Monday, 12 September 2016

Former Qatar resident hits out at economic slavery

An article in the increasingly daring Doha News has highlighted the problem of dissent in Qatar. Lawyer Kristen Jarvis Johnson, a former resident of the Gulf state, concedes that she kept quiet about economic slavery while living there, but has now urged ex-patriot residents still in Qatar to do the opposite and speak out.

The World Cup - smothered by a nation's flag
 and rooted in economic interests 
Better late than never, except for those who've already died. The customary depressing comments below the piece slate Johnson for speaking out from the safety of abroad. But then that's somewhat the point, isn't it? She writes that after the excitement of settling in a new country with a new job wears off, "the dark realization sets in that we are supporting modern day slavery. We feel that we risk our reputation and livelihood if we speak out.

"The consequences of contrarian speech are drastic and create huge risk for those who wish to voice an opinion," she continues, citing the country's cyber-crime law. But now she's ready to concede that "six months after leaving, I am still haunted by the thousands of people working under harsh conditions to prepare for the 2022 World Cup and to build the country’s infrastructure. All of these workers are employed under the kafala (sponsorship) system, one that many people in Qatar are quick to criticize behind closed doors."

There are a lot of things that happen behind closed doors in repressed Arab societies. The consumption of alcohol and other drugs. Homosexuality. And, according to Johnson, political dissent. Most expats, she writes, "wait to speak up, if at all, until after they have completed their stay in Qatar. This leads to criticism about people living large while in the country who only publish scathing commentaries after they leave. It’s more complex than this, but it is true."

What are the options? Leave the country? Don't go there in the first place? Form a huge union of expats and picket building sites? (Yes, I'm being facetious, but it would beat handwringing from several thousand miles away - would the Qatari state arrest and imprison several hundred wealthy foreigners?) Johnson's answer is that "we, the international community, must continue to stand up for the rights of those slaving away on Qatar’s World Cup preparations. We can implore the leaders of Qatar to scrutinize their legal system, to get rid of laws that violate basic human rights, and to protect the workers building the nation’s infrastructure."

Well, human rights groups have been trying that for years, but "the leaders of Qatar" would rather stifle dissent than listen to it. They will only act if Fifa pulls the tournament, but the chances of that have now diminished to almost nothing. Beyond the vacuous tokenism of its slogans, Fifa does not care about human rights. The most disgraceful World Cup in football's history will take place as planned, because the business of sport has become more important than human life itself.

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