What about us? Qataris demand their rights ahead of World Cup

Migrant workers have dominated the human rights discourse around Qatar, but frustrated locals say it’s time for their issues to come to the fore, Sebastian Castelier and David Harding report

Wednesday 01 December 2021 18:49
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<p>A football goal at a beach in front of the skyline of Doha, Qatar</p>

A football goal at a beach in front of the skyline of Doha, Qatar

It is 11 years since Sepp Blatter opened a plain envelope, pulled out a small, white card and revealed which country would host the 2022 football World Cup.

Since that day – 2 December 2010 – the little-known Gulf state of Qatar has been thrust into a relentless spotlight of scrutiny, which shows little sign of dimming. It has been globally vilified for its human rights record and become almost a byword for migrant workers’ abuse over its treatment of those preparing the country for next year’s tournament.

The issue of human rights in Qatar has become a well-told story: workers badly paid or not paid at all; unable to change jobs or leave the country without the permission of bosses; passports illegally taken away; long hours worked in intolerable heat far from home; housed in poor accommodation; domestic staff abused – through to those who have paid the ultimate price and lost their lives as the country undergoes the greatest ever transformation of any World Cup host nation.

Qatar says it has responded to international criticism and made fundamental reforms, including the introduction of a minimum wage and scrapping its controversial “kafala”sponsorship system.

But although the discussion of human rights, or lack of them, is a constant when it comes to Qatar, it is largely told through one prism, foreign workers. That, however, could be about to change.

“It is all about labour rights, but what makes you think that Qataris have rights?” Ahmed*, a local Qatari citizen, asks angrily.

He is not alone in voicing frustration over the limited terms of the debate.

“For so many years, people have been voicing their opinions and all they do is shut us up,” Noora, another local, tells The Independent. “There’s a focus on other things, like the World Cup, but what about our rights?”

The concerns of locals had been voiced by some brave individuals before Qatar won the right to host the World Cup, and addressed intermittently by international rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. They have highlighted concerns over women’s rights and a lack of freedom of expression, among other things.

In recent weeks, The Independent reported on the fears of local LGBT+ people over the everyday discrimination they face.

They simply do not care. The World Cup is more important than us

Fahad, a Qatari

There have also been several high profile cases raising rights fears, including that of Noof al-Maadeed, a 23-year-old who escaped Qatar and sought asylum in the UK at the end of 2019, after saying she had been abused.

She returned home earlier this year after assurances over her safety, but promptly disappeared after returning to Doha. Rights’ groups believe she is being held in some form of detention.

Qatar’s government was contacted regarding the issues in this article, but The Independent received no reply.

However the focus on reform still remains largely on foreign workers. Those who have championed the World Cup being held in the Middle East for the first time have said that it has helped drive change, which would not have been possible otherwise.

What is more unexpected though is that disgruntled Qataris are now using the approaching tournament to demand better conditions for themselves.

“It [the World Cup] is a driving force to encourage people to speak out, to voice their concerns,” says Aysha, a Qatari. “We have seen how international pressure can make certain institutions in the country move and take action to work on some of the problems.”

It has been more than a decade since FIFA revealed Qatar would host the 2022 World Cup

This not only includes voicing concerns over the suffocating guardianship rule, which can prevent women from travelling or working abroad without male approval, but a myriad of issues, from women’s rights generally, the ability to dress according to choice not custom, LGBT+ rights, salaries, concerns over pensions, the funding of services such as health, or even cross-national marriage.

“I just want to get married to the man I love and to be myself,” Alanoud told The Independent, from her home in Doha. “He is black African, I am Qatari, we are Muslims, and yet the chance for our union to be approved is negligible.”

All Qataris are requested to apply to a state marriage committee in order to marry a foreign national. Some cross-national marriages do happen, however. One Qatari woman out of thirty who tied the knot in 2020 wed a foreigner, but less than 1 per cent of unions involved a non-Arab man.

Alanoud fears the only option for her to live the life she wants is to move abroad.

“That makes me sad, but I am in my thirties already, when am I going to start to live? I cannot wait 10 years more,” she adds.

“I love Qatar from the bottom of my heart, but some areas need to be improved. Am I less Qatari because I do not like to wear hijab, because I have tattoos, or want to marry a non-Qatari man? That makes me different, but I still deserve to be respected.”

The impact of social media has helped give a voice to many in Qatar, especially when it comes to women’s rights.

“People have been very vocal and continue to be on social media. It is their only platform, their only gateway,” adds Aysha.

Noora adds that the use of platforms such as Twitter points to an enthusiasm among young Qataris to challenge the authorities online, but criticism of the powers that be is not limited to certain age groups. During the height of concern over the disappearance of Noof al-Maadeed, “Arab mothers” were also vocal, she claims, as it reflected the abuse they had suffered, in some cases, as well.

She also highlights the desire of young women to dress differently; women in Qatar traditionally wear long-sleeved, floor-length black abayas, despite many wanting to be more creative.

Women are pictured outside a traditional Qatari building in Doha

“Qatari women love wearing coloured abayas, but people have a problem with that, saying it is not Islamic,” Noora says.

Haya, who belongs to Qatar’s royal family, says: “We are still men’s property under the law. Women never become an adult in Qatar, we are always under the patronage of a man.”

She adds: “I love our Emir, but is he doing a good job for women? No. Why? Because he is aware that it would cause a civil war. Many men are still misogynistic here.”

Calling for change brings dangers. Those arguing for reform are viewed by Qatari conservatives with suspicion: responsible for diluting the country’s traditional, Islamic identity to suit the international community.

Reforms will not happen without a fight, believes another Qatari, Abdullah. He refers to the example set by Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul.

“Saudi women are not silent, they fight. Female activists are ready to be imprisoned and have their life messed up for a purpose... Qataris have been brought up from a young age not to oppose the state, to be cowards, to keep quiet in exchange for a good material life,” he says.

Women argue that the tight-knit nature of the tiny Qatari society limits their ability to demand for reforms as “everyone knows everyone”.

Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, says there is a “sort of implicit agreement” between the ruling family and society. “Authorities have essentially handed power to men to control their women, which means the state makes sure that laws and policies do not allow women to make decisions on their own,” she says.

Qatar held its first legislative elections in October and, though critics point to the limited advisory nature of the Shura Council, Abdullah says he believes the council will “open a new door” of freedom of speech.

“At least it will teach people that their voice matters,” he says hopefully.

Increasing concern over the way they are treated could inevitably lead Qataris into confrontation with their rulers. Qatar is an absolute monarchy ruled by the powerful al-Thani family since its founding in the mid-19th century, and since independence from British rule 50 years ago.

Criticism of the ruling family is extremely rare, but in some places it has surfaced. This was noticeable over voting arrangements for the recent Shura Council elections. But dissent of the prevailing political system is not encouraged, at least publicly, and those The Independent spoke to say they are very aware of the risk to their own security by voicing any criticism, however mild. Some deliberately kept away from social media for the same reason.

But it is clear that are some are brave enough to express their unhappiness.

“Hosting the World Cup is like throwing salt on a wound, because our leadership does not care about us, only how the world thinks of us,” says Ahmed. “A lot of people here despise the current ruling family, in their current iteration.”

Fellow Qatari, Fahad agrees: “They simply do not care. The World Cup is more important than us.”

* All names have been changed

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