’ rights have been a problem
Doha, the capital of Qatar, has become a major media, educational, diplomatic and recreational hub over the past few decades. Its breakneck development also required workers from all over the world. As a result, foreign workers make up about 85% of the country’s total population, but they do not have the same rights as Qatari citizens. Qatari natives have been reluctant to share their extraordinary social welfare benefits, like free medical care, with millions of workers from abroad. This makes for a system that gives many more rights to Qatari nationals than the millions of others who live there.
Unusual, rapid growth like Qatar’s is a magnet for foreign contract workers worldwide. I enjoyed my opportunity to work there myself as a visiting professor and Fulbright scholar 15 years ago. Yet less privileged foreign workers can fare badly.
In Qatar and its oil-rich peers, control by a minority of citizens over millions of workers with fewer rights leads to discrimination and abuse. Human rights groups, journalists and migrant workers themselves have sought to change harmful workplace practices, such as withholding wages and forbidding unions.
Qatar’s summer heat, averaging 106 degrees Fahrenheit (41 degrees Celsius), can make working conditions especially dangerous for outside construction workers. Since it is hard to know whether the alleged worker deaths are due specifically to bad working conditions, work-related issues, or something else, exact mortality numbers have been disputed and may be prone to exaggeration. Yet no one doubts that conditions have been terrible for many of Qatar’s most vulnerable workers.
Other rights issues in Qatar have also attracted global attention. The conservative form of Islam that is part of Qatar’s identity allows little tolerance for LGBTQ rights. Human rights groups have documented detentions and other routine discrimination against LGBTQ people.
3. Yet Qatar has made major reforms
While workers’ rights have received appropriate Western media attention, Qatar’s direct efforts to respond to local and international activism are less known. Qatar enacted the most significant labor rights reforms in the Arab world in 2021.
Working with the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency that promotes fair and decent work worldwide, Qatar instituted a minimum wage of $275 per month, along with allowances for food and lodging. It also prohibited outdoor work during the peak of summer heat and eliminated many of the laws that gave employers control over their workers’ basic freedoms to leave their job or the country.
In any case, legislation in and of itself cannot remedy a complicated challenge involving a wide range of companies and other organizations that Qatar’s government does not control. Whether Qatar can and will enforce the new regulations consistently is one concern.
Most foreign migrants arrive in Qatar through foreign-based recruitment companies, which charge them to secure jobs. So even if Qatar tries to curb labor abuses, recruitment companies based in migrants’ countries of origin would still profit by charging workers expensive placement fees, for example. Such recruiters often work with multinational companies within Qatar to blunt the force of the kingdom’s recent reforms.
4. And Western critiques may conceal other agendas
Qatari officials have suggested that international attention to foreign workers’ conditions is part of a broader pattern of Westerners belittling Arabs and Muslims. One blatant example is an October issue of the French right-wing satirical magazine “Le Canard enchaîné,” which depicted Qatari soccer players as terrorists.
Calls in some parts of Europe for a widespread World Cup boycott add fuel to this and other arguments that the European and American impression of Qatar is hypocritical and possibly Islamophobic. Though hardly a neutral observer, Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA, which carries out the World Cup, reflected many Gulf Arabs’ views when he argued that Europe’s history of exploiting Middle Easterners and others gives it little moral high ground on issues of non-Western rights.
Because no Middle Eastern or Muslim-majority country had hosted the World Cup before 2022, Qatar’s achievement is significant. The Economist argues that Qatar’s responsiveness to pressures to improve its human rights climate may make it a more appropriate host for a global sporting event than other countries with poor human rights records, such as China or Russia.
Yet genuine global concern about rights in countries like Qatar and mistrust between the Middle East and the West will persist. Can new global awareness of Qatar lead to more nuanced understanding of both cross-cultural similarities and differences between Arab Islamic countries and the rest of the world? For the moment, this is as hard to know as which country will win the World Cup.
David Mednicoff, Chair, Department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies, and Associate Professor of Middle Eastern Studies and Public Policy, UMass Amherst