The issue of human rights in Qatar has become a well-told story: migrant 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 of work in intolerable heat far from home; housed in poor accommodation; domestic staff abused.
And some migrant workers paid the ultimate price, dying at the prime of their life while preparing the country for next year’s 2022 football World Cup tournament.
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.
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.”
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.
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.” (Source: Independent UK)
* All names have been changed