When I moved to Qatar in 2005 many thought I was headed to Turkey. I’m not sure why since they don’t even share one letter in common.
Perhaps because Turkey was the most exotic place my friends in the United States had heard of.
In the months after I relocated, my friends would email and ask me how I was doing in Dubai. Again, the splashy Emirate is the one most familiar to those who grasp for a fact about the Arabian Gulf — other than, of course, Saudi Arabia.
In the years since then, major donations to Hurricane Katrina victims, a global financial crisis, hikes in the price of crude oil and the award of the world’s largest sporting event, the World Cup, for 2022 to Qatar, more people know where we live.
The small emirate has muscled its way into global politics and international sports; and now, as all politicians find out sooner or later, the thorn in the rose accompanying great ambition is equally great scrutiny. The media maelstrom over “workers” constructing the stadiums for 2022 has been building for months. The reactions to these news reports are even more telling that Qatar has a deeper problem than social change: the emirate is engaged in rhetoric entrenched in the vestiges of imperialism, or cultural superiority.
Yes, Qatar has a long way to go in supporting the rule of law – particularly the enforcement of existing statutes – and enforce the protection of the rights of guest workers. The laws are in place but notorious abuses by private companies lead to unpaid workman’s compensation claims, unpaid wages, unsanitary living conditions, and the worst accusation, human trafficking. And yes, it’s important to be conscientious spectators.
I’m not defending these violations. In fact, during my time here, I have tried to aid people who have been disadvantaged by the kafalah or sponsorship system. The sponsor has all the power; the spaces to negotiate against someone who wants you out – most likely because they don’t want you to tell others how terrible they are – are miniscule if not non-existent. Yet we still try, knowing that we have to do the good we can. Owning the right to someone’s future is a power – the right to say whether or not someone can stay and work for someone other than you – that few of us are familiar with in the international community. A power we can’t imagine. A power we can’t have as expats, reserved only for nationals. Perhaps this makes us even angrier.
What I find as troubling as the downsides of having a bad kafeel, or sponsor, however, is the glee which greets the reports of guest worker abuse. Whether journalists sweeping in broad stroke regurgitated content about “worker” misery, or commentators on these articles, a strident chord points the finger saying, “See! I told you they were barbarians! Those rich Arabs!” The contrast of the Qatari driving a luxury car and paying only $200 a month to a housemaid is no different to my mind than the average American who picks up a Latino handyman at the gas station for household repairs, giving him cash and a McDonald’s meal at the end of the day.
Are we so different? In scale perhaps. Maybe proximity. Or even more significantly, opportunity.
A society that has problems is human. Yes, the conditions of the Nepalese workers, as many as 85 who died working in Doha’s summer temperatures, is inhuman. Nuanced reporting such as the Guardian’s piece is what we all need – expat, outsider or national – to understand the depth of the problem. To put faces and names to the “workers” who are quickly become a conversational item in a dialogue that is as much about how we talk about social change as the ethics behind a set of stadiums.
Villianizing an entire nation, and victimizing a population, casts oppositional roles, roles which are difficult to reform, and even more difficult to have any conversational about at all.
If we are interested in change, if we do want better conditions, then we have to give people back the dignity of individuality, on all sides.
We know these companies rely on national informants, people who live in Nepal, India, or the sending countries, who are profiting from the bait and contract switch as much as the private companies cutting corners. They are pieces of a global puzzle that has built this nation building machine powering the Arabian Gulf. A machine that has been decades in the assembling; starting with the talent to supply the fuel we use when we drive vehicles around the western hemisphere.
Where was the outcry then, as the Gulf states quietly built the stockpiles of cash many now envy them for? Is this unlike equipping the Taliban to overthrow the Soviets and then being surprised when they overthrow their masters?
If we care for the “worker” then we will not come from a place of judgment on systems that are in the process of changing. A social and economic change for Qatar akin to the shifting of technoic plates; a reordering of the fabric of society.
In the meantime, what was the name of the man who died when a wall fell over on him building our facility? How we find out his name, his family, we try to help get the body home?
If we are upset about the maid who is working 20 hours a day, we try to get her a new boss, use our authority to convince the sponsor to transfer her.
Yes, it takes time. It will involve each of us who are willing, regardless of our nationality. This is the start of all great reform; the level of the individual, well below what the rule of law can reform, the level of human conviction. Otherwise all we have is talk.
Of course, pointing the finger takes only a few seconds.
The rhetoric building around 2022, pushes us back into sides, back into a binary opposition of the ‘moral’ West and the ‘amoral’ rest or in this case rich, abusive Arabs.
From littering to car seats to civil rights or marriage equality, the development of western society has happened at its own pace through the concerted efforts of passionate individuals. If we alienate those willing to work towards a more equitable future of guest workers with our blanket judgments, we risk halting that development.