The concentrated attack on Qatar in the lead-up to and launch on Sunday of the 2022 FIFA World Cup has been unrelenting.
The country has been widely criticized for its treatment of migrant workers, principally from Southeast Asian and African countries, its opposition to homosexuality, and its limitations on the sale of alcohol.
The BBC refused to broadcast the opening ceremony, instead running a documentary on all these aspects, additionally amplifying corruption allegations that have surrounded the selection process, which resulted in the tiny Arab country being awarded the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have led the charge. However, both organizations are well aware, even if the mainstream media is not, that the issues concerning Qatar are not limited to that country.
Just in the Gulf alone, every country has almost the exact policies, laws, and restrictions in place that Qatar is being heavily criticized for now. Yes, stadiums in Doha and its surrounds have been built by workers from impoverished countries who work up to 7 days a week, for twelve hours a day, and are being paid appallingly low wages, and being forced to live in unsanitary conditions, having passports forfeited, etc.,
But so too, low-paid workers have built dazzling hundreds of new hotels and resorts and hundreds of thousands of residential apartments and villas, sporting stadiums, and mega shopping malls in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. When a rare riot over low ages broke out in Dubai involving 2,500 workers during the construction of the world's largest residential tower, the Burj Dubai, skilled carpenters on the site were earning $7.60 a day, with laborers getting $4 a day. With 12-hour workdays, this meant carpenters were earning 0.63 cents an hour, while labourers were pocketing 0.33 cents an hour.
None of the Gulf cities and countries disclose construction workers' deaths. There appears to be a news media blackout on any casualties on construction sites. And yet embassies from all these countries report numerous transportation of bodies to home countries of workers who have been killed at work.
The laws against homosexuality in Qatar mirror those in the other Gulf countries, and the fact the world is now learning that alcohol can only be bought in international hotels in the country is no different to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and other Gulf cities. Alcohol is not sold at sporting stadiums, entertainment venues, or even restaurants unless they are attached to an international hotel.
"Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries hosting of series of major sporting events should not be allowed to overshadow their record of ongoing human rights violations, Amnesty International said in a report last month, ahead of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar and the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in November.
At least 75 people are in prison in at least four of the GCC states - Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) - simply for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, or peaceful assembly. Saudi Arabia has just won the right to host the Asian Winter Games in 2029.
Sports fans should pause for thought and consider the dozens of people languishing behind bars in GCC countries simply for exercising basic rights
Amna Guellali, Amnesty International
"Governments in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain repeatedly repress dissent while investing heavily in rebranding themselves as rights-respecting states. Sports fans should pause for thought and consider the dozens of people languishing behind bars in GCC countries simply for exercising basic rights and call for their release," Amna Guellali, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for Middle East and North Africa, said.
"In GCC countries, public gatherings are severely restricted, women are served outrageous jail terms simply for commenting on Twitter, and NGOs are restricted or banned. Authorities in the region crush dissent by imprisoning state critics and imposing strict censorship. All those jailed for exercising their human rights must be immediately released, and all people in GCC countries should be allowed to speak and move around freely."
Gulf countries have been regularly accused of exploiting workers from Southeast Asia and African countries such as Kenya and Nigeria. Governments, including Qatar and the UAE, have passed laws to address this. But the exploitation continues. It is not just in the construction industry. Workers in hospitality and security personnel regularly work 12-hour days, and if not 7-days a week, then six days a week.
International hotel chains such as Hilton, IHG, Marriott, Hyatt, Wyndham, Kempinski, Raffles, Shangri-la, and Accor, which operate hotels under brands such as Sheraton, Westin, Sofitel, Novotel, Courtyard by Marriott, Hyatt Regency, Le Meridien, Park Hyatt, Ramada, Intercontinental, Holiday Inn, and Garden Inn, are employers of Southeast Asian workers on extended hours and wages well below what they would earn in other countries. This is part of the reason hotels and resorts have mushroomed across the Gulf because they can be constructed with very low labour costs, and be operated with extraordinarily low payrolls. It is not just the international groups that have taken advantage of the opportunity, local chains such as Jumeirah, Rotana, Damac, JA Resorts & Hotels, Vida, and The Address hotels are also in the mix.
"The six countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar host the majority of the estimated 23 million migrant workers living in the Arab states," Amnesty said in a separate report on 30 April 2020 as the Covid-19 pandemic was beginning to take hold around the world.
"These are some of the richest countries in the world. Sadly, they have also become notorious for the systematic abuse and exploitation of migrant workers who contribute so much to their economies. Unpaid wages, forced labour, dangerous working conditions, and unsanitary accommodation facilities are too often part and parcel of the migration experience."
"All GCC states operate versions of the 'kafala' sponsorship system, which ties the workers' legal right to be in the country to their contracts. This means people risk being imprisoned or deported if they leave their jobs without the permission of their employers. In Saudi Arabia, migrant workers cannot even leave the country without such permission," the report said.
"The majority of migrant workers in the Gulf countries are low-paid labourers and they are often accommodated in dormitory-style "labour camps."
"Generally speaking, they are provided small rooms as accommodation which are typically shared between six and 12 people who sleep in bunk beds. Workers tend to share communal bathrooms and kitchens, which are often unsanitary and inadequate, sometimes even lacking electricity and running water," the Amnesty report said.
"No one should ever be living in these conditions."
Moving forward, no migrant worker should be made to live in squalid, overcrowded accommodation: Gulf governments and companies should ensure adequate living standards for all migrant workers, Amnesty asserted.
"Most migrant workers in GCC countries come from countries like India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Kenya, and the Philippines and work in low-paid jobs in construction, hospitality, and domestic work. Many people have to take out loans to migrate, which can trap them for several years in cycles of debt and exploitation," the April 30 report said.
"One consequence of the kafala system, and the power imbalance it creates, is that migrant workers may feel forced to work when sick for fear of losing their pay or even their job. During this pandemic, more people may have to make the impossible choice between their health and their pay."
"What's more, with many migrant workers in the Gulf now facing government-imposed restrictions on movement, it's hard for them to access the recommended preventive care, goods, and services so crucial to their protection unless provided by governments and companies, especially in cases when they are not allowed to leave their accommodations," Amnesty said.
"Governments in the Gulf have tried to introduce some measures to alleviate such risks. For instance, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are both offering free health care services to all migrant workers, irrespective of their legal status in the country. However, it is unclear to what extent these measures are being implemented and if migrant workers in Gulf countries are receiving treatment without any discrimination or retaliation."
Moving forward, Gulf governments and employers should ensure that migrant workers have access to the full range of social protection, including sick pay, financial support, and affordable health care without any discrimination, Amnesty asserted.
"Amnesty International is especially concerned about domestic workers, who are among the most vulnerable group of migrant workers in the Gulf. Often isolated within homes and highly dependent on their employers in almost every aspect of their lives, they are also not covered by labour law protections across the Gulf."
"Many domestic workers in the Gulf have no day off at all," the report said.
Moving forward, Gulf governments and employers should work together to protect domestic workers from violence, abuse, and discrimination. They should include them in labour laws in order to guarantee their labour rights which include limited working hours, days off, overtime pay, and freedom of movement, Amnesty asserted.