By James M. Dorsey
Qatar, in a bid to fend off an international trade union campaign against its hosting of the 2022 World Cup, is taking cautious steps to meet demands backed by world soccer body FIFA, to allow the establishment of the emirate’s first trade union and to scrap its controversial system of sponsorship of foreign labour condemned by human rights groups as modern day slavery.
The Qatari concessions come as the Gulf state in which foreigners account for a majority of the population envisions recruiting up to one million overseas workers for massive infrastructure projects. The projects will all benefit the World Cup but many, including a new airport, expansion of the transport system and hotel and residential compounds were on the drawing board irrespective of the sports tournament.
The Qatari decision increases pressure on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the two members of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that still ban unions to follow suit. Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait have all legalized trade unions but Bahrain is the only other Gulf state to have abolished its foreign labour sponsorship system.
Neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE are however likely to follow Qatar’s example any time soon. Qatar’s concession to FIFA and the international trade unions comes at a time that Saudi Arabia is cajoling fellow GCC states into moving from a council to a union to bolster the ability of the conservative Gulf monarchies to confront Iran and prevent the Arab uprisings sweeping the Middle East and North Africa from further encroaching on their fiefdoms.
Persistent reports suggest that Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, the first Gulf state to have virtually run out of oil that last year brutally squashed a popular revolt with the assistance of the kingdom and the UAE, will declare a union at a GCC summit scheduled to be held in Riyadh later this month.
Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, in a speech this week to a GCC youth conference delivered on his behalf by his deputy cautioned that "cooperation and coordination between the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in its current format may not be enough to confront the existing and coming challenges, which require developing Gulf action into an acceptable federal format. The Gulf union, when it is realized, God willing, will yield great benefits for its peoples, such as in foreign policy with the presence of a supreme Gulf committee coordinating foreign policy decisions that reorders group priorities and realizes group interests," he said.
The Riyadh summit is expected to discuss the outline of a union first proposed by Saudi King Abdullah last December. The Saudis, fearful that Bahrain’s rebellious Shiite Muslim majority could spark further unrest in their predominantly Shiite, restive, oil-rich Eastern Province, envision a GCC political union in which they would be the major power that would adopt joint foreign and defence policies.
Bahraini security forces clash almost daily with Shiite protesters despite last year’s crackdown which pushed demonstrators out of the island capital’s main square. Bahraini opposition forces fear that a union with the kingdom will further strengthen hardliners in the ruling Sunni Muslim Al Khalifa family and open the door to a permanent presence of Saudi troops on the island.
A Gulf union would also bolster royal resistance in some states like the UAE to political liberalization and greater rights as embodied in the Qatari decision to legalize trade unions. Qatar has consistently charted its own course that has put it at odds with the Saudis. Qatar has backed in various countries in revolt the Muslim Brotherhood, a group deeply distrusted by the kingdom, while the Saudis have supported the more conservative Salafis.
GCC states have also failed to achieve unanimity on a wide range of other issues including monetary union, the building of a causeway linking Qatar and Bahrain and security front information sharing as well as the creation of a central command. The failure to cooperate more closely on security prompted by mutual distrust as well as lack of confidence in US reliability has led to the recent scuppering of the installation of a joint missile shield as a defence against Iran.
For its part, Qatar, by hosting the 2022 World Cup, the world’s largest sporting event, and bidding for various other big ticket tournaments has opened itself to international scrutiny as well as demands from various groups to liberalize so that it as a global hub can accommodate issues such as alcohol and sexual diversity that go against the region’s conservative grain. A GCC political union could complicate the Qatari balancing act.
The Qatari union concession came as a six-month ultimatum by the International Trade Union Confederations (ITUC) that the Gulf state legalize unions and ensure that labour conditions meet international standards came to an end. The ITUC, which represents 175 million workers in 153 countries, had threatened Qatar with a global campaign that would denounce under the slogan, 'No World Cup in Qatar without labour rights,' the Gulf state as a slave driver.
The ITUC had charged earlier in a report that the working conditions of migrant workers in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates were "inhuman." Entitled ‘Hidden faces of the Gulf miracle,’ the multi-media report demanded that Qatar prove that migrant workers building infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup were not subject to inhuman conditions.
Qatari media quoted Labour Undersecretary Hussain Al Mulla as saying that the country’s emir was considering the plan to establish an independent Qatari-led labour committee to represent workers’ interests and an abolition of the sponsorship system that would stop short of allowing foreigners to freely change jobs.
The authorities have recently abandoned the requirement that foreign workers surrender their passports to their Qatari employers. Mr. Al Mulla said the plan had already been endorsed by the Qatari prime minister. It was not immediately clear if the Qatari moves would satisfy the ITUC.
“We wanted to set up the labour committee to help employees and lift off the pressure we and other Gulf countries have been under from several organisations. We are often asked about the non-existence of labour unions to defend labourers in Qatar. We had a labour committee during the days of oil companies. However, the situation in the Gulf is somewhat different because there are few Qataris who are labourers,” Mr. Al Mulla said. He said foreigners would have the right to vote in the committee but would not be able to become board members.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.