The two-month old crisis pitting Qatar against an alliance led by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia is proving to be a double-edged sword.
In addition to stimulating an arms race it has actually revived momentum for unprecedented, albeit snail-paced social reforms, initially sparked by Qatar’s winning bid for the 2022 soccer World Cup.
Those reforms break with policies among the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain. Until now, they where wholly designed to protect the region’s autocratic rulers rather than enhance rights.
The boycott backfired
Ironically, the revived reform momentum is an indication how the UAE-Saudi led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar has backfired.
It suggests that Qatar’s refusal to comply with the alliance’s demands that effectively would have put Qatar under Saudi and UAE custodianship is likely to impact long-standing social, economic and political relationships in the Gulf in ways that the Gulf states had not envisioned.
The boycott of Qatar also positions Saudi Arabia as well as the UAE as both bigger brothers of smaller Gulf states and potential threats.
“Smaller Gulf rulers now have increasing reason…to fear the Kingdom’s growing assertiveness under its new young Saudi king-to-be,” said former CIA official and Middle East expert Graham E. Fuller, referring to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The boycott of Qatar, Mr. Fuller added, constitutes a “new display of Saudi aggressiveness and vengefulness against Qatar (from which) we gain flashes of insight into what the shape of things to come in Peninsula geopolitics might be.”
Critics dismiss Qatar’s recent social policy changes as too little and primarily intended to garner international support in its dispute with the UAE-Saudi-led alliance. Indeed, reforms such as the recent introduction of permanent residency for a top layer of expatriates don’t benefit unskilled or semi-skilled workers.
Similarly, the lifting of visa requirements for nationals of 80 countries — which interestingly did not include Iran — fails to address the issue of exit visas. That is a major bone of contention in efforts by human rights groups and trade unions to get Qatar to radically reform, if not abolish, its contentious kafala or labor sponsorship system.
To be sure, Qatar has been slow to respond to both international calls for a change of its labor system and domestic complaints about issues about economic and educational benefits.
This also includes social issues such as the refusal to grant citizenship to children born in marriages of Qatari women to foreign men and restrictions on marrying a partner of one’s choice. Children of Qatari women were included among those eligible, but were not given the right to citizenship.
Nonetheless, they make Qatar the first Gulf state to accord to foreigners any sort of rights granted until now only to citizens beyond those associated with residency permits linked to a period of employment.
The changes also fit a pattern of carefully shattering taboos about public discussion of issues like gay rights, norms for women’s dress in public, and the right to marry a person of one’s choice, that emerged as a result of Qatar’s heavy investment in sports as a soft policy tool and the leveraging of Qatar’s successful World Cup by human rights groups and trade union to pressure Qatar.
A litmus test of how far Qatar is willing to push change is a crucial hearing in November by the International Labour Organization (ILO) that will evaluate whether the Gulf state has complied with promises to improve the living and working conditions of migrant workers.
The ILO warned that it would establish a Commission of Inquiry if Qatar had failed to act by November. Such commissions are among the ILO’s most powerful tools to ensure compliance with international treaties.
The UN body has only established 13 such commissions in its century-long history. The last such commission was created in 2010 to force Zimbabwe to live up to its obligations.
“The eyes of the world are on Qatar. The opportunity for the government is obvious, if it wants to prove its critics wrong… If the government takes the other path, of continuing to promote hollow reforms, then migrant labor abuse will be the gift that keeps on giving for Qatar’s political opponents,” said James Lynch of Amnesty International.