Qatar feels the heat

Summary: with less than a month to go before the launch of the World Cup, Qatar has reacted with fury to criticisms in Western media.

Qatar, stung by criticism as the World Cup approaches, has lashed out angrily with the Emir, Tamim bin Hamid Al-Thani, unleashing a sweeping denunciation of attacks on the tiny but extraordinarily wealthy Gulf state. In a speech on Tuesday to the country’s legislative council the emir spoke bluntly about “an unprecedented campaign that no host country has been subjected to.”

He went on to say:

We initially dealt with the matter in good faith, and even considered that some criticism was positive and useful, helping us to develop aspects of ours that need to be developed but it soon became clear to us that the campaign continues, expands and includes fabrication and double standards, until it reached a level of ferocity that made many question, unfortunately, about the real reasons and motives behind this campaign.

Critics, among them Amnesty International, have focussed on the treatment of migrant workers building the stadiums and other infrastructure of a World Cup that has come with a price tag of US$220 billion (by way of comparison the previous most expensive was Brazil’s at US$15 billion.) Other issues include treatment of LGBTQ+ and lingering suspicions of how Qatar won the bid in 2010. Added to the catalogue of criticism is the accusation that though the Qataris promised a carbon neutral World Cup, they are unlikely to meet that objective.

To all of these critiques the Qataris cry double standards, hypocrisy and as Tamim put it “fabrications.” They point in particular to the campaign unfolding in France – where a number of cities are declining to put up outdoor TV screens – and see in it elements of pandering to the racism of the extreme right. They ask, with justification, where was the  sustained outcry from Western countries when Russia hosted the World Cup or China the Olympic Games, two regimes with appalling human rights records?

But the problem Qatar has is that just days ahead of the World Cup it is in reactive, rather than pro-active mode. The Qataris could and should have anticipated the sort of criticism they are now experiencing and have had in place strategies to answer their critics. More importantly, they should also have carried out reforms on the hot button issue of migrant rights far more quickly and transparently.

Qatar World cup migrant death
Latha Bollapally, with her son Rajesh Goud, holds a picture of her husband, Madhu Bollapally, 43, a migrant worker who died in Qatar [photo credit: Kailash Nirmal]
In 2013 the government of Qatar commissioned a report from the London law firm  DLA Piper. An exhaustive 136 page report tilted Migrant Labour in the Construction Sector of the State of Qatar laid bare the appalling treatment of labourers. It contrasted that treatment with laws already on the books that were largely being ignored and it recommended new legislation be put in place to protect migrants from abuse. In all it made 130 recommendations, a measure of just how atrocious the situation was.

An area of contention is the number of workers who have died.  The Guardian has published claims of 6500. The Qatari government dismisses those claims. It may well be the case that the figures are wrong. But the DLA Piper report cited figures from Qatar’s Supreme Council of Health, the government’s health ministry, for the cause of death of Nepalese migrant workers in 2012. Of 186 deaths, 107 were listed as “sudden death, cause unknown.” Another 23 resulted from road accidents (the migrants are carried on buses to and from work sites.) 21 died from suicide and 11 from “unspecified fall and struck by thrown, projected or falling object.” 24 were the result of other causes. Similarly grim statistics were given for Indian and Bangladeshi workers.

Regarding the category of “sudden death, cause unknown” the Supreme Council of Health provide DLA Piper with data that showed cardiac arrest was the main cause of death amongst the top five migrant worker populations. The figures for 2012 are as follows: Nepal 107, India 105, Philippines 37, Bangladesh 34 and Sri Lanka 21. The report urged the government to take action:

Going forward, it is crucial that the State of Qatar properly classifies causes of death. It is critical to collect and disseminate accurate statistics and data in relation to work-related injuries and deaths. If there are any sudden or unexpected deaths, autopsies or post-mortems should be performed in order to determine the cause of death. If there are any unusual trends in causes of death, such as high instances of cardiac arrest, then these ought to be properly studied in order to determine whether preventative measures need to be taken. (p 91)

Working in extreme temperatures causes dehydration and heatstroke, adversely affecting the cardiovascular system which in turn can cause sudden death.

In other recommendations, DLA Piper called for reform of the Kafala system that ties workers to an employer, improvement of living conditions, access to justice to ensure payment of wages, effective labour inspections and freedom of association and rights for collective bargaining.

But what stands out in the report are the death statistics, which are shocking. The government needed to respond with urgency and transparency at the time, in 2014, and it did not, leaving Qatar open to valid criticisms about the treatment of migrants that continue to this day. Granted the government brought in legislation in 2017 to do away with the Kafala system but it was still in place three years later and it is only now that it is being effectively done away with.

Qatar is also being attacked on the LGBTQ+ front.  The veteran British gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was in Doha on Tuesday. He says he was arrested after being detained in downtown Doha carrying a sign that read “Qatar arrests, jails & subjects LGBTs to ‘conversion.’” The Qataris deny he was arrested but he was escorted to the airport and required to leave the country.

A day earlier Human Rights Watch had released a statement after interviewing six people who HRW said had been detained and subjected to “severe and repeated beatings…and sexual harassment in police custody between 2019 and 2022.” The statement  said:

Security forces arrested people in public places based solely on their gender expression and unlawfully searched their phones. As a requirement for their release, security forces mandated that transgender women detainees attend conversion therapy sessions at a government-sponsored “behavioral healthcare” center.

The fact that Peter Tatchell was allowed into the country may be down to either ignorance of who he was or a laudable attempt to tolerate some form of protest. Given the massive adverse publicity, one suspects the former rather than the latter.

His protest sparked a sharp response from the LGBTQ+ activist Elias Jahshan editor of  the anthology This Arab is Queer. Jahshan tweeted:

White people going to foreign countries to pull a protest stunt without the backing of the local community always risks doing more harm than good. And if you consulted with the community and still went ahead with it even after they told you not to, you’re just an egomaniac.

Elias Jahshan was our podcast guest on 15 July and you can find our conversation here.

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