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Qatar Coming to Grips with New Realities of Global Energy Markets 23, November 2015

Posted by thegulfblog.com in LNG, Qatar.
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Qatari Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) carri

The following article was written for and published by the Arab Gulf States Institute Washington (AGSIW). The precis can be found below and the full article can be downloaded from AGSIW (for free) following this link.

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Qatar has long dominated the market for liquefied natural gas (LNG), an increasingly popular energy source that can be transported great distances, is widely regarded as being cleaner than coal, and fills increasingly important parts of states’ energy mixes. In recent decades, surging demand and relatively limited supply has created a climate for Qatar to exploit its huge gas resources and consequent economies of scale to bestride the market.

In fact, Qatar dominates the LNG market far more than Saudi Arabia dominates the oil market. But this period of dominance is coming to an end. Demand in China that underpinned the industry’s growth is dipping and not being replaced. Across the world from Australia to the United States, to Israel, to Mozambique, large discoveries have been made and high prices encouraged hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in LNG infrastructure. Even with the fall of the oil and LNG prices, which challenges many new suppliers and their costly outlay to establish the necessary LNG infrastructure, Qatar’s dominant position supplying a third of the world’s LNG will be over by the end of the decade.

Though Qatar’s budget revenue fell 40 percent from July 2014 to July 2015, the state began cutting back in 2013 when a new administration led by Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani took power. These cuts were partly driven by a savvy medium-term view of the bearishness of the energy markets. But the new leadership was also making political statements, cutting back on some of the more expensive pet projects of its predecessors such as the Qatar Foundation, which oversees foreign universities in Doha’s “Education City.” The new administration needs to ensure that it does not hamstring the Qatar Foundation – a central engine of the state’s push to diversify away from its hydrocarbon-dominated economy – as Qatar’s dependency on the oil and gas industry remains profound. Yet even with the reliance on oil and gas and the impending end of its dominance in the LNG field, Qatar’s population remains small and its energy supply role prodigious. Qatar will easily be able to manage fiscally if its ambitions remain more limited than before, as the current administration suggests through its more limited policy ambitions.

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New Politics of Intervention of Gulf Arab States 26, April 2015

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The Gulf.
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LSE pub

Find a link below to a new publication by the LSE of papers presented in 2014 focusing on the New Politics of Intervention of Gulf Arab States.

I wrote a paper on ‘Qatar’s Strained Gulf Relationships’ and there are also some fantastic contributions by Madawi al-Rasheed, Anoush Etheshami, Florence Gaub, Karen Young, and Christopher Philips.

New Politics of Intervention of Arab Gulf States

The emerging military dimension to the Qatari-Turkish relationship 16, March 2015

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QT M

The following article was published by RUSI on 16 March 2015.

On 19 August 1915, the last bedraggled and demoralised Turkish soldiers left al-Bida (modern-day Doha) and, for the first time in fifty years, the Ottomans were without a military presence on the Qatari peninsula.

But a newly signed military agreement between Qatar and Turkey might reverse this trend. The military accord allows for the usual joint training, joint military drills, and is a boost for the Turkish arms exporting industry, but it interestingly allows for the deployment of Turkish troops to Qatar and vice versa.

This kind of agreement has been coming.

Firstly, Qatar and Turkey have grown increasingly close in recent years. They have found themselves united by their approach to the politics of the Middle East as the Arab Spring took off and still as it now dissipates. In short, they both believe that the inclusion of moderate Islamist political actors in the regions affairs is crucial to the longer term viability of the new polities. Both Qatar and Turkey have long supported a variety of such actors, but most notably the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, when Qatar came under unbearable pressure in late 2014 to relinquish their support for the Brotherhood, as evidenced (not least) by the basing of dozens of key Brotherhood members in Doha, many of them left Doha to move (back, in many cases) to Turkey. Qatar has taken a solace, then, in their Turkish relations as both of them have seen their regional aspirations narrowed by the shifting realities of the post-Arab Spring Middle East.

Secondly, Qatar is looking for more military support options. All of the Arab states in the Persian Gulf region are nervous as to the longer term implications of not only the US-Iranian nuclear negotiations, but the US pivot to Asia. Many in the Gulf seem to fatalistically assume that this means that the US is abandoning their region in the absence of an overt Iranian menace in preference of facing up to China. While this may be true eventually, the timetable for such a change is nearer 30 than 3 years, but still the Gulf states are a-panicking.

Thirdly, the Middle East is once again convulsing to civil war and strife. To the north of the Persian Gulf, Iraq inexorably implodes and Da’esh continues to menace. To the south, Yemen continues its implosion and Houthi groups that, to the Arab Gulf states at least, are seen as nothing less than bonafide Iranian proxies, expand their control as the state fractures.

Sustaintable Defence Capacity or Old-School Alliance Building?

In the face of these challenges, there is a whiff of an emerging desire to build meaningful, professional, capable militaries in the Gulf region. This stands in contrast with the classical Gulf military model, which was rich in equipment, but poor in training, maintenance, and overall capability. The UAE seems to be leading this trend as its military, directed by Mohammed bin Zayed and tried and tested in conflict in Afghanistan and more recently in Iraq and Libya, has cultivated a genuine reputation as a force with genuine competence.

It remains to be seen whether this Qatari-Turkish agreement will be a part of this new trend, of building up domestic capacity in a meaningful way, or it will be an alliance of the old school, with a Gulf state seeking military agreements with an extra-regional power to shore-up their security.

The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Turkish Parliament, Brak Junkar, insiststhat this agreement has ‘nothing to do with’ other on-going understandings and policies regarding cooperation supporting the Syrian opposition in Syria. But such a statement beggars belief. Qatar’s activity in Syria – or parts of Syria at least – has been fundamentally predicated on its close relations with Turkey at all levels. While there has been much cooperation thus far between the two states, showing that this kind of agreement is not strictly necessary to allow such joint activities, it is difficult to see how such considerations did not play a part in the wider calculus.

As most sectors in Qatar continue to go through a significant budget squeeze, with 20% to 40% cuts being rampant throughout the ministries, the Ministry of Defence is, so far, immune. Moreover, with the upcoming fast-jet purchase and other big ticket items recently purchased (German Leopard Tanks, Patriot missile defence batteries, etc.), Qatar’s defence budget is rocketing. But it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that some of the fiscal prudence being instilled elsewhere might be useful in this sector too. There is a distinct sense of ‘too many cooks’ in the Qatari military, with training missions and influence, not to mention training associated with specific equipment now coming from the Americans, the British, the Germans, the French, and the Turkish, to name but the major suppliers.

While diversifying the fundamental dependency on American military guarantees is a wise move, Qatar looks like it needs to be more selective if it is actually trying to develop its military. But if, as per the classic Gulf norm, it merely wishes to tally-up a litany of ‘defence agreements’ as a hopeful deterrent and a theoretical defence in case the worst happens, then, though expensive, expect these kinds of agreements, alongside a lavish signing ceremony, to continue apace.

 

Jabhat al-Nusra rejects overtures to abandon al-Qaeda 10, March 2015

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Flag_of_Jabhat_al-Nusra

That Jabhat al-Nusra, the mostly Syrian-based al-Qaeda affiliated jihadi group, has vehemently denied that it is seeking to ‘come in from the cold’ or otherwise abandon its al-Qaeda affiliation, is not hugely surprising. Their twitter site

completely denies reports of a break-up with Al-Qaeda

and in particular that the group had ever had

 a meeting with Qatari or other intelligence services or seeking Qatari or Gulf funding, as this is contrary to the principles on which Al-Nusra has been based from the start.

Though Qatar may offer the prospect of, say, significant funding, this immediate, emphatic denial hints at the difficulty that the state will face peeling away anything like a significant chunk of the group. Doubtless Jabhat’s ranks are filled with some who would be willing to form a new, likely well renumerated group, but the group – as one – is never going to switch. It will fracture and split.

The question remains, therefore, how Qatar can persuade a significant chunk to abandon Jabhat’s original goals, and whether whatever rump that forms some new group retains any real capability. The efficacy of Jabhat is, after all, the central reason that Qatar appears to have been  interacting with the group over the years.

A sober cost-benefit analysis of this whole venture is still stacked against Qatar, particularly if one factors in the bad PR that inevitably comes with Qatar dabbling with these groups. But Qatar – like everyone else in the international community – seems to be out of answers, leaving these kinds of risky plans all that remains.

 

Budget cuts in Qatar bite 9, March 2015

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Qatar flag from the water

That most ministries in Qatar are facing significant budget cuts is relatively old news. The bean-counters in Qatar were expecting a dip in the oil price and a rise in their infrastructure-driven expenditure since at least early-2014. Consequently, budget paring-back was always a central priority of the new administration. I’ve always believed that the new lot, on the first day in power in mid-2013, skipped merrily into the Diwan, had a look at the books and were somewhat horrified by what they saw – namely unchallenged expenditure.

Qatar is a young state with an emerging bureaucracy. Spending has seldom been managed in what would be considered in a modern state a methodical, measured manner. Instead, the sense was of ministers doing their best, of course, but splurging cash left, right, and centre according to their best guesses as to what the Emir wanted. Don’t forget that under the Prime Ministership of Hamad Bin Jassim al-Thani (2007-2013), Qatar scarcely operated with a Prime Minister given how many hats he wore: also Foreign Minister (1992-2013), also chief of the Sovereign Wealth Fund (QIA), also Chairman of the national airline, and also Qatar’s dominant businessman.

So the new administration set about rectifying the fiscal situation, driven by a belief that income would plateau somewhat. But now that the oil price has dropped off the proverbial cliff, things seem to be even stricter.

But, as so often in Qatar, decisions are being made that just make little sense. A British science programme aimed solely at low-achieving Qatari male-only schools – in other words, an aim that could not possibly be more on target for the QF’s basic goal and even a goal that has become yet more important for the new administration – was scrapped. And how much is QF going to make by kicking out (albeit temporarily) students from their dorms? The self-defeating logic of Qatar never ceases to amaze.

 

Is Qatar bringing the Nusra front in from the cold? 7, March 2015

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al nusra bbc

The following article was published by the BBC on 6 March 2015 and can be found here.

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It has been frequently claimed that Qatar has relatively close ties, probably through intermediaries, with the Nusra Front. The Qatar foreign ministry has denied this, and proof is, unsurprisingly, difficult to find. But such an accusation has increasingly cropped up, particularly in terms of Qatar’s prolific record of resolving hostage situations in Syria. Thirteen Greek orthodox nuns, an American journalist, and 45 Fijian peacekeepers are just some who have been released in the last 18 months with Qatar’s and, it appears, often the Nusra Front’s help.

In the melange of designated terrorist and jihadist groups at play in Syria and Iraq, there is a vast spectrum ranging from the deranged like Islamic State (IS) to the more moderate groups like (the now defunct) Harakat Hazm that was supported by, among others, America. Being a directly affiliated al-Qaeda group, the Nusra Front is nearer the IS end of the spectrum.

Yet, while the Qatari relationship with the Nusra Front appears to be far from straightforward with some of the state’s initiatives failing, indicating some distance between the two, according to recent reports, Qatar appears to want to reform this relationship. This begs the question of why Qatar would want even loosely to associate itself with a group like the Nusra Front.

Firstly, there are no “good choices” in Syria today. Qatar has surmised, it seems, that supporting or transforming the Nusra Front, is one of the “least worst” options.

Secondly, the Nusra Front has pledged to concentrate its efforts on removing the Bashar al-Assad government, as opposed to attacking the “far enemy” (ie Western states). On this point, the Nusra Front is aligned tightly with Qatar, which also is implacably against the government and fundamentally believes that the situation in Syria will only improve if he is removed. This idea is also reflected in the Nusra Front’s composition, which is far more Syrian-dominated than the foreign jihadist-magnet that is IS.

Thirdly, with this goal in mind, and perhaps most crucially, the Nusra Front group is widely seen as one of the most effective groups operating in Syria against a wider backdrop of splintered groups whose powers are highly limited. The potential creation of an effective fighting force against IS (or the Syrian regime) is a significant draw for Qatar.

Fourthly, Qatar possesses a small, young foreign ministry and it does not have a foreign intelligence service. Though far from alone on this issue, the state struggles to map the dynamic conflict and finds it difficult to plot the shifting actors. Instead, it seems that Qatar prefers to continue to support the people or groups with whom it already has relations. As the conflict inexorably deteriorated and groups became more and more extreme, it seems that Qatar, unable to chop and change support easily and wanting to retain relevance, maintained relations with its contacts in Syria, some of whom appear to have close affiliations with the Nusra Front.

Nevertheless, the low-level Qatari contacts with this group (if, indeed, they do exist) are not sufficient to turn the tide in Syria, and rumours of such existing contacts have added fuel to the media frenzy that has alighted on Qatar and its allegedly nefarious links in recent years.

This is why Qatar is hoping to bring the Nusra Front in from the cold. If the state can get the group to eschew its al-Qaeda affiliation and adhere to a broadly moderate Islamist platform, Qatar can officially commence, with Western blessing, the supply of one of the most effective fighting forces in Syria. Not an easy sell, but the promise of Qatar supplying a potential tsunami of support will prove to be a powerful negotiating tactic.

Once again, the silence from Doha on this matter encourages speculation inferring that Qatar has some kind of a genuine sympathy with the goals of the likes of the Nusra Front. But the fact remains that Qatar is a key Western ally. It hosts a critical US military base, it grafted US and UK higher-education institutions and ideas onto its education system, and has long promoted the Middle East’s most visible and powerful woman, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, the Emir’s mother. These are transparently not the policies of a state with sympathies for the likes of IS or al-Qaeda. Indeed, there is no chance that Qatar is doing this alone: the US and UK governments will certainly be involved in or at least apprised of Qatar’s plans. And, with increasing desperation in the face of IS and Bashar al-Assad’s resilience, a reformed, effective fighting force would be welcomed by the West. Indeed, the UN special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, recently said that he would speak to anyone, including the Nusra Front, in the effort to save lives.

Qatar is not the first state to reason that it is time to talk to groups that are unpalatable and extreme, but who are, nevertheless, influential. But the ultimate judgement on this emerging policy will rest on how well Qatar can manage this transition and if this new fighting force can alter the balance of power. The recent assassination of the Nusra Front’s central military commander, Abu Hammam al-Shami, in Idlib, Syria, indicates the fluid nature of the conflict. Whether he was killed because of an internal disagreement about the putative negotiations to eschew the Nusra Front’s al-Qaeda affiliation or not, this assassination indicates the daily changes at the tactical level that can have potentially profound strategic effects. In such a changeable, fractured operating environment, Qatar will not be able to engineer a clean break of the Nusra Front from al-Qaeda. But, in a context where the best that can be hoped for is the “least worst” solution, Qatar’s plan is as viable as any other.

 

Qatar Just Isn’t That Evil 15, September 2014

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The following article was published by the New America Institute and by Vox under a different title.

Cutting deals with the enemy is a part of American – and Western – history. America has negotiated with terrorists and guerrilla fighters since the days of William Howard Taft. The UK, too, has conferred with the violent Irish Republican Army and Spain with its domestic terror group ETA.

But some policy pundits argue that Qatar’s latest negotiating behavior is different. Sinister, even. In the past few weeks, Qatar successfully brokered the release of U.S. reporter Theo Curtis and U.S. service man Bowe Bergdahl from the Al Qaeda affiliated Jabhat Al Nusra and the Taliban. Along with the homecoming celebrations came an uneasiness about Qatari motivations, and the nature of those terrorist organization relationships. Aside from these two examples, Qatar’s close relationship with Hamas concerns many. Some of the commentary on these issues makes some valid points that need to be answered, while some are faintly ludicrous. So let’s look at the facts.

The leader of Hamas has long been based in Doha, and Qatar seemed to play animportant role in recent discussions regarding ceasefires in Israel. Qatar also has long-held a panoply of links to moderate Muslim Brotherhood associated groups throughout the Middle East. Particularly notable, for example, is Qatar’s hosting since 1961 of one of the leading Brotherhood Imams: Yusuf Al Qaradawi. He vastly expanded his influence under Qatari auspices using Al Jazeera as a vehicle to reach millions of Arabs. Qatar is also one of two states where the austere creed of Salafi, Wahhabi Islam prevails; the other is Saudi Arabia. To some, such links and associations are a context of enough circumstantial evidence to condemn Qatar as some kind of terrorist financier.

But this caricature of Qatar as a Machiavellian nation, secretly and actively supporting terrorism, just does not chime with the reality of the state.

But this caricature of Qatar as a Machiavellian nation, secretly and actively supporting terrorism, just does not chime with the reality of the state. Its leadership in recent decades has been arguably the most liberalizing in the Arab Middle East, though granted that’s hardly a difficult title to claim.

When offered several choices of how to reform Qatar’s schools by US think-tank the RAND Corporation, Qatar’s leadership chose the option with the deepestchanges explicitly modelled on the US school system. In higher education, six US and three other Western Universities have been established in Doha grafting a font of predominantly US soft power onto Qatari society providing the option of a liberal arts education.

What’s more, Qatar is home to one of the most iconic and powerful female role models in the Middle East. Sheikha Moza, the wife of the former Emir and the mother of the current Emir, is a highly visible stateswoman and the only Gulf first lady to be regularly seen. She is the founder and driving force behind the Education City project (where most Western universities are housed) as well as a raft of domestic social policies and charitable foundations, such as the WISE education awards, seen as the Nobel prize of the education world.

Nor should it be forgotten that Qatar actively cultivated relations with Israel in the early 1990s. There was an Israel trade office in Doha from 1996 to the late 2000s as Qatar actively sought (but eventually failed) to boost relations, such as by selling gas to the Jewish state.

Unless it is being suggested that Qatar undertook these efforts as some kind of a divisionary tactic, which is surely a ludicrous notion, it is difficult to peg Qatar as some kind of retrograde, terrorist-supporting state.

What is more likely is that Qatar wants to use its role with the likes of the Taliban and Jabhat Al Nusra as political gambits to reinforce the critical niche role that it can fulfil for important international allies. In a region that sees a major conflict every decade and where Qatar is a tiny, relatively intrinsically defenceless state, boxed in by historically belligerent, far larger states – Saudi Arabia and Iran – the central tenet of Qatar’s modern foreign policy has been to make the state as important as possible to as wide a range of important actors as possible.

Of course, these policy underpinnings don’t explain the actions and motivations of all Qataris. It is entirely possible if not likely, as some reports have noted, that there are individual Qataris not connected to the government that actively support groups like ISIS and who take advantage of lax Qatari financial controls. Indeed, the US Government has criticized the Gulf States including Qatar for not controlling personally collected, charitable money. Qatari authorities must do more to stop and sanction these individuals.

Some would sensibly counter, however, that the level of support or the freedom that states like Qatar show some apparent terrorist financiers indicates that, secretly, they support their cause. While it is possible that there may be some sympathisers in the elite (there was an example of this in the 1990s, see thissummary) there are more persuasive explanations.

To understand the Qatari perspective, you need a realistic view of the Middle East. Hamas may be a violent terrorist organisation by most definitions, but is also an elected political group that commands significant support. Though Qatar’s support facilitates the group, it is a fact on the ground that is not changing with or without Qatar’s help. That many in the Middle East see Hamas as engaging in resistance with what little means they have against one of the most advanced militaries in the world further complicates the issue.

The worst that can then be said of Qatar is that it is supporting regional groups to augment its own regional influence, in which case it joins the list including all Middle Eastern and Western countries trying to do exactly that.

So too with Jabhat Al Nusra. A reprehensible terrorist group it may be by most definitions, but it is often understood as representing a significant force on the ground: it is an actor that needs to be reckoned with.

None of this is an attempt to excuse terrorism or to try to claim that, for example, Hamas is anything other than a terrorist group. But it is to say that there are great swathes of people who would disagree with that characterisation and therefore it is pragmatic in a Kissinger-esque way to deal with the realities as we find them not as we wish they were.

The overarching tone of Qatar’s domestic and foreign policies of recent decades suggests that its interaction with these groups stems not from a blood-thirsty desire to wage war to facilitate the shelling of Israelis. Instead, Qatar acknowledges the realities that, for example, Hamas, like it or not, is a powerful and popular actor in the central conflict of the Arab world or that with more extreme groups like Nusra, it is better to have a contact with them than not.

Not only can these contacts contribute to releasing hostages – without ransoms being paid in this case – but demonstrably without an ideological motivation to support killing, Qatar must be using these links for a future political process. The worst that can then be said of Qatar is that it is supporting regional groups to augment its own regional influence, in which case it joins the list including all Middle Eastern and Western countries trying to do exactly that.

Can Qatar, Saudi Arabia ease tensions at Gulf Cooperation Council? 24, August 2014

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It’s the gravest diplomatic crisis the Gulf Cooperation Council has ever faced — but as leaders from the six-member Arab alliance prepare to meet in Jeddah, are things about to get even worse?

The root of the current problem? Qatar simply will not do as it’s told by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who have spent months trying to force the energy-rich nation to fundamentally alter its foreign policy. Bahrain, the UAE and the Saudis withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar in March, and have kept up the pressure ever since.

Read the rest of the article on CNN.COM

Qatar 2022 teeters towards disaster 6, June 2014

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The following article can be found at the New America Foundation.

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For some time now, Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 football World Cup has looked to be far more trouble than its worth. Stinging media attacks have been relentlessly pillorying the state and its bid process, putting the country under a magnifying glass like never before. Human rights concerns and corruption issues have been the focus of much of the coverage and many are now questioning whether Qatar will – after all this trouble and difficulty – host the World Cup at all.

Indeed, the 2022 World Cup saga continues with a huge leak of emails to the Sunday Times in the UK, which the paper accompanied with 12,000 words of analysis castigating and criticizing the bid process. The emails printed by the Times do not necessarily reveal anything new in type, just volumes more damaging examples of people involved with the Qatari bid  – mostly Mohammed Bin Hammam, the Qatari former FIFA executive member – acting in…[consults lawyer]…unorthodox ways. Bin Hammam stands accused of, to put it charitably, being exceedingly overly generous to important delegates and other officials throughout the world with financial gifts and expenses. Much of this appears to flout FIFA rules.

The British media-led scrum to attack Qatar is at times neither accurate, with at the very least key names being repeatedly confused, nor edifying; but then again, that’s not what they are there for. They are there to sell copy and Qatar is thoroughly in their crosshairs of late. Indeed, the 2022 World Cup story combines a variety of tempting targets for the British press, tabloid and broadsheet alike: indignant rage, football, rich foreigners, human rights wailing, and glitzy corruption.

There is, as ever, a certain amount of hypocrisy surrounding this whole situation. The British press were, unsurprisingly, hardly as vociferous in their criticism when England shamelessly courted votes for the World Cup vote by playing friendly matches or wheeling out David Beckham, the former England captain, or Prime Minister David Cameron to woo specific voters. Equally, though, they did not engage in the kinds of mass expenditures that Qatar did to persuade key voters around the world.

Indeed, look at the Qatari bid. A key plinth of the bid was the promise to package up and ship off some of its stadiums to countries in need of stadia post-World Cup. Who decided the recipients of each stadium – and how – is unknown, but what is for sure is that if you are looking for a stadium, only with a successful Qatari bid do you stand a chance of receiving one.

Those in Qatar may well look to the rough ride they are getting and compare that to Russia who won the right to host the 2018 World Cup at the same ceremony as Qatar. Against a backdrop of increasing homophobia, rampant corruption, and energy extortion, Russia nigh-on invaded a sovereign state, annexed a section of that state using – to put it mildly – questionable means, yet in terms of football at least, Russia remains mostly ignored by the press. And, strangely, no one seems to be asking whether their bid was squeaky clean?

Yet understandably suffused with a concentration on Russia’s military shenanigans, the press has leapt over its bid and gone straight to the more salacious story in Qatar. Human rights have been front and center. Report afterreport has battered Qatar’s reputation and with often good reason. The standards for workers’ rights are simply not good enough. Ironically, this is the positive impact of the World Cup: it is fundamentally an agent of change in the country.In recent weeks the Qatari authorities announced changes and improvements to the scriptures that most trouble workers’ rights in the state. No, these changes are not enough, and their implementation remains to be seen. But this is unequivocally a step forward, and it is purely thanks to the pressure of the World Cup and its negative coverage.

Given a magic wand, I suspect that the new administration in Qatar that took over in summer 2013 would happily swap hosting the 2022 World Cup for an easier life. It has prompted tens of billions of dollars of spending, some of which is necessary (roads and a subway system) but much of which is seen as wasteful (stadiums and foreign consultants). While from the Western perspective, the incremental changes expected in the labor laws in Qatar are a good move, they are seen flatly as a pain and undesirable from the Qatari perspective: they want to retain control. Moreover, the 2022 World Cup is a touchstone issue that encapsulates the direction of travel in Qatar: that of a quasi-westernizing orientation with increasing openness to foreigners and their wanton ways; the perennial refrain being how will Qatar cope with drunk English football fans singing and swaying down the Corniche, the sea-side waterfront?

In lieu of a magic wand, Qatar’s elite will simply have to hunker down and lawyer-up. Whether the 2022 World Cup actually goes ahead is a question for legal professionals and FIFA insiders, not Gulf experts or Qatar’s elite. Qatar’s central concern at the moment is that one of their champions, Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s seemingly perennial President, has cooled his support recently, even calling Qatar’s hosting of the tournament a ‘mistake’. The moment that Blatter, who is running again for President (after he said he was not seeking re-election), sees more mileage in throwing Qatar under the bus to further his ambitions, Qatar has a big problem to add to its ever-growing list of 2022 issues.

Qatar tries (but fails) to enter the 20th century 15, May 2014

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Qatar’s much anticipated announcement on reforming the system that controls and regulates foreign workers (the kefala system) was, in the end, an anticlimax.

Firstly, let us clearly lay out what has changed for those working in Qatar today:

Nothing.

Instead, as Dohanews reported, the proposed reforms announced represent the “first step” in changing the labor laws, which is somewhat curious given that these broad topics have been discussed for much of the last decade. The National Human Rights Committee, after all, was established back in 2002, while periodic announcements as to reports, consultations, reviews, and potential changes have been periodically referred to since the mid-2000s.

Fundamentally, it is no shock that Qatar is considering overhauling its draconian kefala system and that specifically the two key elements of it – exit visas and transfer of sponsorship – were going to have to evolve.

A few new pieces of information about some theoretical future system were mildly interesting, but given that all of this needs to be run through Qatar’s legal and legislative processes, how can anyone have any confidence of what will come out of the other end?

Retaining control 

The current plans are almost comically watered-down as it is. Seemingly the Qatari government can hardly bear the concept of not having some ultimate control on workers leaving the country. The exit visa is being retained in the form of some ‘once and for all’ exit visa while ordinary exit visas are to stay but employees now will – theoretically, at some date in the future – have to deal directly with a Qatari government bureaucracy; something I’m sure all workers look forward to.

One genuinely interesting move is that employers will – theoretically, at some date in the future – no longer be liable financially for their employees. As an argument for retaining the exit visa, this argument is odious in and of itself, but with this leg gone, there is nothing but malice-laden greed for those seeking to retain the ability to stop employees leaving the country.

Simply put, this attitude towards workers is just not palatable or commensurate with how a state should be operating in the twenty-first century. The tenor of the relationship and the tone of the law speaks to a bygone age. It is immensely damaging for Qatar to so grimly cling on to such a relic of a law.

Similar to the exit visa issue, it appears that the Government cannot bear to give up control of workers transferring jobs entirely. If you have a fixed term contract and it finishes, you can – at some theoretical date in the future – change jobs with no problem. But if your contract is indefinite, you need to work there for five years before being allowed to change. I wonder how employers will restructure their contracts now?

Penalties: missing the point

Fines have been increased for withholding workers’ passports. This is a part of the basic ‘we have laws against this stuff’ defence, used ad nauseum at the UN last week. Yes, Qatar has laws and now larger fines, but this wholly misses the point: they’re just simply not enforced. Workers have had rights for years in Qatar (in the most basic way) but they are often summarily ignored and even when employees try to ‘use’ these rights, the rights of the employers are flagrantly more powerful.

Lost opportunity 

This whole debate is immensely frustrating not least because it was avoidable. I had two immediate thoughts when Qatar won the right to host the 2022 World Cup. Firstly, Qataris don’t have a clue as to the level of scrutiny that they and their country will receive from the international press. Secondly, and linked to the first point, overall 2022 is a good thing because it will force changes in Qatar’s draconian kefala system.

Change was and is inevitable. The working practices here which generally do not befit a modern country can’t remain. This, I think, is the basic reality, but one that Qatar’s government has avoided at all costs.

Instead of taking this opportunity to grasp this difficult, thorny issue, the problem has been left to fester. The international press has been merciless, egregiously rude and ill informed at times, but this was always going to be the case when Qatar left itself so open. What mealy-mouthed changes that Qatar undertakes now will be analysed in great detail, pulled apart and it will appear that Qatar has – as, indeed, it has – been reluctantly bullied into making as few changes as it could get away with.

Instead of using the best practice as evidenced by Shell’s sector-leading example in Doha for its Pearl GTL project and Qatar proudly taking the lead in championing workers’ rights across the region and the world, we have this slow, painful eking out of concessions.

I know perfectly well that the majority of Qataris want the situation to stay as it is. I know that many may feel somewhat overwhelmed by the foreigners in their country, and want some kind of extra control and that any changes would have been unpopular. But the elites have on occasion – rightly, as far as I see it – taken decisions for the betterment of their country that clearly ran against the social current, yet not on this issue.

If Qatar were known for supporting sport, Al Jazeera, mediation, Arab Spring support of varying varieties, and as the hub in the Gulf that guarantees a gold standard of safe, reliable, trustworthy employment practice – and let’s face it, the bar is hardly that high – the rewards on human capital attraction and retention would be immense. Instead, the tortuous process that escalates rancor on both sides will continue as these new proposals wind their way through Qatar’s legal and legislative systems, doubtless shedding credibility and protections as the years go by.