February 3, 2015 Stephen Russell

Qatar asks for patience – to perfect its PR strategy

Qatar seems to be confused about what message to put out to its critics, simultaneously accusing them of a conspiracy whilst also meekly asking for more time to put an end to the abuse of migrant construction workers  – currently preparing the country to host the 2022 World Cup. However, with Qatar’s poor track record on delivering reform, only implementing real change will make us critics go away.

A few days ago a senior Qatari minister decided that enough was enough – attacks on his country’s appalling human rights record were clearly the work of Qatar’s enemies working to a “heightened agenda”. A cynic might note that the timing followed closely on confirmation that the death rate in Qatar had continued to rise through 2014, with Indian and Nepali casualties averaging 38 per month (and that’s without Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi figures which will push the monthly rate much higher).

“”I think this is a big trick,” said the minister, Abdullah bin Hamad Al Attiyah, and who are we to disagree? However, days later and Qatar are trying a subtly different tack as Nasser Al-Khater, of the organising committee of the 2022 World Cup says:

“You need to make sure that, when you draft a law, you also draft the enforcement mechanisms of the law. So that’s why all we ask is for people to be patient.”

Now, given Qatar’s abysmal track record of enforcing its own laws (except, obviously, when it comes to clamping down on striking workers), we can certainly appreciate that enforcement mechanisms are as important as laws, just as legislating to create a fire service wouldn’t be much good without recruiting fire-fighters and purchasing a fleet of fire engines.

And, with the monthly casualty rate as it is, an emergency response is just what is needed.

However, Nasser’s colleagues in the Qatari government announced their intention to abolish the kafala system in May last year. In the meanwhile 304 Indian and Nepali workers will have died of heart attacks, industrial accidents or suicide. Has the government rushed through the legislation while simultaneously planning how to ensure that employers alter their contracts of employment? Well, six months after their initial promise (228 deaths later) the Government announced that it would definitely abolish kafala… eventually. And now they’re asking for yet more time.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Qatar’s sense of urgency on political reform is notable by its absence. For example, in 2011 Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, promised to hold the first ever elections for the country’s advisory council within two years. That in itself was pretty tardy – the referendum in which the Qatari public demanded the reforms was back in 2003 – but by early 2015 no elections had taken place. This shows us pretty clearly that when it comes to relinquishing any power, whether over their own citizens or migrant workers, Qatar’s leaders are in no hurry at all.

We’re not using human rights abuse against Qatar – we want to work with Qatar against human rights abuse!

With all due apologies to the beleaguered Abdullah bin Hamad Al Attiyah and the quite possibly earnest Nasser Al-Khater, we’re not using human & labour rights abuse against Qatar – we want to work with Qatar against human & labour rights abuse! You – and you alone (though a bit more encouragement from FIFA would be good) – have the power to change your country’s laws to respect and protect workers. But – given your super slow-motion track record of progressing reforms – you’ll forgive us if we keep pressing you until you’ve actually delivered something.

When it comes down to it, Nasser, we are patient. And we’re not going anywhere.