Activists and Gulf crisis turn Qatar into potential model of social change

By James M. Dorsey

Potential Qatari moves to become the first Gulf state to effectively abolish the region’s onerous kafala or labour sponsorship system, denounced as a form of modern slavery, could produce a rare World Cup that leaves a true legacy of social and economic change.

In a rare kudo, Qatar’s fiercest labour critic, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), hailed a Qatari announcement that it was introducing far-reaching reforms as a “breakthrough.”

The ITUC and human rights groups have campaigned for labour reform and abolition of kafala since FIFA awarded Qatar the hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup in December 2010. Despite activists’ frustration at the slow pace of change in Qatar since then, Qatar’s response to the criticism amounted to the sporting event creating a legacy of change even before it was held.

Qatar became the first autocratic Gulf state to engage with its critics rather than refusing to talk to them and barring them entry to the country — a standard practice in most of the Gulf countries. It also acknowledged early on that the kafala system that puts migrant workers at the mercy of their employers needed to be change.

The ITUC was quick to claim credit for a Qatari announcement this week promising far reaching reforms. The reforms that have yet to be enshrined in law would include safeguards preventing employers from unilaterally changing labour contracts, abolish exit visas, introduce a minimum wage, and relieve employers of controlling workers’ documents.

The ITUC and human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were crucial in pushing Qatar towards reforms that would put it in the lead of labour change in the Gulf. The timing of the promised reforms was however likely determined by Qatar’s need to fend off being penalized by the International Labour Organization (ILO) as well as the almost five month-old Gulf crisis that pits the Gulf state against an alliance led by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

The ILO had threatened to slap Qatar with one its harshest penalties if the Gulf state failed to credibly address criticism of its labour regime by the time the group meets in November. The announced reforms kill two birds with one stone. It no doubt will go to some length in satisfying the ILO while allowing Qatar to project itself internationally as a good international citizen at a time that the UAE-Saudi alliance have imposed a diplomatic and economic boycott in a bid to force it to adhere to their policies rather than chart an independent course.

In the first joint action since the feud erupted among the Gulf states, Qatar this week joined Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as well as the United States in imposing sanctions on several individuals and entities accused of supporting the Islamic State and al-Qaida in Yemen. By joining, Qatar ensured that it remained on the right side of US President Donald J. Trump and countered Gulf allegations that it supported militancy and political violence.

If implemented, the labour reforms would also weaken a covert UAE-Saudi campaign to persuade world soccer body FIFA to deprive Qatar of its World Cup hosting rights. Qatar’s detractors have used the labour issue in a pot is blaming the kettle campaign against the World Cup being held in the Gulf state. Dubai’s idiosyncratic police chief, Lt. Gen. Dhahi Khalfan, went as far as saying that the UAE and Saudi Arabia would lift their boycott if Qatar surrendered its hosting rights — a demand that was rejected by Qatar out of hand.

Claiming Qatar’s announced reforms as a trade union victory, ITUC general secretary Sharon Burrow said that “the new guidance from Qatar signals the start of real reforms in Qatar which will bring to an end the use of modern slavery and puts the country on the pathway to meeting its international legal obligations nation on workers’ rights. Following discussions in Doha there is a clear government commitment to normalise industrial protections for migrant workers.”

In contrast to the ITUC which was unequivocal in its praise of Qatar, human rights groups like Amnesty International extended a more cautious welcome to Qatar’s planned reforms.

An Amnesty International spokesperson suggested that it was too early to judge. “We are not able to assess the significance of these developments until we have seen the full details of the government’s commitments. However, today’s announcements have clear potential to have a positive impact on migrant workers’ lives, depending on how they’re implemented,” the spokesperson said.

Former Human Rights Watch Gulf expert Nicholas McGeehan noted that Qatar’s road towards labour reform has been littered with promises that were either partially kept or not fulfilled at all. “All we have today are promises, and promises have been broken before. I feel we need to put expressions of optimism on hold until we see full details, changes in the law where necessary, and a time frame for promised reforms to be implemented,” Mr. McGeehan said.

Against the backdrop of the Gulf crisis, Qatar has a vested interest in making good on its promises. Labour reform would project the state, despite being an autocracy, as a 21st century nation that embraces some degree of change not only for others in the greater Middle East, but also for itself. It potentially would position the 2022 World Cup as a rare mega-sporting event to have served as a catalyst of change. That would be a legacy that international sporting associations aspire to through major tournaments, but seldom achieve.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

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