‘People in Qatar are very proud of their culture’, said David Beckham, as he toured the beautiful scenery of the country, from picnicking in the desert to tasting food in the local markets. He continues, ‘imagine if tradition fused to make something truly special… I cannot wait to bring my children back here’.
Beckham’s comments form part of a deal estimated to be worth 150 million pounds to advertise the country in the runup to the World Cup, which Qatar will host from its kick-off on the 20th of November this year. An estimated 1.2 million people, 40% of Qatar’s existing population size, will visit the country, offering significant financial opportunity to the population and its government.
It is no surprise that Beckham has encountered steep criticism for his comments. From laws that bar women from basic rights such as to act as their children’s guardian in the event of divorce, to the thousands of deaths in the country’s essential migrant labour force, to the legal threat of imprisonment for LGBT individuals living in Qatar, Beckham’s admiration for the country’s ‘tradition’ is troubling.
The attention brought to Qatar through their hosting of the World Cup could be used either to finance the authorities’ pockets or to highlight the following groups’ struggles:
In Qatar, ‘Girls are constantly in quarantine’, reported one woman interviewed as part of the report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in 2021. ‘I was only allowed to go to school and back. Anything else and I can expect a beating’, said Noof Al Madeed, a female interviewee who fled Qatar after years of domestic abuse.
Such testimonies are emblematic of a country that places women as second-rate citizens. Women under the age of 25 operate on a guardianship system, in which they must seek the permission of a man before being allowed to pursue an education, travel, work, or even access reproductive healthcare.
No legal recourse is offered for the country’s many female sexual assault victims, for whom speaking up could result in the accusation of extra-marital sex, and, if they are Muslim, the possibility of a public flogging.
Other interviewees in the HRW’s report testify to the ambiguity of the law regarding women, kept in such a state by the government so as to encourage blanket obedience to men. In order to avoid condemnation, these policies are often kept unofficial, with many government HR departments requiring a letter from a man for a woman to get a job, despite this not being written into the regulations.
The Qatar government policy regarding LGBTQ visitors to the country appears ambiguous; while the Qatari government is seeking to assure LGBT fans that the will be welcome, in only April 2022 Major General Abdulaziz Abdullah Al Ansariannounced that visitors may have their rainbow flags confiscated ‘for their protection’.
More concerning, however, is the government’s approach to its own LGBTQ population. The country’s 2004 Penal Code criminalises same-sex relations, labelling it ‘sodomy’ and threatening a penalty of up to seven years in prison. Alongside this is the country’s use of Sharia Law, which threatens the death penalty for same-sex relations.
While limited reportage makes evidence of the enforcement of these laws appear sporadic, some examples do come through.
For example, a study conducted by Human Rights Watch (HRW) found numerous interviewees alleging that the government arrested people based on their online activity. The broad exemptions in data protection laws give the Qatar government the ability to do so.
In another example, in 2014 a man called Mohammed was arrested, imprisoned for weeks, and had his phone searched following allegations that he was involved in same-sex relations. Authorities unsuccessfully sought to track down the man he was messaging. Mohammed told HRW that he now seeks to dress in a masculine style in order to avoid drawing attention to his own sexuality. Such a climate and fear of self-expression may explain the low number of visible examples of arrests of LGBTQ people.
Beauty comes at a price, and for Qatar’s workers, the price for this city’s beautiful architecture is high.
In 2021, the Guardian revealed that over 6,500 migrant workers had died in Qatar following the announcement in 2010 that the country would hold the World Cup.
This figure comes alongside the country’s extensive building programme from the past years, including a new airport, roads, public transport, and even a new city. According to Nick McGeehan, a director at FairSquare Projects, ‘A very significant proportion of the migrant workers who have died since 2011 were only in the country because Qatar won the right to host the World Cup’.
A number of safety risks for workers have been left unaccounted for – for example, the UN’s International Labour Organization revealed in 2019 that for at least four months of the year workers encountered significant heat stress when working outside in Qatar.
Moreover, Qatar’s domestic workers continue to be mistreated. A report from Amnesty International found in 2020 that of the 105 domestic workers it interviewed, 90 reported regularly working over 14 hours a day, 89 regularly worked 7 days a week, and 87 had their passports confiscated by their employers.
Workers report being issued death threats by their employers, being spat on, beaten, kicked, sexually harassed and raped. In a country that is so determined to regulate sexual behaviour that it punishes rape victims for extra-marital sex, little is being done to prevent the sexual exploitation of these domestic workers by their employers.
Overall, exploitation and abuse are part and parcel of Qatar’s system of governance. Despite this, significant international collaboration in advertising and generating funding for Qatar in the leadup to the World Cup continues to take place. This is often done by the same individuals who champion social justice at home.
While no country can make an honest claim to moral perfection, Qatar’s mistreatment of its women, LGBTQ communities and workers is pronounced. Skating around these issues does nothing to solve them.
Fortunately, organisations and individuals around the world have not been silent. For example, Lucy Powell, Labour’s shadow culture secretary, spoke out to the Mail on Sunday against the deaths of construction workers and criminalization of sexuality in Qatar. Similarly, Sir Keir Starmer pledged to watch from the sofa at home rather than attend in person.
Qatar’s stance on these issues is troubling. However, the much-needed global attention that the World Cup will bring offers some hope for change.
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