Slavery was officially abolished in Qatar in the 1950s but in 2010, when the resources-rich nation won the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, human rights groups were quick to point out the country’s shiny new venues were still being built with “slave labour”.
A decade on and with only a year to go before it stages one of the world’s mega events, Qatar has undergone significant change, although for some of the critics it is still not enough.
Having qualified to compete in Qatar next November, Denmark says it will use its training kit to show human rights messages critical of the host nation, “to take advantage of the fact that we have qualified to work for more change in the country”, chief executive of Denmark Football Jakob Jensen said.
Nations who make it to Qatar benefit from a qualification payment of more than $10 million.
Denmark’s protests would probably mean more if they agreed to donate their fee to a human rights NGO of their choice.
Qatar is the only Gulf nation to have scrapped the widely used Kafala system under which migrant workers are sponsored by employers who provide travel, accommodation, and low wages.
The sponsorship system left workers with next to no rights and exploitation was rife.
Next to the Olympics, the FIFA World Cup brings unrivalled and often unwanted scrutiny of host nations that can either carry on as normal — hoping when the show gets underway the focus will turn to the sport — or respond.
On several fronts, Qatar has done the latter.
The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) points to the significant changes made to Qatar’s labour laws, which were made all the more urgent because of the high rate of construction-related deaths in the country.
“Ten years ago we were absolutely in opposition to this country’s lack of labour laws, so we campaigned for five years to say to the government you must change your laws,” ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow told The Ticket.
“They were housed too often in squalid conditions with poor food, often no cultural respect for the differences in food and accommodation, and it was a disaster.
“But when the government decided they would negotiate with us and the ILO [International Labour Organisation], then the labour laws changed. It was a three-year process … first of all bedding the agreement, then three years of implementation and monitoring.
“Now we are at the stage where compliance is still an issue because of a cultural resistance by some companies, but it’s not the laws. The Kafala system of modern slavery is dead.”
Transparent contract arrangements are now in place and labour courts are operational for employees with grievances.
“We have helped train those judges. In fact, I asked former commissioners of the Australian system to come and help train those judges, with other countries, and it has worked,” Ms Burrow said.
“Is the system perfect? No, because there’s still a huge cultural shift. You don’t go from a system of slavery, to introduce laws, to a perfect, mature industrial relations system overnight. But now the laws are such that you have normal industrial disputes.
“The other big thing we must give them credit for is that these laws and the minimum wage actually applies to domestic workers — that’s a first around the world.”
Attitude change brings new understanding of Qatar’s past for residents
Change is not only being noticed from the outside. Shifts are also being noticed within.
Of the 2.9 million people who live in Qatar, less than 15 per cent are Qatari nationals, and the median age is 31.5 years.
The past decade has seen an investment of around $400 billion worth of infrastructure programs that centre on the sport, education, and culture sectors.
Not long after winning the World Cup bid, officials sat down to discuss the development of a heritage quarter in downtown Doha.
During the planning phase, one of the discoveries made was the former residence of a slave owner.
Bin Jelmood House is now a slavery museum that charts a history not previously discussed or taught in the region.
Prior to oil and gas wealth, Qatar was mainly shaped by the pearl diving industry.
Slaves were bought from northern Africa, which is where the Bin Jelmood exhibition begins.
It traces the journey through to modern-day slavery and people trafficking, and there are plans to include an exhibition on the story of racism — possibly ahead of the 2022 World Cup.
“Qatar in that [pearl diving] period was not a very wealthy country and so it was expected that enslaved people worked alongside their masters at the time,” exhibition manager Fahad al-Turky said.
Domestically, the museum has become a place of learning and a research centre for both school and university students, but it’s the international reaction that has surprised them most.
“Internationally, everybody was amazed Qatar had the courage and bravery to talk about this aspect … none of the countries [in the region] tried or dared to go to this area,” Msheireb Museum’s director, Hafiz Abdhullah, said.
The group is now working with UNESCO and advising others on the development of their own museums.
Secretary-general of the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy of Qatar 2022, Hassan al-Thawadi, told Bloomberg earlier this year it would be wrong to think the huge changes in the country all came down to external pressure.
“We’ve had trade unions that have come and protested in Qatar, we’ve had NGOs that have come issuing their reports criticising certain elements and aspects,” Al-Thawadi said.
“What I’m saying is it’s not been done in a vacuum and we’ve developed throughout the years, and the one thing I think people can attest to is that we are an open society.”
Sport used as a vehicle to propel Qatar on the world stage
While admitting the country was conservative, al-Thawadi said it was also progressive.
Qatar is a constitutional emirate ruled by the Al-Thani family.
Two-thirds of the government’s advisory council are democratically elected, with the remainder appointed by the Emir.
The justice system is complex, combining aspects of shariah law, Ottoman law, European civil and common law.
As well as a sports hub with world-class facilities such as the Aspire Academy and the Aspetar sports medicine clinic, some of the world’s top universities have opened campuses in Education City.
Currently, Qatari women outrank men three to one in university enrolments.
According to Paul Brannagan of Manchester Metropolitan University, the author of an upcoming book on Qatar 2022 and the FIFA World Cup, there is one word that defines Qatar: ambition.
“You have here the third-smallest country in Asia, one of the smallest countries in the world, really looking to use various tools, whether that be the World Cup, be that mediation [with the US and the Taliban], be that overseas investment, really to punch above its weight,” he said.
“But also, I think, perhaps on certain occasions [it] has perhaps realised that it’s maybe bitten off a little bit more than it can chew.”
He said Qatar saw sport as a perfect tool to make a mark globally through “niche politics or niche diplomacy” in the way a nation like Switzerland had used finance and banking.
“Qatar really wants to see itself as a global sporting hub,” Dr Brannagan said.
“So, sport really is absolutely essential in everything Qatar is trying to do … but also put Qatar on the map as a serious, serious player in global and international affairs.”
While some outside the country still doubt the legitimacy of Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup, Dr Brannagan says there are also some inside who wonder whether the costs and the negative attention the event has brought will be worth it.
“From a political perspective, sport makes sense to the policymakers in Qatar … but part of the sense I got [speaking to locals] was, ‘Well, it’s not that we’re an unsporting nation. It’s that when we think of sport we don’t automatically think of these Western versions of sport such as football, rugby, cricket.’
“They are much more interested in the local, Indigenous sports of falconry, horse racing, [and] camel racing.
“Some Qataris outside of the policy and political spectrum in Qatar are sort of scratching their heads as to, ‘Well, does this country really need such a big event?’ And of course, that’s only been amplified given all the negative scrutiny Qatar has received since being awarded the World Cup in regards to human rights et cetera.”
Two things are certain with one year to go: Human rights organisations will be ramping up their focus on the country, while the organisers themselves will be hoping time flies when kick-off will swing the attention to football.