The Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) jointly hosted a panel on 10 September, entitled, “Qatar Inside and Out: A Close Look at the Gulf State’s Politics, Human Rights, and Foreign Policy”. The discussion was wide-ranging on the issues between Qatar and its neighbours and within Qatar itself.
Stephen McInerney, the Executive Director of POMED, introduced the panel by noting that when he went to Qatar in 1999, nobody in America had heard of the country. This is very different now, where the mention of Qatar sparks impassioned, polarized reactions. Even the hosting panel had drawn fierce reactions, McInerney noted, with accusations that one or other Gulf state had funded the event and that some agenda was afoot as demonstrated by the make-up of the panel. Having assured the audience such was not the case, McInerney turned to the first panellist.
Andrea Prasow is the Acting Washington Director of HRW. She began by pointing out that Qatar is very concerned about its image, as are other Gulf countries, so it has attempted reforms—or at least taken actions to be seen as attempting reforms—on the human rights file. But overall there are “a lot of promises, with very little action”, says Prasow. Domestically we “haven’t really seen a great deal of reform”.
This image-conscious policy was seen when Qatar signed a letter defending China’s treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority, hundreds of thousands of whom have been consigned to re-education camps by the Communist government, and then withdrew its signature after the outcry.
Everyone knows about the situation for women in Saudi Arabia, Prasow says, but there are also guardianship laws in Qatar. The legal disparities for women spread through the areas of ownership of property, access to divorce, and the zina (illicit sexual relations) laws that tend to be inherently disadvantageous to women. If there is any mitigating factor it is that the Qatari government tends to play out the prosecution of the zina laws, yet rarely implements the penalties.
Marti Flacks, the deputy director and head of the North American office of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, a company concerned about ethics in business, said that in Qatar the late payment of wages or non-payment of wages is a common problem, and it leaves people without even basic necessities.
The freedom of movement is highly curtailed, especially for foreign workers whose passports are usually confiscated by employers, putting workers at their boss’ mercy. There are also hazardous working conditions, particularly the hot climate, that has led to deaths while building stadiums for the 2022 FIFA World Cup that will be in Qatar
Qatar sought to address some of these concerns by signing an agreement with the International Labour Organization (ILO) in November 2017. Qatar is “just about at the halfway point of the implementation of that agreement”, said Flacks. The restrictions on leaving the country have been loosened, not eliminated, she added.
An important continuing shortcoming is the Qatari restrictions on freedom to change job, says Flacks. Though formally loosened, these restrictions remain very much in force in practice and in combination with the lack of a right to unionize it means that companies have very little incentive to treat workers well; there is no competition because workers cannot leave to go elsewhere if they are mistreated. Last month, for the first time, there was a strike and protests over the work conditions. To its credit, Qatar’s government did not break up those demonstrations.
There is still a lot of work to do to make Qatar an acceptable place for workers, says Flacks.
David Weinberg, the Washington director for international affairs at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), spoke next.
The rates of antisemitism in the Middle East are very high, so the ADL keeps its focus narrow: those instances where states are responsible for abetting or actively propagating anti-Jewish hatred. “Qatar is one of the most problematic Middle East governments in this regard”, says Weinberg. Qatar is not as bad as the Islamic Republic of Iran or the Palestinian authorities—both the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and HAMAS. And Qatar is roughly rivalled by the Saudi government, which is worse in some places and better in others.
A striking area where Qatar disseminates hatred is in school textbooks, intended to educate children and having the stamp of the Education Ministry, i.e. documents that Doha cannot evade responsibility for. The Qatari textbooks show no tolerance whatsoever to religions other than Islam, which are all described as being in a perpetual state of war with the believers, and even within Islam the textbooks teach that Shi’is are going to hell, Weinberg explains. They textbooks contain every known antisemitic trope, Weinberg says, suggesting that Jews secretly dominate the world, and, in traditional fashion of antisemitic conspiracy theories, simultaneously maintains that these all-powerful Jews are weak and contemptible.
It would be easier to claim the textbooks were an isolated case—a bureaucratic oversight of some kind—if not for the surrounding context, Weinberg notes. Qatar makes some nods toward tolerance: there are eight recognised Christian churches, and there is freedom for Hindus, Buddhists, Baha’is, Jews, and others to worship in private. Yet, if Qatar has a premier religious authority it is Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian cleric and Muslim Brotherhood member, famous for his fatwas licensing suicide bombing. Al-Qaradawi has sat by the side of the Qatari emir, Tamim al-Thani, during the Ramadan iftar every year for the last five years, Weinberg says. This year, one day after the iftar where Emir Tamim kissed Al-Qaradawi on the forehead, a physical manifestation of the state’s blessing, Al-Qaradawi published an article in the Qatari press comparing Jews to apes and pigs. The International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS) that Al-Qaradawi used to head up, with Qatari state support, has and continues to pump out material that is more hardline than Qatar’s Gulf neighbours, says Weinberg, and Al-Qaradawi’s successor at the helm of IUMS, Ahmad al-Raysuni, recently defended Al-Jazeera, the Qatari state-sponsored satellite channel, for a program distorting the truth about the Holocaust.
Nor is this all. Weinberg ticks off the state book fairs that disseminate all manner of incitement, the refusal of the Qatari state to use its otherwise vivaciously-exercised laws against defamation of religion to defend Jews, the routine hosting of preachers known for extremism at state-run mosques, and Al-Jazeera’s notorious content that glorifies terrorists, referring to them as “martyrs” when they are killed or kill themselves attacking Israel.