Qatar to legalize trade unions as Saudi Arabia pushes closer Gulf cooperation

Qatar, in a bid to fend off an inter­na­tion­al trade union cam­paign against its host­ing of the 2022 World Cup, is tak­ing cau­tious steps to meet demands backed by world soc­cer body FIFA, to allow the estab­lish­ment of the emirate’s first trade union and to scrap its con­tro­ver­sial sys­tem of spon­sor­ship of for­eign labour con­demned by human rights groups as mod­ern day slav­ery.

The Qatari con­ces­sions come as the Gulf state in which for­eign­ers account for a major­i­ty of the pop­u­la­tion envi­sions recruit­ing up to one mil­lion over­seas work­ers for mas­sive infra­struc­ture projects. The projects will all ben­e­fit the World Cup but many, includ­ing a new air­port, expan­sion of the trans­port sys­tem and hotel and res­i­den­tial com­pounds were on the draw­ing board irre­spec­tive of the sports tour­na­ment.

The Qatari deci­sion increas­es pres­sure on Sau­di Ara­bia and the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates, the two mem­bers of the six-nation Gulf Coop­er­a­tion Coun­cil (GCC) that still ban unions to fol­low suit. Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait have all legal­ized trade unions but Bahrain is the only oth­er Gulf state to have abol­ished its for­eign labour spon­sor­ship sys­tem.

Nei­ther Sau­di Ara­bia nor the UAE are how­ev­er like­ly to fol­low Qatar’s exam­ple any time soon. Qatar’s con­ces­sion to FIFA and the inter­na­tion­al trade unions comes at a time that Sau­di Ara­bia is cajol­ing fel­low GCC states into mov­ing from a coun­cil to a union to bol­ster the abil­i­ty of the con­ser­v­a­tive Gulf monar­chies to con­front Iran and pre­vent the Arab upris­ings sweep­ing the Mid­dle East and North Africa from fur­ther encroach­ing on their fief­doms.

Per­sis­tent reports sug­gest that Sau­di Ara­bia and Bahrain, the first Gulf state to have vir­tu­al­ly run out of oil that last year bru­tal­ly squashed a pop­u­lar revolt with the assis­tance of the king­dom and the UAE, will declare a union at a GCC sum­mit sched­uled to be held in Riyadh lat­er this month.

Sau­di for­eign min­is­ter Prince Saud al-Faisal, in a speech this week to a GCC youth con­fer­ence deliv­ered on his behalf by his deputy cau­tioned that “coop­er­a­tion and coor­di­na­tion between the coun­tries of the Gulf Coop­er­a­tion Coun­cil (GCC) in its cur­rent for­mat may not be enough to con­front the exist­ing and com­ing chal­lenges, which require devel­op­ing Gulf action into an accept­able fed­er­al for­mat. The Gulf union, when it is real­ized, God will­ing, will yield great ben­e­fits for its peo­ples, such as in for­eign pol­i­cy with the pres­ence of a supreme Gulf com­mit­tee coor­di­nat­ing for­eign pol­i­cy deci­sions that reorders group pri­or­i­ties and real­izes group inter­ests,” he said.

The Riyadh sum­mit is expect­ed to dis­cuss the out­line of a union first pro­posed by Sau­di King Abdul­lah last Decem­ber. The Saud­is, fear­ful that Bahrain’s rebel­lious Shi­ite Mus­lim major­i­ty could spark fur­ther unrest in their pre­dom­i­nant­ly Shi­ite, restive, oil-rich East­ern Province, envi­sion a GCC polit­i­cal union in which they would be the major pow­er that would adopt joint for­eign and defence poli­cies.

Bahrai­ni secu­ri­ty forces clash almost dai­ly with Shi­ite pro­test­ers despite last year’s crack­down which pushed demon­stra­tors out of the island capital’s main square. Bahrai­ni oppo­si­tion forces fear that a union with the king­dom will fur­ther strength­en hard­lin­ers in the rul­ing Sun­ni Mus­lim Al Khal­i­fa fam­i­ly and open the door to a per­ma­nent pres­ence of Sau­di troops on the island.

A Gulf union would also bol­ster roy­al resis­tance in some states like the UAE to polit­i­cal lib­er­al­iza­tion and greater rights as embod­ied in the Qatari deci­sion to legal­ize trade unions. Qatar has con­sis­tent­ly chart­ed its own course that has put it at odds with the Saud­is. Qatar has backed in var­i­ous coun­tries in revolt the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood, a group deeply dis­trust­ed by the king­dom, while the Saud­is have sup­port­ed the more con­ser­v­a­tive Salafis.

GCC states have also failed to achieve una­nim­i­ty on a wide range of oth­er issues includ­ing mon­e­tary union, the build­ing of a cause­way link­ing Qatar and Bahrain and secu­ri­ty front infor­ma­tion shar­ing as well as the cre­ation of a cen­tral com­mand. The fail­ure to coop­er­ate more close­ly on secu­ri­ty prompt­ed by mutu­al dis­trust as well as lack of con­fi­dence in US reli­a­bil­i­ty has led to the recent scup­per­ing of the instal­la­tion of a joint mis­sile shield as a defence against Iran.

For its part, Qatar, by host­ing the 2022 World Cup, the world’s largest sport­ing event, and bid­ding for var­i­ous oth­er big tick­et tour­na­ments has opened itself to inter­na­tion­al scruti­ny as well as demands from var­i­ous groups to lib­er­al­ize so that it as a glob­al hub can accom­mo­date issues such as alco­hol and sex­u­al diver­si­ty that go against the region’s con­ser­v­a­tive grain. A GCC polit­i­cal union could com­pli­cate the Qatari bal­anc­ing act.

The Qatari union con­ces­sion came as a six-month ulti­ma­tum by the Inter­na­tion­al Trade Union Con­fed­er­a­tions (ITUC) that the Gulf state legal­ize unions and ensure that labour con­di­tions meet inter­na­tion­al stan­dards came to an end. The ITUC, which rep­re­sents 175 mil­lion work­ers in 153 coun­tries, had threat­ened Qatar with a glob­al cam­paign that would denounce under the slo­gan, ‘No World Cup in Qatar with­out labour rights,’ the Gulf state as a slave dri­ver.

The ITUC had charged ear­li­er in a report that the work­ing con­di­tions of migrant work­ers in Qatar and the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates were “inhu­man.” Enti­tled ‘Hid­den faces of the Gulf mir­a­cle,’ the mul­ti-media report demand­ed that Qatar prove that migrant work­ers build­ing infra­struc­ture for the 2022 World Cup were not sub­ject to inhu­man con­di­tions.

Qatari media quot­ed Labour Under­sec­re­tary Hus­sain Al Mul­la as say­ing that the country’s emir was con­sid­er­ing the plan to estab­lish an inde­pen­dent Qatari-led labour com­mit­tee to rep­re­sent work­ers’ inter­ests and an abo­li­tion of the spon­sor­ship sys­tem that would stop short of allow­ing for­eign­ers to freely change jobs.

The author­i­ties have recent­ly aban­doned the require­ment that for­eign work­ers sur­ren­der their pass­ports to their Qatari employ­ers. Mr. Al Mul­la said the plan had already been endorsed by the Qatari prime min­is­ter. It was not imme­di­ate­ly clear if the Qatari moves would sat­is­fy the ITUC.

“We want­ed to set up the labour com­mit­tee to help employ­ees and lift off the pres­sure we and oth­er Gulf coun­tries have been under from sev­er­al organ­i­sa­tions. We are often asked about the non-exis­tence of labour unions to defend labour­ers in Qatar. We had a labour com­mit­tee dur­ing the days of oil com­pa­nies. How­ev­er, the sit­u­a­tion in the Gulf is some­what dif­fer­ent because there are few Qataris who are labour­ers,” Mr. Al Mul­la said. He said for­eign­ers would have the right to vote in the com­mit­tee but would not be able to become board mem­bers.

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.