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Qatar backtracks on engagement with critics

By James M. Dorsey

After four years of engagement with its critics in a so far failed bid to turn its hosting of the World Cup into a successful soft power tool, Qatar appears to have decided that the region’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 entry or incarcerating them – standard practice in most countries in the region – worked with human rights and trade union activists to address concerns about the working and living conditions of migrant workers who constitute a majority of the population.

The cooperation resulted in key Qatari institutions adopting forward looking standards that would improve conditions and modernize but not abolish Qatar’s controversial kafala or sponsorship system that 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 labour reform in a country in which the citizenry accounts for only 12 percent of the population. Many Qatar’s fear that tinkering with the labour system would be opening a Pandora’s Box that could lead to them losing control of their society and culture.

Labour 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 workers death rate and criticism of the conditions in which primarily Asian workers live and work. Qatar has conceded that it needs to reform its labour system in a bid to fend off calls that it be deprived of its World Cup hosting rights but has been slow in implementing reform.

Theo Zwanziger, the outgoing member of the executive committee of world soccer governing body FIFA in charge of monitoring Qatari progress on labour reform and a long standing Qatar critic, has warned that the Gulf state’s snail pace approach could result in a resolution being tabled at the group’s congress later this month demanding that the World Cup be moved away from Qatar.

Mr. 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 labour 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 in the form of the detention of foreign journalists, including ones invited by the government, who investigate worker’s 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 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, including one associated with the Guggenheim Museum, that is building a satellite in the emirate, because of their criticism of the UAE’s labour regime.

Gulf states distrust US policy in the Middle East, particularly the Obama administration’s handling of nuclear negotiations with Iran that 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 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 backing 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’s falling more in line with the more hard line mainstream Gulf approach, Oman is replacing Qatar 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, mediated US contacts with Iran that put the nuclear negotiations into high gear, and 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 labour 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 team. Both teams had their equipment confiscated, which in the case of the Germans was returned only after all data had been wiped out. In a meek defense, the Qatar Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy that is responsible for the 2022 World Cup said the German crew had failed to obtain proper permissions to film. It is an argument that doesn’t hold in the case of the BBC.

FIFA’s rejection of the findings of the German documentary 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 a statement on the BBC case. It did not issue a similar statement when the German team was detained.

It is unclear whether the hardening attitude of Qatar that is also reflected in sources in Qatar being hesitant to speak out after having been reportedly advised to lie low is simply security forces taking a tougher position as they forge closer security and intelligence ties to other Gulf states or whether it reflects an overall change in Qatar’s approach.

Qatar’s changed approach could well 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 to adherence to a Saudi-led projection of military force. Qatar last year stepped up its arms purchases with an $11 billion deal to acquire US Patriot missiles.

Yet, Qatar, given that it is sandwiched between Iran across the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, sees the kingdom 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. At risk is Qatar’s potential of become a rare example of a mega-sporting event leaving 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.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.

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