Qatar’s foreign workers are modern-day slaves. It is funding reaction around the world. And it is buying up chunks of Britain. Worried? You should be...
When we first saw the Al Jazeera TV News Channel, during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it was hailed as refreshing, good, independent journalism, mainly because it reported on the war from what appeared to be an independent perspective rather than the biased news from the invaders’ media. Soon, we could all get Al Jazeera on our TV. We knew it was based in Qatar, but most of us knew nothing of the country.
The London Shard, owned by Qatar’s Al Thani family.
What has become clearer to us since, is that Al Jazeera is the mouthpiece of the Qatari ruling family, the Al Thanis, who are buying vast properties across London, have bought one of Europe’s biggest football clubs in Paris Saint-Germain and who appear to have bought FIFA or at least the votes necessary to host the 2022 Football World Cup. So what is Qatar and who are the Al Thani family?
To look at the history of Qatar, it is necessary to look at the history of the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf. In 1744 a pact was concluded between a powerful clan from the province of Najd led by Muhammad bin Saud and the followers of the influential preacher Muhammed bin Abd Al-Wahhab. The Wahhabis believed in spreading their religion by force of arms, which is exactly what happened. Ottoman colonial forces from Egypt defeated the Saudi–Wahhabi alliance in the 19th century. But they returned to power and controlled even more of central Arabia by the end of the century.
On the east coast of the Arabian Peninsula there were a number of other clans that were threatened by the Saudi– Wahhabi alliance. Britain was able to take advantage of this situation by offering
“protection” to these clans against Saudi–Wahhabi attacks in exchange for friendly relations with the clan chiefs. In truth, the British East India Company controlled the highly profitable maritime trade routes between Bombay (Mumbai) and Basra and needed to safeguard these routes.
Towards the end of the 18th century, the Company complained of disruptive “pirate attacks” on its ships, but in reality these were an invention by the Company which used them as an excuse to launch naval and amphibious attacks on various ports in the lower Persian Gulf.
Conquest by treaty
Britain then began offering peace treaties or “truces” to several clan sheikdoms in the area, creating what became known as the Trucial States. The ruling families became recognised by Britain as heads of these states, which ceded foreign policy to Britain and promised no further pirate attacks in exchange for imperial protection.After several renewals, the treaties were made permanent in 1853 under the Perpetual Maritime Truce.
Bahrain went even further and agreed a British permanent regional military base. Qatar at that time was part of Bahrain, albeit with a different dominant family – the Al Thanis. The Al Khalifa clan attacked Doha, the home of the Al Thani clan, from the sea and in doing so breached the peace treaty with Britain. Consequently, Britain intervened and separated off Qatar, and consequently the Al Thanis,
This history, with its emphasis on clans, tribes, or families intermingled with British colonialism, is useful to know because it shows that Qatar has never been a nation state. It was always a colonial convenience built around one family dynasty.
By the 20th century, the ruling dynasties of all the Trucial States were direct creations of British colonialism. One of the most important aspects of British control over the region was political support provided to specific families.
The rulers even had to sign documents guaranteeing future “heirs” to ensure ongoing British control. They were also required to sign up to clauses forbidding rulers from entering into agreements with non-British parties. This was all about keeping British colonial rivals, namely France and Germany, out of the Persian Gulf. By the 1920s, Britain was paying rent to the Trucial States for landing rights for aircraft en route to and from India, for port and maintenance facilities and for drilling rights for oil. Each ruling family had to sign up to agree that they would receive no royalties from oil without the consent of Britain. Qatar was no exception. So it becomes obvious why Britain wanted to maintain a single-family dynasty in power in each Trucial State.
Doha, capital of Qatar: headquarters of reaction.
Photo: Paul Cowan/shutterstock.com
The decision by the Labour government of Harold Wilson to withdraw from its remaining colonies “East of Suez” led to the British government’s announcement in 1971 that it also intended to withdraw from Qatar. Britain still intended to keep control through the ruling Al Thani family. A constitution was drawn up creating an Advisory Council to manage Qatar, with every member selected by the Emir and under the control of the Al Thani family.
A clause in the constitution required every Qatari citizen to “Pledge their loyalty and absolute obedience to the Ruler in the fear of God”. A cult of personality was developed and portraits of the Emir, as the ruling Al Thani was now called, with his son on his right and his unelected Prime Minister on his left, appeared everywhere.
The net result of this history is what some have called a “rentier” state. Marx first discussed the concept of rentier capitalism in the 1860s, in the context of a decadent class which benefits from profit-income derived from renting out property and does not actually produce anything itself. That is precisely what Qatar and other Gulf sheikdoms did before independence and what they now do on an industrial scale.
Qatar has the second biggest reserves of natural gas in the world. But this resource is not extracted by the use of Qatari labour and capital. It is extracted by using foreign labour and foreign capital. Some of the profit-income and royalties that Qatar takes from the foreign companies is distributed among Al Thani family members. Some is passed on to other “citizens” - that is, Qatari members of other families – in the form of benefits. For example, low cost housing developments, land and interest free loans to develop it, marriage benefits of around $20,000 and no income tax.
Those “citizens” who do deign to work are in high-paid public service jobs. None of these benefits, except exemption from paying income tax, is available to those foreign workers, who outnumber the population of 250,000 “citizens” by a ratio of 8:1. In fact you will not find Qatari staff on Qatar Airlines, at Doha Airport, or on any other major infrastructure in Qatar.
The real class nature of Qatar would at best be described as feudalism and at worst slavery. The dubious awarding of the 2022 Football World Cup has lifted the lid on the conditions of the more than two million migrant workers in Qatar, many of whom are working on constructing the stadia for the events.
All unskilled and domestic workers are hired under the Kafala system by which every worker must have a sponsor. This is usually their employer. The workers’ passports are confiscated and they are committed to a contract. They are not allowed to leave the country without the sponsor’s permission. They are not permitted to leave their contractual work.
Pay, which is very low anyway, is usually withheld and often not paid at all. Conditions at work, particularly health and safety in the construction industry, are amongst the worst in the world. Last year, for example, 185 Nepalese construction workers died working on World Cup venues in Qatar and 382 have died over the last two years. These are just the figures for Nepalese, who comprise one sixth of the migrant workforce. The other migrant workers come from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines. The real death toll will be much higher.
A representative from the International Trade Union Confederation who visited Qatar described the situation as follows: “Foreign workers in Qatar are modern-day slaves to their local employers. The local Qatari owns you.” FIFA has recently said that there is nothing they can do to change the situation, suggesting that Qatari money talks.
Qatar is spending an estimated £137 billion on building the stadia and other facilities for the World Cup. This is just a drop in the ocean of Qatar’s wealth, or the Al Thani family’s riches. They own the Shard in London, Harrods, the Olympic Village, swathes of Canary Wharf, No 1 Hyde Park – the world’s most expensive block of flats, a sizable chunk of Sainsbury’s, 20 per cent of British Airports Authority and 20 per cent of the London Stock Exchange. During the banking crisis of 2008, it was to Qatar that Barclays Bank looked to receive a bail-out loan to avoid being taken over by the government. Barclays raised £4.5 billion from Qatar in what was called a loan swap.
The British government is believed to have offered guarantees to Qatar to invest in infrastructure projects such as the Northern Line Tube extension to Battersea, the Mersey Gateway toll bridge and the partial conversion of Drax coal fired power station to biofuel. Qatar has asked for “first refusal” over some of Britain’s biggest infrastructure projects when they are on the drawing board. By 2011, 95 per cent of Britain’s imported Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) was from Qatar. Hardly surprising then that Qatar is the biggest exporter of LNG in the world.
Qatar has the highest per capita income in the world, and that calculation is based on a population that includes both Qatari “citizens” and its migrant workers. So if the migrants were taken out of the calculation, Qatari “citizens”, and particularly the Al Thani family, would be wealthy beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
Qatar also hosts the Al Udeid US military base housing some 10,000 personnel. From here, bombing missions over Afghanistan and Iraq have been launched, and no doubt there are plans for the bombing of Iran to hand. The Qatar Air Force took part in the bombing of Libya – except that the pilots were not Qatari but foreign mercenaries. 70 per cent of Qatari Armed Forces are foreign mercenaries, led by Sandhurst-trained Qatari officers.
Qatar also funded and armed the Islamist opposition in Libya. Today Qatar is funding more mercenaries, this time in Syria. Qatar funds and arms the Islamic Front, a ragbag of Islamic jihadis fighting the Syrian government. It actually pays the wages of these jihadis. Syria, a country that had no need for migrants or mercenaries and had a proper labour code compared to the Kafala system, is being dragged back to feudalism by trillionaire robber barons, or to be more specific robber sheiks.
With Qatar preparing to buy up more of our infrastructure, workers should be very concerned. This foreign investment by Qatar is part of its survival plan for when the gas eventually runs out, as the Qatari economic model is unsustainable. It cannot continue to distribute largesse to the clan members or continue to pay its foreign workforce unless it has another source of income. That source is to be us. We should reject any foreign takeover of our infrastructure, whether it be the NHS or the Northern Line extension. Britain belongs to us. ■