By James M. Dorsey
Revived controversy over the integrity of Qatar's successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup and persistent criticism of the conditions of migrant labour in the Gulf state appear to have stiffened Qatar's back as it responds to attacks on multiple fronts, including judicial inquiries in Switzerland and the United States, the media, and United Nations and human rights organizations as well as trade unions.
Qatar's hardening stance threatens to roll back its successful effort since winning the right to host the World Cup four years to convince its critics that it was serious about reform of its notorious kafala or sponsorship system that puts employees at the mercy of their employers.
In the latest indication that Qatar refuses to be seen as caving in to external pressure, Qatar's Shura or Consultative Assembly that nominally serves as the country's legislature raised objections to the government's draft law that would introduce changes to the kafala system. The council took issue with provisions that deal with the entry, exit and residency of migrant workers and said the law needed further study, according to The Peninsula, a Qatari newspaper.
Underlining Qatar's refusal to be seen to be bullied, Al Sharq, a Qatari news portal, quoted council chairman Mohammed bin Mubarak Al Khulaifi as saying that there was no need to rush the draft law.
Activists noted that the council recommendations backtracked on proposals put forward by law firm DLA Piper in a report commissioned by the government as well as suggestions made by the ILO.
The proposal also contradicted submissions made by Qatar to the ILO in January.
Qatar told the ILO that "the draft law which relates to the annulment of the kafala system and its replacement by a contract system has been explicitly announced. In addition, the term employer' replaced the former term used which was master of work...' The draft law also provides for an amendment to the provisions relating to the 'release permit' (to be released from employment), which will allow a worker to request a 'release permit' from the competent government body without going back to the employer.
The council's criticism and proposals do little to alter the dependent status of workers or modify, if not eradicate, the exit visa or release permit system that has caused numerous problems for foreign employees in violation of international standards.
It is likely to cast further doubt on Qatar's sincerity, provoke harsh criticism from activists as well as the International Labour Organization (ILO), and perpetuate an emerging vicious cycle of increased criticism of the Gulf state and declining Qatari willingness to work with its critics.
The council demanded, according to The Peninsula, that:
- A migrant worker who deliberately creates problems for his employer and by failing to comply his labour contract forces his employer to terminate the contract be banned from changing jobs even if he runs away. As punishment, the council called for forcing the worker to remain employed by his employer for twice the time of the duration of the original contract;
- migrant workers be banned from obtaining a new work and residence visa for a period of two years
- after their departure from Qatar;
- new visas be granted to workers who completed their contract and left Qatar only with the approval of their former employer;
- allow migrant workers to change jobs at most twice;
- allow workers with open-ended contracts to change jobs only after having been employed for a period of ten years by their original employer and with approval by government authorities;
- domestic workers, the most vulnerable group among migrants, be excluded from the new law;
- the exit visa system be maintained.
"The tone of the Advisory Council continues to be employer-centric, giving little or no consideration to the plight of over 1.5 million migrant workers in the country, most of whom are of low-income," said Migrant-Rights.org
The Doha-based and government-funded International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS) was meanwhile expected to detail its efforts to boost transparency in bidding processes for major sporting events and combat financial malpractice in professional sport at a news conference in Washington.
The media effort was designed to position Qatar at the forefront of the battle to force FIFA and its regional confederations to become more transparent in the wake of the multiple corruption scandals.
"ICSS encourages and supports any proactive action that targets corruption in sport governing bodies by law enforcement agencies and / or governments," the group said in response to last month's arrest by Swiss police at the behest of the US Department of Justice of a number of senior officials of FIFA and its regional federations in the Americas on corruption-related charges.
Like he promises for labour reform, the ICSS effort is likely to ring hollow as long as Qatar refuses to be publicly transparent about its bid and willing to confront in detail numerous allegations detailed among others in disclosures in The Sunday Times based on millions of documents allegedly obtained from a server of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), a bastion of non-transparency.
Foreign contractors report meanwhile delays and mothballing of some of the projects included in Qatar's $200 billion investment in infrastructure. Not all of the planned investment is World Cup-related. Among projects delayed are according to Reuters a $12 billion bridge and underwater tunnel, a chemicals plant and the Doha Grand Park.
It was not clear if the downsizing was exclusively the result of reduced income as a result of lower oil prices as Qatar braces itself for its first budget deficit in 15 years or whether it was reflected uncertainty over the status of the soccer tournament in light of judicial investigations in the United States and Switzerland.
The investigations involve probing of the integrity of the Gulf state's successful but controversial bid. The investigations stem from the worst corruption scandal in soccer history that prompted FIFA president Sepp Blatter to resign earlier this month.
Qatar nonetheless is signalling that it is determined by hook or by crook to successfully implement its sport strategy that is designed to turn the Gulf state into a global hub even if the soft power aspect of the strategy fails as a result of the multiple controversies.
Forbes quoted an unidentified sport manager as saying that Qatar Sports Investment, a subsidiary of Qatar's sovereign wealth fund that owns top French soccer club Paris Saint Germain, was part of a joint venture negotiating to acquire effective control of Formula One at a cost of at least $7 billion. The bid follows a veto by Bahrain, an FI race host, against Qatar also hosting the world's most-watched annual sports series.
Viewer numbers are important given Qatar's concerted effort to occupy a central space in the hearts and minds of sports fans through BelN, the sports channel of the Gulf state's Al Jazeera television network. News reports said Qatar was bidding up to $1.5 billion for Digiturk that has 3.3 million subscribers and owns the broadcast rights of the Turkish Football League.
Sports broadcasting is unlikely to be able to compensate for the uncountable number of hearts and minds Qatar has lost as a result of its handling of the corruption allegations and its failure to follow its labour-related words with deeds.
Qatar at this point may not care. A sense of having been dealt an unfair hand by the media and others and that criticism by some is levelled to score points has hardened Qatari attitudes against a backdrop of a minority citizenry fearful that reforms risk loss of control of its culture, society and state.
"Qatar may lose the public relations war but it will do enough behind the scenes to keep the World Cup hosting rights. It will cut whatever deals necessary and use beholden business and investment lobbies to keep the World Cup in Qatar. The emir cannot afford to lose it," said a long-standing observer of Qatari society and politics.
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.