Slavery was officially abolished in Qatar in the 1950s, but in 2010, when the resource-rich nation won the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, human rights groups were quick to point out that the country’s shiny new sites were still being built with “labor slaves.”
A decade later, and with only a year left to host one of the world’s mega-events, Qatar has undergone significant changes, although for some critics that is still not enough.
After qualifying to compete in Qatar next November, Denmark says it will use its training kit to spread critical human rights messages to the host country, “to take advantage of the fact that we have qualified to work for more change in the country, ”he added. said Denmark Football executive Jakob Jensen.
Nations traveling to Qatar benefit from a qualifying payment of over $ 10 million.
Denmark’s protests would probably make more sense if they agreed to donate their fees to a human rights NGO of their choice.
Qatar is the only Gulf country to have abandoned the widely used Kafala system under which migrant workers are sponsored by employers who provide travel, accommodation and low wages.
The sponsorship system left workers without rights and exploitation was rife.
Alongside the Olympics, the FIFA World Cup brings unparalleled and often unwanted scrutiny of host nations that can either go on as usual – hoping that when the show begins the focus shifts to sport – or react.
On several fronts, Qatar has done the latter.
The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) highlights significant changes to Qatar’s labor laws, made all the more urgent by the high rate of construction-related deaths in the country.
“Ten years ago, we were absolutely opposed to the lack of labor laws in this country, so we campaigned for five years to tell the government that you must change your laws,” said the secretary general of the country. CSI, Sharan Burrow, at The Ticket.
“They have been housed too often in squalid conditions with poor food, often with no cultural respect for the differences in food and accommodation, and it was a disaster.
“But when the government decided it would negotiate with us and the ILO [International Labour Organisation], then labor laws changed. It was a three-year process… first the drafting of the agreement, then three years of implementation and follow-up.
“Now we’re at the stage where compliance is still an issue due to cultural resistance from some companies, but it’s not the laws. The modern Kafala system of slavery is dead.”
Transparent contractual arrangements are now in place and labor courts are operational for employees with grievances.
“We helped train these judges. In fact, I asked former commissioners of the Australian system to come and help train these judges, along with other countries, and it worked,” said Ms Burrow.
“Is the system perfect? No, because there is still a huge cultural change. We do not go from a system of slavery, to introduce laws, to a perfect and mature industrial relations system overnight. normal labor disputes.
“The other big thing we have to give them credit for is that these laws and the minimum wage actually apply to domestic workers – this is a world first.”
Attitude shift brings new understanding of Qatar’s past for residents
Change is not just noticed from the outside. Changes are also noticed inside.
Of the 2.9 million people who live in Qatar, less than 15% are Qatari nationals and the median age is 31.5 years.
The past decade has seen an investment of around $ 400 billion in infrastructure programs focused on the sports, education and cultural sectors.
Shortly after winning the World Cup bid, officials sat down to discuss the development of a heritage district in downtown Doha.
During the planning phase, one of the discoveries made was the former residence of a slave owner.
Bin Jelmood House is now a slavery museum that traces a story that had not yet been discussed or taught in the area.
Prior to oil and gas wealth, Qatar was primarily shaped by the pearl diving industry.
The slaves were bought in North Africa, where the Bin Jelmood exhibition begins.
It traces the journey to modern slavery and human trafficking, and there are plans to include an exhibit on the history of racism – possibly before the 2022 World Cup.
“Qatar in this [pearl diving] The period was not a very wealthy country and therefore slaves were expected to work alongside their masters at the time, ”said exhibition director Fahad al-Turky.
Nationally, the museum has become a place of learning and a research center for school and university students, but it was the international reaction that surprised them the most.
“Internationally, everyone was amazed that Qatar had the courage and bravery to talk about this aspect… none of the countries [in the region] tried or dared to go to this area, ”Msheireb museum director Hafiz Abdhullah said.
The group now works with UNESCO and advises others on the development of their own museums.
The secretary general of the Supreme Committee for the Delivery and Inheritance of Qatar 2022, Hassan al-Thawadi, told Bloomberg earlier this year that it would be wrong to think that the huge changes in the country were all due to pressure. exterior.
“We had unions who came to protest in Qatar, we had NGOs who came to publish their reports criticizing certain elements and aspects,” said Al-Thawadi.
“What I’m saying is that it didn’t happen in a vacuum and we’ve grown over the years, and the only thing I think people can attest to is that we are an open society. “
Sport used as vehicle to propel Qatar onto the world stage
While admitting that the country was conservative, al-Thawadi said he was also progressive.
Qatar is a constitutional emirate ruled by the Al-Thani family.
Two-thirds of the government’s advisory council are democratically elected, the rest being appointed by the emir.
The judicial system is complex, combining aspects of Sharia law, Ottoman law, European civil law and common law.
In addition to a sports center with world-class facilities such as Aspire Academy and Aspetar Sports Medicine Clinic, some of the best universities in the world have opened campuses in Education City.
Currently, Qatari women outperform men by three to one in university enrollment.
According to Paul Brannagan of Manchester Metropolitan University, author of an upcoming book on Qatar 2022 and the FIFA World Cup, there is one word that defines Qatar: ambition.
“Here you have the third smallest country in Asia, one of the smallest countries in the world, which is really looking to use various tools, whether it is the World Cup, whether it is this mediation [with the US and the Taliban], whether it is this investment abroad, really to exceed its weight, “he said.
“But also, I think, maybe on some occasions [it] may have realized that he may be bitten a little more than he can chew. “
He said Qatar sees sport as a perfect tool to stand out globally through “niche politics or niche diplomacy”, much like a nation like Switzerland. having used finance and banking.
“Qatar really wants to see itself as a world sports center,” said Dr Brannagan.
“So sport is really absolutely essential in everything Qatar tries to do… but it also puts Qatar on the map as a serious and serious player in world and international affairs.”
While some outside the country still doubt the legitimacy of Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup, Dr Brannagan says there are also some inside who are questioning whether the costs and l The negative attention that the event garnered will be worth it.
“From a political point of view, sport has meaning for policymakers in Qatar… but part of the meaning I had [speaking to locals] was, ‘Well, it’s not that we’re an unsportsmanlike nation. It’s that when we think of sport, we don’t automatically think of those western versions of sport such as football, rugby, cricket.
“They are much more interested in the local and native sports of falconry, horse racing, [and] camel race.
“Some Qataris outside the political and political spectrum in Qatar are sort of wondering, ‘Well, does this country really need such a big event? “And of course it only got worse considering all the negative reviews Qatar has received since winning the World Cup when it comes to human rights etc.”
A year from now, two things are certain: Human rights organizations will focus more on the country, while the organizers themselves hope that time flies when the kick-off draws attention to football.