Qatari authorities, in a bid to counter criticism that the Gulf state lacks a soccer culture as well as a sense that low attendance of matches could constitute a form of protest, has launched a politically sensitive survey to gauge reasons for its empty stadia.
The survey on the website of the Qatar Statistics Authority (QSA), in cooperation with the Qatar Football Association (QFA) and the Sports Statistics Technical Committee, is likely to produce limited responses given that participants are required to identify themselves by entering their email addresses and the fact that the survey does not include questions about whether club ownership is a factor. To be fair, the survey does not verify email addresses which means participants do not necessarily need to provide a correct address.
The survey is further noteworthy as it seeks to canvass the opinions of both Qataris, who account for a small minority of the Gulf state's 2 million inhabitants, and non-Qataris. It constitutes the second time this year that authorities have used sports to reach out to the county's majority of foreigners.
Qatar fundamentally views foreigners as guests obliged to leave when their professional contracts expire in a policy that was designed to fend off non-Qataris developing ties that could persuade them to make Qatar their permanent home. At stake for Qataris is a deep-seated fear that a foreign majority that has a stake in the country and could adopt it as their homeland would threaten the integrity of Qatari culture and control of society.
Under mounting pressure from the international trade union movement and human rights groups to enforce international labor standards that has recently increased with world soccer body FIFA and the European Parliament joining the fray, Qatar earlier this year organized its first ever tournament for soccer teams of foreign workers in which 16 teams participated. Soccer officials said they were likely to launch a league for 32 teams of foreign workers. Qatari soccer authorities had until then not acknowledged teams made up of foreign workers and Qatari clubs catered almost exclusively to Qatari nationals.
The survey comes as Qatar is taking a public relations beating over working and living conditions of foreign workers, many of whom are involved in projects related to the 2022 World Cup that the Gulf state expects to stage.
The survey, because it is online and in English, targets expatriates rather than foreign workers who hail primarily from South Asia, have at best limited access to the Internet and frequently have a poor command, if any, of English.
The absence of whether club ownership influences match attendance is important because many Qatari clubs are owned by state institutions like the military or members of the Al Thani ruling family who account for an estimated 20 percent of Qatari nationals.
Qatari executives privately suggested earlier this year that the fact that Qataris represent a small minority of the population and that Qatari clubs have hitherto refrained from reaching out to the non-Qatari public may not be the only reasons for low match attendance. They said a third reason was that many Qataris did not want to watch "the Sheikh's club" play - a reference to club ownership by the ruling elite. The executives said authorities were considering transferring ownership to publicly held companies.
Suggestions that some Qataris see non-attendance of local matches as a way of expressing dissent are not the only indication of protest in the Gulf state in recent years. Conservative Qataris have in recent years organized online boycotts of the state-owned telecommunications company as well as Qatar Airways and in a few cases have spoken out to question the ruler's authority to issue decrees. Those criticisms occurred before Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani earlier this year abdicated in favor of his son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Khalifa.
Sheikh Tamim, a sports fan who is widely viewed as more conservative than his father, was expected to focus more on domestic issues than on international affairs. Sources said Sheikh Tamim's conservatism was evident in recent legislation that seeks to regulate behavior in public and reinforce government attempts to increase Qatari participation in the workforce that is overwhelmingly foreign. In a further development, the government recently approved draft legislation introducing a mandatory four-month military service for Qatari males aged 18 to 35 years old.
Doha News this week quoted the editor of Qatari sports magazine Qatar Stadium Plus, Ahmad al Mohannadi, as saying: "Considering the number of cases coming out in the open, the Ministry (of Labor), to say the least, has failed to perform. It's time someone responsible from the ministry gave a true picture of the situation, own up the failures and also tell the world what steps are being taken to solve the problems."
The government in response to a damning report issued by Amnesty International earlier this month said it would increase oversight and enforcement to address issues in the report that include non-payment of wages, "harsh and dangerous" working conditions, "shocking standards" of accommodation and some cases of "forced labor." The Foreign Ministry was further reported to have instructed law firm DLA Piper to investigate concerns raised by Amnesty.
At the same time, Qatar appeared this weekend to be signaling that its foreign policy that is at odds with that of its Gulf state partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), foremost among which Saudi Arabia, had not changed. In a blistering attack on Egypt's military-backed government and armed forces, prominent Qatar-based Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi said Egypt was being ruled by thugs who kill people and steal their money."
Speaking in Doha's Omar Ibn al-Khattab Mosque, Egyptian-born Sheikh Qaradawi, who has close ties to the Qatar-supported Muslim Brotherhood that was ousted from power by the Egyptian military in July, said "those oppressors have killed worshipers, fasters, pious people and readers of Quran who did not harm anybody. The military, police, thugs, and snipers killed thousands in Rabaa al-Adawiya which was obvious injustice," a reference to the Cairo Square on which the Brotherhood camped out for weeks to protest against the removal of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected president from office. Hundreds of people were killed in August when security forces brutally broke up the protest.
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 the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.