As the FIFA World Cup kicks off in Qatar, here is an overview of this Middle Eastern emirate: history, economy, political power and controversies around the World Cup.
- Qatar is a country located in the Arabian Peninsula. Its area is 11,500 km².
- It has 2.6 million inhabitants, three-quarters of whom live in the capital Doha. Qataris represent only 10 to 15% of the population. The rest are immigrants.
- Islam is the main religion: it has the title of state religion. As in Saudi Arabia, Wahabism is the dominant variant of Islam, generally considered more fundamental and conservative.
- Qatar is a former British colony that gained independence in 1971.
- The economy is essentially based on gas. The country has the world’s second largest reserves of natural gas.
Population: some Qataris and many immigrants
Nearly 90% of the population is made up of immigrants, mainly from South Asia, but also from East Africa.
The majority of these migrant workers are single men who work in sectors such as construction, hospitality and security.
Women migrating to Qatar often come there for housekeeping and childcare jobs.
Pete Pattisson is a British journalist who has investigated the treatment of low-wage workers in the country. “Qatar is a very hierarchical, stratified society“, he explained to Euronews. “People from South Asia and East Africa are at the very bottom of the scale. These people essentially live parallel lives to everyone else in Qatar, especially Westerners commonly referred to as ‘expats’ (‘expatriates’).”
In a report in 2020, the UN said “serious concerns about structural racism and discrimination against non-nationals“, noting that”a de facto caste system” exists in the country.
History: from British tutelage to the power of the al-Thani
Before gaining independence in 1971, the tiny Gulf state was a protectorate of Britain, with London controlling its foreign affairs and ensuring its security.
Unlike other former colonies, Allen James Fromherz, author of Qatar: Rise to Power and Influencestates that “there was no real pressure [de la part des dirigeants du Qatar] for the British to leave… [ils] valued their military protection“.
The independence of the emirate was proclaimed on September 3, 1971. At its head, Ahmad bin Ali al-Thani, then 51 years old. He is a member of the al-Thani dynasty, which has dominated Qatar since the 19th century.
His cousin Khalifa ben Hamad al-Thani overthrew him a few months later, in February 1972, to take his place. He reigned for about twenty years, before being in turn deposed by his son Hamad ben Khalifa al-Thani on June 27, 1995.
Hamad ruled (and modernized) the country for two decades before abdicating in favor of his son Tamim in 2013. Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani is now 42 years old.
The Emir of Qatar personally appoints the ministers – usually members of his family – and one third of the Council of the Shura, a legislative council, the others being elected.
Although many consultations take place behind closed doors, power is largely in the hands of the emir, who ultimately controls political decisions, law-making and the judiciary.
Political parties are prohibited.
“The problem [au Qatar]”, explains Rothna Begum, researcher at Human Rights Watch, “is that their laws limit freedom of expression, association and assembly… which makes it really difficult for anyone who wants to do work on women’s rights or anything like that“.
Freedom House, an NGO that monitors political rights and civil liberties, classifies Qatar as “not free”.
Petrodollars and soft power
Qatar is the third richest country in the world, measured by GDP per capita.
This wealth is largely due to the vast reserves of oil and gas.
World leader in the market for liquefied natural gas, Qatar has seen its economic position strengthened by the war in Ukraine and sanctions against Russia (another major gas producer). This is what Allen James Fromherz points out.
“Together with the United States, Qatar is one of the world’s main suppliers and an alternative to Russia“, he told Euronews. “He has positioned himself strategically with regard to Europe, which must ensure that gas and oil continue to circulate“.
But the power of Qatar goes beyond this purely economic dimension.
The emirate has made a name for itself on the world media map through “its” television channel, AlJazeeralaunched in 1996.
“Qatar wields enormous soft-power clout, more than any other nation in the entire region“says Allen James Fromherz.
Unlike “hard power”, which consists of using force to achieve one’s ends, “soft power” is the ability to influence others through culture and values.
Hosting the World Cup is part of this soft power. By winning the organization of this competition, the emirate has become the first country in the Middle East to host this event.
“Qatar is trying to portray itself to the world as a serious international player“, explains Rothna Begum, of Human Rights Watch.
Global and controversies
Obtaining the 2022 World Cup is seen as a great opportunity for the country. But this global spotlight does not only have positive aspects.
The treatment of workers
According to investigative journalist Pete Pattisson, some 30,000 workers have been brought to Qatar to build the stadiums and infrastructure needed for the World Cup. According to him, the situation of emigrants in Qatar was already catastrophic before the awarding of the competition.
“The World Cup only made matters worse as it left more people vulnerable to abuse“, he comments.
The low wages, dangerous working conditions, forced labor, confiscation of passports, as well as the large number of unexplained deaths have all been widely documented by human rights organizations and journalists in Qatar, which Pete Pattisson called the “human tragedy“behind the World Cup.
At the base of all this, explains Pete Pattisson, there is the system of kafala. It is a form of sponsorship, legal, prohibiting workers from changing jobs without the authorization of their employer.
“If you can’t change jobs, then there’s no incentive for the employer to take care of you“, he said. “You have a controlled workforce“.
Until recently, there was no minimum wage in Qatar.
In response to these claims, the Qatari authorities have abolished the kafala system and introduced a minimum wage (equivalent to £1 per hour), although critics say the rules are not enforced.
The organizers have promised to make this tournament a carbon neutral event, but it is shaping up to be much more harmful to the climate than expected.
“We are committed to ensuring a completely carbon-neutral football World Cup. We will achieve this by measuring, reducing and offsetting all greenhouse gas emissions associated with the tournament“, promised Hassan Al-Thawadi, the secretary general of the Organizing Committee of the World Cup.
This commitment, however, struggles to convince and personalities have announced that they want to boycott the World Cup because of its ecological and human balance sheet. Former Manchester United star Eric Cantona has denounced a “ecological aberration, with all these air-conditioned stadiums” as well as a “human horror“, while several major French cities have given up installing giant screens to broadcast matches.
The promise of carbon neutrality is “window dressing“, judge Julien Jreissati, program director for Greenpeace in the Middle East. This “is not a response to the climate emergency and can be considered greenwashing/sportswashing“, according to him.
According to a report commissioned by Fifa, the competition is expected to generate 3.6 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, compared to 2.1 million during the previous edition in Russia in 2018. The vast majority (95%) comes from indirect emissions, linked mainly to transport, infrastructure construction and housing.
The reception of members of the LGBT + community will also be scrutinized in this conservative Muslim state where the legislation criminalizes sexual relations between people of the same sex.
“During the World Cup, a lot of things will happen here in the country. Let’s talk about gays (…). The most important thing is that everyone will accept that they come here but they will have to accept our rules“, former Qatari international, in charge of the promotion of the World Cup, Khalid Salman, recently declared during an interview with the German public channel ZDF. Homosexuality, “it’s ‘haram’ (“illicit”, editor’s note) because it’s mental damage“, added the 60-year-old man, before being interrupted by a press officer.
He then “regretted“that his purpose was”taken out of context“, but felt that the conservative culture of Qatar “will not change for the competition“.
Qatar assures that all supporters will be welcomed”without discrimination“during the competition.
The governing body of world football, Fifa, reaffirms for its part that the rainbow flags, symbols of the LGBT + community, are authorized in the stadiums.
Doha denounces “slander”
A month before the start of the competition, the Emir of Qatar blasted a campaign “unprecedented“against the organization of the Football World Cup.
In a speech to the Legislative Council in Doha on October 25, he publicly and bluntly expressed his dissatisfaction with the criticism, denouncing “calumnies“.
“Since we had the honor of hosting the World Cup, Qatar has been the target of an unprecedented campaign that no other host country has suffered“, did he declare.
“Initially, we treated [les sujets de critiques] in good faith, and we even considered some reviews to be positive and helpful, helping us develop aspects that needed to be“, conceded the emir.
“But it soon became clear to us that the campaign persists, expands, there is slander and double standards, reaching a level of relentlessness that has left many people wondering, sadly, about the real reasons and motivations of this campaign“, he lambasted.
Fifa leader Gianni Infantinodefends Qatar, repeating that the World Cup would be “the best of all time, on and off the pitch“.
The competition will run from November 20 to December 18.