Maybe one day Qatar will regret December 10, 2012, the day when it was appointed host for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Ever since, Qatar has been in the spotlight. How did this tiny country become the organizer of a sport event as big as the football world cup? Is it possible at all to play football in Qatar, in the desert, in the heat? Who will build the new stadiums that Qatar needs for the games? Migrant workers from Nepal, Pakistan and India, we hear. Are they well paid, well protected and respected?
Much has been published about Qatar since that day. However, most of the information that the media has given to an uninformed audience in Europe and the United States was wrong.
“How come the press is reporting about migrant workers being abused, even killed, when constructing the new football stadiums?” Robert, a diplomat serving in Qatar, asked me when I talked to him while visiting the country at the end of March 2014. “The construction hasn't even started yet.”
“But there is no question about it,” Robert continued, “the migrant workers are really badly treated here.”
For its future, Qatar has a plan. Organizing the world cup is just one of the milestones, albeit a big one, aimed at gaining recognition outside Qatar's usual comfort zones. Qatar is well known inside the diplomatic circles in the Middle East and at investors' meetings in Germany and France. Now Qatar wants to please to the common people.
"The leadership of Qatar has views, the people have (just) aspirations: what if they don't match?
Qatar's plan is called the Qatar National Vision 2030, QNV 2030 in short. It formulates a strategy for development and sets goals that the country intends to reach in less than two decades. Let me walk you through the QNV 2030 and point out some observations that crossed my mind when reading the document after my visit to Qatar.
“Qatar is at a crossroads,” the paper starts. “The country's abundant wealth creates both opportunities and challenges. It is now imperative for Qatar to choose the best development path that is compatible with the views of its leadership and the aspirations of its people.”
The leadership of Qatar has views, the people have (just) aspirations: what if they don't match? Is there a political process – democratic, if possible – to make sure that the aspirations of the people become the views of the leadership?
Qatar's national vision rests on four pillars: human development, social and economic development, and environmental development. And what about political development, the critical observer is tempted to ask? Does the Qatari government, the authors of QNV 2030, foresee a broader political participation in 2030? The question is carefully avoided throughout the entire well-crafted document.
If Qatar wants to build a stable society that will weather the storms that surely will lay ahead, a strong civil society is a must. “Centrality is not the opposite of anarchy; civil society is,” Robert D. Kaplan stated in a recent article for Stratfor. The success and the failures of the so-called Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya certainly prove this point right.
Other questions that are conspicuously bypassed in QNV 2030 are the tough issues regarding the foreign workers. The paper only talks in very general terms about “the size and the quality of the expatriate labor force,” as if this was merely a question of management.
But who in Qatar cares about the labor force's working conditions? Does QNV 2030, and particularly the human development part, also apply to foreigners in air conditioned offices, migrant workers on construction sites and domestic workers? They constitute 85% of the people living on the peninsula!
An Amnesty International report published in April 2014 that was entitled “my sleep is my break” harshly criticized the conditions under which domestic workers live and work in Qatar. They suffer from extreme working hours and a lack of rest days, which can lead to seven-day, 100-hour working weeks. Their freedom of movement is restricted and they are often verbally harassed and physically and sexually mistreated.
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Unfortunately, I was told in March, this is really happening. And Qatari employers – masters, I should rather say – are not the only sources of abuse; expatriate employers can be just as bad. Not least employers from Arab countries among which Lebanese have one of the worst reputations.
“The abuse of migrants – and they still come,” The Economist wrote in an article last month. When dealing with migrant workers, the Qatari government can count on the collusion of the sending countries' governments.
The case of Nepal is revealing. For all the mistreatment, Nepalese workers earn far more than they could at home, according to The Economist. Remittances make up a quarter of the Nepalese GPD. If the Nepalese government were to insist that rules protecting migrant workers in Qatar should be enforced, Qatari employers might look for workers elsewhere.
These migrant workers are very often poorly educated and therefore an easy target for abuse. Like the taxi drivers I had the fortune to ride with while getting around Doha. They were from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Eritrea, Bangladesh and Yemen. Their language skills were dreadful and although they had been to Qatar for months or for years, I knew my way through the city better than they did, after three days in Doha only.
My taxi drivers made me angry. Why don't these people take language lessons – learn some English, please! - and use a navigation device to deliver their customers where they want it? Do they lack the ambition or the money for their own development? With all its abundant wealth, Qatar could really make a difference on a global stage (if it wished to do so) by giving its migrant workers an education before they send them home again.
"Reforms that have been promised to change labor laws are cosmetic at best
When the QNV 2030 talks about social development, it gets bold. “Women will assume a significant role in all spheres of life, especially through participating in economic and political decision-making”, the strategic paper says. And men? Did I miss something? Do all men already enjoy full participation in any decision making process? Not that I had heard of.
Neither had Robert. As he explained to me in March, Qatar is very opaque. More opaque than Syria and Libya, countries where he had served before. Only the few people on top take decisions. Everybody else is a follower.
At least, the Qatari leadership has understood the sign of the times: Arab societies can only be sustainably developed by empowering women. Women need education, women need intellectually challenging jobs, they need to drive. (To be fair: women are allowed to drive in Qatar.) A society cannot outsource its development to highly paid expatriates from Europe and selected countries in Asia.
However, how will the Qatari society react to this empowerment of women? Are they ready for this? Is it possible to overcome “deep rooted social values highly cherished by society”, as it is rhetorically stipulated when QNV 2030 talks about opportunities and challenges? A tweet from Qatar in mid May 2014 makes you wonder. “A Capricorn woman makes an excellent wife,” it said, “attentive, sensual, erotically sexual, plus she's domestic. Headaches never stop sex.”
As of now, the Qatari authorities have failed to give satisfying answers to the accusations made by Amnesty International. Reforms that have been promised to change labor laws are cosmetic at best. While Sheika al-Massaya al Thani, the emir's sister, was named by the Time magazine as one of the world's most influential people for her work and her passion for art, the art of building an all encompassing civil society remains an “art brut” in Qatar.
Developing a society must go beyond building museums, airports and football stadiums. In its current state, the Qatar Nation Vision 2030 is a comprehensive paper with a long list of desired outcomes. But not more.