Huffpost WorldPost
Sharan Burrow Headshot

What Would You Do If You Inherited the World's Richest Country?

Posted: Updated:

Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, has informed the ruling family of his decision to transfer power to his son, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.

Seen as more conservative than his larger than life father -- Sandhurst educated Tamim, 33, has a big robe to fill. With a per capita GDP of $102,000, Qatar has been on an international shopping spree attempting to buy companies, friends and influence, especially in the UK and France.

The country's ruler has been praised in some academic and diplomatic circles due to his political acumen and smart investments.

But behind Doha's glittering skyscrapers and western leaders who kowtow to white robed sheiks hoping for petro-dollars to pour into crisis hit economies lies and inconvenient truth: the state's massive wealth is built on a system of servitude and violent exploitation.

Foreign workers make up more than 85 percent of Qatar's population. Qatar doesn't keep statistics on worker deaths but on average a labourer has died every day this year due to appalling working and living conditions, based on figures from migrant workers home countries. This year alone 110 Nepali workers have died in Qatar, soon they will be toiling in summer heat that often exceeds 45 degrees.

They cannot unionise or demonstrate.

A system of citizenship derived from racist principles means a person must be able to trace their bloodline -- only on the father's side -- to people who were living in Qatar when the British gave the area to the Al-Thani family prior to "independence" in 1971.

The citizenship rule, like most regulations in Qatar, always has exceptions for people with enough "wasta" or influence.

Zahir Belounis a French football player was given Qatari citizenship for a month to play in the Military World Cup in Brazil in 2011. After a dispute with his club, Belounis has been unable to leave Qatar, as his sponsor refuses to grant him or his family an exit visa. Qatar has held him without pay for 23 months.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia are two of the only countries in the world requiring an exit permit, a computerised document for which workers need employer approval to go home.

If this is the treatment reserved for a well-known footballer ahead of the World Cup, imagine how domestic workers or construction employees with no media presence or means to tell their stories are treated.

The kefala system means workers are directly tied to their employers. They cannot change jobs -- or even leave the country -- without the boss's permission. Most live in labour camps, crushed 12 men to a room and 40 to a bathroom in the dystopian "industrial area" outside of Doha.

It's not uncommon for staff to be promised a wage in their home country and arrive to learn they will barely be making $200 per month, barely enough to survive in an petro-boom town.

In a situation that should be abhorrent in the 21st century domestic workers -- who regularly face sexual and physical abuse -- are inherited like cattle by their employer's eldest son if their initial sponsor dies.

Trade unions are currently presenting a case before the International Labour Organisation that Qatar's entire economy is built on forced labour, a form of 21st century bondage similar to the American sharecropping system that followed the era of slavery. Qatar ratified ILO Convention 29 on Forced Labour in 1998. A ruling is expected early next year at the latest.

As a member state of the ILO, Qatar is also obliged to respect freedom of association. A second case on that issue, under Convention 87, could be resolved as early as October. Since migrant workers are not allowed to unionise, it should be an open and shut case, which should draw -- at least -- international condemnation.

Like their 19th century African counterparts on the plantations of post-civil war Mississippi, the Nepali, Indian, Bangladeshi, Filipino and Egyptian workers usually come to Qatar on their own free will.

But like the former slaves who picked cotton in a system of post-slavery bondage, these workers have few other choices.

It is a system of forced labour as they are not free to change jobs, leave the country or stand-up for their rights.

In classic old south style, Fridays at Doha's malls are considered "family day," meaning South Asia men are usually banned from entering the air conditioned spaces on their only day off. Western expats often refer to the day as "apartheid Fridays," as whites and Arabs have no problem getting in.

Despite Qatari attempts to whitewash their image in the face of increasing international condemnation, the conditions for workers are arguably getting worse as the world's richest country ramps up infrastructure projects ahead of the 2022 World Cup. The overdrive to build roads and stadiums is literally costing workers their lives.

As Qatar plans its leadership transition, from unelected father to unelected son, perhaps it's time for the UK, USA, France and other allies to start pushing for a more meaningful transition, a change to the lives of nearly 90 percent of Qatar's population, the ones who create the wealth, build the towers and dig the gas out of the ground.

But if history is any guide, systems where 10 percent rule over the 90 percent without any pretense of democracy or broader legitimacy are inherently unstable.

As the new Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani takes stock of his inheritance, he has the chance create a new legacy which matches international ambition with responsibility for workers at home.