Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Postcard from Doha: blockaders, bovines and billions

I stopped over in Qatar recently, coinciding with the first anniversary of the blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, intended to punish Qatar for flouting Saudi ambitions.  A year on, the blockade shows no signs of ending. The Saudis continue to make mischief, hinting they might turn Qatar into an island by digging a wide canal between the two countries, or suggesting that Qatar could lose the 2022 soccer world cup because it (out?)bribed other contenders.

For the blockaders, though, the reality is they’ve helped both Qatar’s economic diversification and an improvement in its woeful human rights record. If Qataris are troubled by what amounts to a family spat between very rich relatives it doesn’t show.

Doha’s English-language newspapers evinced a spirit of Churchillian doggedness. The Twitterati, according to the Qatar Tribune, hailed Qatar’s resilience in seeing off a conspiracy aimed at usurping its wealth, compromising its sovereignty and denying it the right to host the 2022 World Cup. The Gulf Times, published by a former deputy prime minister and head of the royal court, commented that the blockaders had tried every trick in the book, “threats, abuse, vitriol, bullying, fake news, unfounded charges, propaganda …even black magic [and] failed miserably in their actions”.  
Not surprisingly in a highly authoritarian state, Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, gets most of the credit for all this. His dashing Omar Sharif-like image accompanied by the slogan, Tamim the Glorious, appears everywhere—on cars, trucks and buses, on buildings, constructions sites, shops, restaurant, T-shirts and posters.

Being in charge of the world’s richest country has been a big help. Qatar’s abundance of natural gas and oil generates an average annual per capita income of around $170,000. That figure masks the great disparity between mega-rich Qataris, who make up only 15 per cent of a male-heavy population of 2.6 million, and the rest—mainly Indians, Nepalese, other Arabs, Filipinos, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans, working in hotels, restaurants, transportation, tourism, construction and as domestic staff. Tens of thousands labour on projects driven by the 2022 World Cup.
In the first months of the blockade, Qatar burned through some $50 billion to ensure supplies of basic commodities which arrived by air rather than the traditional land and sea routes from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. According to the International Monetary Fund, economic activity was affected but this was “mostly transitory and new trade routes were quickly established”, with the financial system remaining sound. The World Bank forecasts economic growth this year close to three per cent, compared to two per cent in 2017. 
Ironically, the blockade prompted Qatar to become self-sufficient in milk products, essential for many of its foreign workers. A farm outside Doha, established in 2013 to rear sheep, has been transformed into a major dairy. By the end of 2018 it may have as many as 20,000 cows, landed by air and sea from around the globe, including Australia. As well as daily necessities the cows provide fun for headline writers, witness “Milk Sheikhs” or “Land of Milk and Money” though I’m still waiting for “Blockade an Udder Failure”.
FIFA’s 2011 selection of Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup, for which Australia competed and managed just one vote, remains stained by accusations of serious bribery and, at least until recently, the degrading and dangerous conditions for foreign workers on the eight massive stadiums in or near Doha and a state-of-the-art road and rail network which will link them.
In 2013, the former ACTU President and current General Secretary of the International Confederation of Trade Unions, Sharan Burrow, described the workers as “basically slaves”, adding that if two years on from the awarding of the cup the Qatari Government had not done the fundamentals it had “no commitment to human rights”. Such criticism, and the risk of losing the cup, finally stung Qatari officials into action. In late 2017 the Qatari government guaranteed these workers a minimum annual wage of about $3,200.

Ms Burrow said earlier this year she had no doubt that Qatar was now committed to reform and was on its way to becoming a model for other Gulf States. The end of the “kafala” system, which gives sponsors great power, would she said, “free two million migrant workers” and promote “a mature industrial relations structure”.  In late April, the International Labor Organisation opened an office in Doha to oversee the changes.  
Qatar was hardly a household name in soccer circles until its controversial selection, though Qatar Sports Investment’s 2011 purchase of Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) made that club the richest in the world. PSG demonstrated the benefit of a wealthy Gulf connection in 2017 when it bought the services of Brazilian super-star, Neymar, for a mere $340 million.

If money talks, the amount Qatar is spending on the World Cup positively screams. Currently it’s about $660 million a week, with the final tally expected at more than $260 billion. That should buy a fair degree of comfort for the anticipated 1 million plus fans who’ll make the journey, though those expecting to rub shoulders with Qataris may be disappointed. The only ones they’re certain to encounter are immigration and customs officials, the latter courteously relieving them of any alcohol they’re carrying. (I speak from personal experience!)
Islamic Qatar is seriously dry, with a strict ban on public consumption of alcohol and a very dim view of public drunkenness. This does not seem a natural fit with soccer fans. With Budweiser a World Cup sponsor it’s no surprise that senior FIFA officials declared that alcoholic drinks are part of the cup and “we're going to have them”. Falling into line, as Brazil was forced to do for the 2014 cup, Qatar will temporarily allow soccer fans to buy and drink beer at the stadiums. (Some of which will be dismantled after the cup and shipped to poor soccer-playing countries.)   

Still, fans shouldn’t relax too much. Homosexuality remains illegal, and punishable by death if the offenders happen to be Muslim men (though Qatar has not executed anyone since 2003). Disgraced former FIFA President Sepp Blatter advised homosexual soccer fans to visit Qatar in 2022 “only for the football”. Understandably, that comment didn’t go over well with gay right activists, but he may have had a point.

First published by Pearls and Irritations, 28 June 2018

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