Middle East

Qataris reel at global 'witch hunt'

A demonstrator holds a placard critical of Qatar's policies regarding the working conditions of migrant workers Image copyright AFP
Image caption Qatar's policies regarding the working conditions of migrant workers has been criticised

Just a few decades before becoming rich in oil and gas and winning the right to host the 2022 World Cup, close-knit Bedouin families would farm, fish and dive for pearls in a world away from the TV cameras.

Now, Qataris are bemused and upset by the sudden wave of criticism.

One Doha-based analyst said that even senior figures feel "ganged up on", despite enjoying great wealth and stature in the booming state.

In public, government ministers appear to have now concluded that the relentless focus on Fifa-related corruption allegations and the human rights abuses endured by some of Qatar's hundreds of thousands of South Asian workers can only be interpreted as attacks on the reputation of their tiny country.

Yet, as one Qatari in his 30s pointed out to me, there is a far more positive, under-reported development taking place: the effect of social media.

He gave the example of young Qataris on Twitter, who he said had helped highlight the plight of Nepalese workers in Qatar who wanted to join relief efforts back home after the recent earthquakes.

As a result, he said, even more companies donated to their cause and were persuaded to let employees fly to Nepal.

But it is not just foreigners who stand to benefit from an active media industry.

Pressure for change

One internationally educated, middle-class Qatari, who asked not to be named and works for a construction company, told me he would welcome any media attention that would improve his working conditions.

He explained that he and other Qataris, along with expats, including low-skilled migrant workers, also could not leave an employer without their agreement.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Qatar was chosen to host the 2022 World Cup, back in December 2010

He said media pressure for a change in the practice could help strengthen the jobs market, because seeking permission was time-consuming and it could be rejected for political reasons or simply because of a poor employer.

But at the moment, that pressure is unlikely to come from inside Qatar, as it does not have a culture of independent, local, robust journalism.

A licence to publish is needed for newspapers and magazines, which local journalists believe can be withdrawn quite quickly, so they are likely to proceed with a high degree of caution in what they print.

Also, print proprietors, who are part of a small, tight-knit business and political community, typically avoid criticism of other companies or officials in their publications.

There is also a tightly controlled permissions system for TV crews and generally a suspicion of foreign journalists, as we experienced last month.

In a few months' time, Doha will host one of the world's most high-profile global media summits, which will focus on how to ensure a free press thrives.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The Al-Wakra Stadium is being built for the 2022 World Cup

Perhaps it may change attitudes within the country by the time of the World Cup.

Qatar's leaders still relish the attention hosting football's most prestigious tournament will afford them.

Qatar's World Cup stadia:

Al-Gharafa Stadium, Al-Rayyan: capacity: 21,282 - Major renovation to increase capacity to 44,740

Al-Khor Stadium, Al-Khor: capacity: 45,330 - To be built

Al-Rayyan Stadium, Al-Rayyan: capacity: 21,282 - Major renovation to increase capacity to 44,740

Al-Shamal Stadium, Ash-Shamal: capacity: 45,120 - To be built

Al-Wakrah Stadium, Al-Wakrah: capacity: 45,120 - To be built

Doha Port Stadium, Doha: capacity: 44,950- To be built

Education city stadium, Al-Rayyan: capacity: 45,350- To be built

Khalifa International stadium, Al-Rayyan: capacity: 50,000 - Major renovation to increase capacity to 68,030

Lusail Iconic Stadium, Al-Daayen, capacity: 86,250 - To be built

Qatar University Stadium, Doha: capacity: 43,520 - To be built

Sports City stadium, Doha: capacity: 47,560 - To be built

Umm Slal Stadium, Umm Slal: capacity: 45,120 - To be built

Not least the chance to display Arab culture and hospitality, as well as using it as a springboard for Qatar's wider business interests, such as tourism, finance and tens of billions of dollars of infrastructure projects.

Many Qataris already delight in the knowledge that, by kicking off the tournament in November, rather than June, they have set a precedent for the tournament to fit in better with the hotter climes of Middle Eastern and African countries.

But right now, many in Qatar don't feel joyous.

One expat who lives in Doha, who has no interest in football, said coverage of the Fifa scandal still felt like "a witch hunt" against Qatar, despite corruption allegations relating to many other countries.

Residents of Qatar quoted in this piece were interviewed by telephone and all asked not to be named.

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