PETER RODGERS: Postcard from Doha: blockaders, bovines and billions

A year on, the Saudi-led boycott of Qatar appears stymied by the latter’s capacity to buy its way out of trouble. Qatar’s extravagant spending on the 2022 FIFA World Cup would make many a national treasurer weep.    

I stopped over in Qatar recently, my visit coinciding with the first anniversary of the blockade imposed on that small, energy-rich state by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt. The blockade, intended to punish Qatar for undermining Saudi dreams of regional hegemony, shows no signs of ending. The Saudis continue to make mischief, threatening to attack Qatar if it buys an air defence system from Russia, hinting that they might turn Qatar into an island by digging a wide canal between the two countries and speculating that Qatar could still lose the 2022 soccer World Cup.

For the blockaders the reality is that they’ve prompted both Qatar’s economic diversification and some 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 defiance. 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 World Cup. The Gulf Times, published by a former deputy prime minister and head of the royal court, commented that the blockaders 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 leader, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, gets most of the credit. Post-blockade, 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.

Ruling the world’s richest country has clearly helped the Sheikh. Qatar’s abundance of natural gas and oil generates an average annual per capita income of around $170,000. That figure, though, 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, education, tourism, construction and as domestic staff. Tens of thousands labour on projects driven by the World Cup.

In the first months of the blockade Qatar burned through some $50 billion to ensure supplies of basic commodities, forced to arrive 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 in 2018 at close to three per cent, compared to just on two per cent in the previous two years.

Bizarrely, the blockade has prompted Qatar—a country of desert and more desert, Doha’s average annual rainfall is 75mm—to become self-sufficient in milk products, a staple for many foreign workers. A farm outside Doha has been transformed into a major dairying operation managed by an Irishman. By the end of 2018 it could have up to 20,000 cows, landed by air and sea from around the globe, including Australia. The cows provide both milk and inspiration for headline writers: witness, “Milk Sheikhs” or “Land of Milk and Money”, though I’m still waiting for “Blockade an Udder Failure”.

FIFA’s late 2010 election of Qatar as host of the 2022 World Cup, for which Australia competed and bore the ignominy of attracting only its own vote, remains stained by accusations of serious bribery and, at least until recently, the degrading and dangerous conditions for foreign workers. By the end of this year 40,000 of them could be toiling on eight massive stadiums in or near Doha, linked by a state-of-the-art road and rail network. Worker deaths are a subject of ongoing controversy, with the current total put at between 1200 to 1800.

In 2013, the former ACTU President and current General Secretary of the International Confederation of Trade Unions, Sharan Burrow, described contract workers as “basically slaves”. If two years on from the awarding of the cup Qatar had not done the fundamentals, she said, it had “no commitment to human rights”.

Such criticism, and the possibility of losing the cup, appears finally to have stung Qatar into action. In late 2017, the government guaranteed construction workers a minimum wage of about $3,200 a year. Regulations on working hours during the summer—the average maximum daily temperature in July is 43 degrees C—are also being enforced.

Human rights advocates remain sceptical, some claiming that the number of construction worker deaths could reach 4,000 by 2022. But Ms Burrow said earlier this year she had no doubt that Qatar was now committed to reform and on its way to becoming a model for other Gulf States. In April 2018, 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 for the World Cup, though Qatar Sports Investment’s subsequent 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!)

Muslim 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 nations.)

Still, fans will need to watch their behaviour. 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 rights activists, but he may have had a point.

Peter Rodgers is a former Australian diplomat with two postings in the Middle East.

 

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