May 28, 2023

Qatar a power built on raw materials and forced labor

6 min read

Seven stadiums, an airport, 100 hotels, a new subway system, new roads. Tens of thousands of people, mostly immigrants from countries such as India and Bangladesh, worked on infrastructure projects for this year’s World Cup. Many of them are modern-day slaves. Qatar, which in 2007 was the richest country in the world in terms of GDP per capita, is building its power on the backs of people earning a minimum salary of 1,000 Qatari rials, or about PLN 1,200 a month.

In 2021. Qatar’s GDP reached $179.6 billion. (World Bank data). The main driver of the country’s economy is its abundant natural gas (the world’s third-largest reserves, 13 percent of global reserves) and oil (25 billion barrels). It is thanks to income from these sources that the country can afford large investments for public purposes, including expenses related to the organization of the World Cup.

To become independent of fluctuating hydrocarbon prices on world markets, Qatar is also betting on strengthening non-oil sectors such as manufacturing, construction and financial services, which together already make up just over half of the country’s GDP. The country has ambitions to become a major international transportation hub, hence the heavy investment in the construction of a new airport and expansion of the Doha seaport, as well as the financing of Qatar Airways. The country is also consistently developing its hotel and exhibition infrastructure to host major conferences and sporting events, such as the soccer World Cup. For the 2022 World Cup, Qatar has built not only the aforementioned airport, but also seven stadiums, a new metro system, a number of new roads and about 100 new hotels.

But there is also a dark side to these investments. Thousands of foreign laborers are working on construction sites, some of whom are victims of forced labor. They usually come from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and leave their countries, fleeing poverty and unemployment. Meanwhile, in Qatar, as in many other Gulf states, a system called kafala was legal until 2020. A foreign worker, bound by a contract with his sponsor, who provided him with employment and, for example, room and board, could not leave the country or change jobs without the sponsor’s permission. It was common to illegally hold the passports of incoming workers and block them from returning home even after their visas expired.

Since Qatar was selected to host the 2022 World Cup in 2010. Qatar was chosen to host the 2022 World Cup, human rights organizations have repeatedly reported on the mistreatment of foreign workers and reported cases of their deaths. According to Amnesty International, foreign workers in Qatar number as many as 1.7 million and make up 90 percent of the country’s labor force. Significantly, Qatar’s entire population is only 2.7 million, of which less than 12 percent are Qataris. The country’s power is thus built by the hands of immigrants, whose working conditions have often been described as “modern slavery.”

Outlawing kafala and the minimum wage
The state has not always led the region. Until 1971, Qatar was a poor British protectorate, with its people mainly engaged in pearl fishing. The 1980s and 1990s saw rapid wealth creation from oil and gas deposits, but the country began to grow into a real power in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“Former emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who overthrew his father in a bloodless coup in 1995, ushered in sweeping political and media reforms, unprecedented economic investment and a growing Qatari leadership role in the region, in part through the creation of the pan-Arab Al-Jazeera satellite news network and Qatar’s mediation in some regional conflicts. In 2000. Qatar resolved long-standing border disputes with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and in 2007 achieved the world’s highest per capita income,” according to Moody’s.

The country was spared the tensions caused by the Arab Spring in 2010-2012, and in 2013 there was a peaceful transfer of power to the new emir, Hamad’s son Tamim bin Hamad. Indeed, Qatar is a monarchy. According to the 2005 constitution, the state is headed by an emir, and executive power is exercised by a government appointed by the emir and headed by a prime minister. The government’s consultative body is a 45-member advisory council. There is no parliament or political parties.

Tamim bin Hamad has ruled the country ever since, enjoying considerable popular support. He is betting on the development of advanced health and education systems and the expansion of the country’s infrastructure, largely with an eye toward the World Cup, which is about to begin.

According to official figures, 30,000 foreign laborers have been hired to build stadiums for the World Cup alone, most of them from Bangladesh, India, Nepal and the Philippines, writes CNN. In 2016. Amnesty International accused Qatari companies of using forced labor. According to the organization, many of the workers lived in squalid housing, were forced to pay huge recruitment fees, had their passports confiscated, and had their wages withheld. It was common to work overtime, in harsh conditions, at heights and without adequate security, in the heat, and without a day off. Despite the government’s introduction of a number of reforms (including setting the minimum wage at 1,000 rials, or about 1,200 zlotys, for all, including incoming workers, and outlawing kafala), a report by the same organization in October of this year indicates that much remains to be done.

“There are still widespread recruitment fees to secure a job in Qatar. With fees ranging from $1,000 to $3,000, many workers take months or even years to pay off such debt. This in turn causes them to fall into a cycle of exploitation. Workers reporting to the Supreme Committee, the organizer of the World Cup, can apply for reimbursement of some of these fees, but such an option is unavailable to the vast majority of workers in the country.

Key changes to the kafala system, which made workers completely dependent on their employer, mean that the vast majority of workers can now leave the country and change jobs without permission. However, migrant workers still risk detention or deportation if their employers cancel their visas, fail to renew their residence permits, or report that they have ‘absconded’ from work,” – is an excerpt from an Amnesty International publication.

Death on the construction site
In February 2021. “The Guardian published an article showing that since Qatar won the bid to host the World Cup, 6,500 workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died in the country. The figure was based on data provided by those countries’ embassies in Qatar. The Qatari government argued that not all of the reported deaths involved people working on World Cup projects. Many of those who died had lived and worked in Qatar for several years and may have died of old age or some other natural cause, it argued. According to official records, there were 37 deaths among workers at World Cup stadium construction sites between 2014 and 2020, of which only three were “work-related.”

The International Labor Organization, on the other hand, believes this is an underestimate because Qatar does not count deaths from heart attacks and respiratory failure as work-related – even though these are common symptoms of heatstroke, caused by performing hard labor in very high temperatures, according to a BBC website article.

On November 7, Amensty International launched a campaign demanding compensation for migrant workers involved in the championships or their families.

Another flashpoint regarding Qatar’s role as a football host is its attitude toward the rights of women and sexual minorities. LGBTQIA+ organizations working with Fifa have expressed concerns about the safety of sexual minorities at this year’s World Cup. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, and women’s rights are significantly restricted. World Cup organizers have repeatedly assured that all fans will be welcome in Qatar. At the same time, however, the event’s ambassador, former Qatari national soccer player Khalid Salman, recently said publicly that homosexuality is a sin and a mental illness. Following these words, his interview for German television was interrupted by a spokesman for the World Cup organizing committee.

Not surprisingly, the country’s authorities decided to take care of its PR. As Insider wrote in early November, Qatar has offered selected fan groups to cover all expenses related to the World Cup, in exchange for positive social media coverage. The selected individuals, who purport to represent the fan community, are also required to adhere to a “social media code of conduct” and report, with screenshots, “any offensive, demeaning or abusive comments,” under threat of cancellation of the contract.

It is estimated that the organization of this year’s championship cost the state $229 billion, or about a trillion zlotys. This makes the World Cup in Qatar the most expensive such event in history.