Embattled World Cup host Qatar is sending contradictory messages as it struggles with demands to improve migrant labour conditions and mounting questions about the integrity of its successful FIFA bid, confronts the fall-out of dropping energy prices, and seeks to project itself as both a key Western ally and a useful conduit to more militant Islamist forces.
In an uncharacteristic gesture of openness and transparency aimed at both influencing Qatari public opinion and projecting sincerity globally, the mother of Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, recently opened Bin Jelmood House, a museum that charts slavery throughout history.
The museum, against the backdrop of denunciations by international labour and human rights groups of Qatar's kafala or labour sponsorship system that puts employees at the mercy of their employers, situates the Gulf state's labour regime in the context of forced labour. "Many construction workers in rapidly industrializing parts of the world, especially the Gulf region, are considered to be contractually enslaved," says one of the museum's explanatory texts in a section dedicated to modern slavery.
The positioning of Qatari labour conditions as enslavement takes on added significance given that foreigners account for 88 percent of the Qatari population and 94 percent of its labour force. It also takes on widespread Qatari opposition to fundamental reform, if not abolishment, of the kafala system driven by a fear that any granting of rights to non-Qataris will ultimately lead to Qataris losing control of their society, culture and state.
Qatari attitudes towards the World Cup and resulting pressure for labour reform are largely coloured by fear, irritation with widespread hostility towards the Gulf state, and attitudes towards globalization that bring with it greater external influences and a need for societal and cultural openness.
If the creation of the museum was intended to spark domestic debate that ultimately could give Sheikh Tamim greater flexibility to reform or end the kafala system and send a message of intent to foreign critics, Qatar's responses to international criticism have projected a very different image.
Qatar last month adopted a new law that was seen by human rights and labour activists as putting a friendly face on an onerous system rather than radically reforming a legal framework that they have dubbed modern slavery.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO), in response to the law, is considering launching an inquiry into abuse of migrant workers in Qatar. Adding insult to injury, Qatar's main rival in the Gulf, the United Arab Emirates, has adopted the very reforms of its kafala system that Qatar has promised since winning the World Cup bid five years ago.
All of this is not to say that Qatar is a lost case, but illustrative of the multiple pressures the Gulf state is balancing and has done so poorly. The awarding of the World Cup and the associated criticism of Qatar has however not been wholly without effect even if the Gulf state's responses are often too little, too late.
Conditions for workers on World Cup-related projects rather than broader infrastructure projects that were planned independent of the tournament have improved dramatically as a result of workers' standards adopted by several Qatari institutions, including the 2022 Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy. The problem is that those standards have yet to be incorporated in legally binding national law.
The government moreover seems keen to improve material conditions of workers without tinkering fundamentally with onerous aspects of kafala involving restrictions on freedom of movement and travel and the right to change employment. In a bid to demonstrate sincerity, Qatar earlier this month opened the first phase of a city for 70,000 workers, the first of seven such facilities, that constitutes a significant improvement on current living and working conditions.
Qatari susceptibility to pressure was nonetheless recently highlighted by Qatar Airway's cave-in to demands by the ILO and trade unions that it remove from its contracts bans on getting married and becoming pregnant. Bloomberg reported that the company has also endorsed discussions about the lifting of night-time curfews and restrictions on public conduct.
The timing of debate in Qatar about far-reaching labour reform could not be worse. It comes as the country's social contract in which citizens are offered a cradle-to-grave welfare state buffeted by an absence of income and sales taxes and generous subsidies for energy, utilities and food in exchange for acceptance of absolute rule is being called into question. Driving the fraying of the social contract are lower global energy prices and the need to rationalize and diversify the country's economy.
Sheikh Tamim warned early this month that the state could no longer "provide for everything." He bemoaned the fact that subsidies and benefits had reduced the "motivation of individuals to take initiatives and be progressive." Anticipating Qatar's first budget deficit in 15 years, Sheikh Tamim stressed that the government's new budget would aim to root out corruption, eliminate wasteful spending, and streamline the country's bloated bureaucracy.
A senior development and planning official, Saleh bin Mohammed Al Nabit, said it was "urgent" for Qatar to gain new sources of revenue through taxation and rationalization of subsidies and government support programs.
Qatar's inability to counter mounting international criticism and questions about the integrity of its World Cup bid also casts a shadow over Sheikh Tamim's willingness or ability to radically reform labour laws. Already facing a Swiss legal inquiry into its bid and potential questioning by the US Department of Justice, Qatar, in the latest twist has been linked to alleged bribery in Germany's successful bid for the 2006 World Cup.
Critics charge that rather than being transparent about its bid, Qatar is seeking to dominate, if not hijack the debate about integrity of sport through its largely state-funded International Center for Sport Security (ICSS). ICSS's credibility has been called into question by its refusal to investigate or comment on the Qatari bid and the way some of its senior executives were hired.
Qatar furthermore did itself no favours by recently hosting and giving a platform to a Saudi imam, Aidh Abdullah al-Qarni, who glorified Palestinian attacks on Israelis. Critics have accused Qatar of maintaining ties to militants Islamists and jihadists even if those relationships have at times benefitted Western nations and offer a needed back channel.
Qatar's public association with militant Islamists amounts to one more nail in a coffin at a time that the country's credibility is in question on multiple fronts, economics is forcing it to rethink one of the pillars on which the Al Thani regime is built, and widespread international criticism puts many Qataris on the defensive.
Qatar bets on the fact that its natural resource wealth will secure its position in the world. That could prove to be a risky proposition without Qatar doing more than simply signalling intent through gestures like the slavery museum.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg's Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.