Abuse of migrant workers, LGBT persecution, control of women, and allegations of Fifa corruption. As the World Cup begins, our Writer at Large speaks to the one man who knows Qatar inside out to discover the truth about this strange and dangerous nation

DR John McManus tells a neat little story which sums up much of his adventures in Qatar – and his thoughts on the ills which beset the nation. The tale centres on Scotland.

During a trip to the Qatari desert, his hosts learned of his Scottish roots. Immediately, talk turned to clans and kilts.

Qataris see a link between their tribes and tribal clothing, and Scotland’s Highland traditions. As an anthropologist who spent a year in Qatar investigating the nation ahead of today’s World Cup, McManus saw deeper meaning in the exchange.

Kilts, he notes, are an 18th-century invention. They are a made-up tradition. Qatar is a nation desperately trying to make sense of itself. In just a few generations, it has gone from an almost medieval, impoverished backwater to one of the world’s richest countries.

Qatar looks to the past to give it meaning, and that has created a toxic mix of ethnonationalism. Qataris see an affinity with Scotland’s kilt: a symbol that bridges a romantic, simple, easily understood past, and a chaotic, complicated present.

More importantly, though, the kilt speaks of Qatar’s British connections. Qataris are acutely aware of British history – after all, we shaped their country. In fact, if it wasn’t for Britain some of the biggest scandals that hit Qatar in the run-up to the World Cup might not have been so bad. The brutal kafala system – which creates a master-servant relationship between employer and employee – is a direct legacy of the British Empire, McManus explains. Qatar was a British protectorate until 1971.

McManus’s new book, Inside Qatar: Hidden Stories From One Of The Richest Nations On Earth, is the perfect primer for understanding the controversies raging around one of the most contentious sporting events in history.

Worker abuse

OUTRAGE began around allegations of bribery and Qatar’s selection as World Cup host. But in terms of scandal, that was a mere appetiser given what was to come as human rights came crashing to the fore.

As McManus explains, when he sat down with The Herald on Sunday to discuss Qatar, a staggering 89 per cent of the population is made up of migrant workers. Only 11% of the population are Qatari – that’s just 370,000 people, vastly outnumbered by downtrodden foreign workers. In demographic terms, it’s a basket case. As so many migrant workers are men, 72% of the population is male.

It is all down to oil wealth. Qatar floats on a sea of cash. Money is no object, so foreign workers are drafted in as servants, drivers, and – crucially – the labourers who built the World Cup infrastructure. Many live in camps in dire conditions.

The kafala system meant workers could not change jobs or leave Qatar without permission from their employer. Allegations arose of Qatar using “forced labour”, with wages withheld – sometimes for seven months – and passports confiscated. Humiliation and verbal abuse are frequent. Nepali workers were not allowed to travel home to see families after the 2015 Nepal earthquake. Some workers building stadiums earned just 82p an hour. The death toll among migrant workers since Qatar won the World Cup bid is around 6,500. Migrant workers who protest are arrested and deported.

One Pakistani migrant worker described Qatar to McManus as “sweet poison” – in other words, he needed to go there to make money but the personal cost was brutal. McManus witnessed foreign workers humiliated by Qataris during his travels. In one encounter, a Sri Lankan driver was intimidated by a Qatari who dripped “aggression and entitlement”.

Despite such ugliness, McManus isn’t here to simply denounce Qatar. “There’s an impression that it’s a place detached from the rest of the world, when in reality it’s tightly enmeshed within the region itself and globally.”

In other words, migrant labourers would not be exploited if there wasn’t brutal poverty in nations like Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. In total, around 1.2 million migrant workers make up 94% of the workforce. That is five foreign workers for every Qatari. Such imbalance creates real unease among Qataris. This fear around “being outnumbered” may account for the harshness meted out to foreign workers. Qatar “is a fearful place”, McManus says – for workers and Qataris.

Britain’s legacy

THIS takes McManus neatly to Britain’s legacy of empire and the kafala system. Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, said the kafala system – which operates across much of the Gulf – creates “fundamentally slave states”. Amnesty International interviewed female domestic workers in Qatar. They regularly worked 14-hour days seven days a week – some worked 18-hour days. There were reports of being insulted, slapped and spat on. Some were victims of sexual assault as employers have almost total power over them.

Kafala, says McManus, “was tough to witness”. He sees it as “the most egregious example globally” of power imbalance between worker and employer. Kafala “completely” underpins the abuse of migrant workers. “It’s a wild west, employers can do what they want.”

“But how did we end up here?” McManus asks. The answer, uncomfortably, is Britain. “Kafala arises out of the structures of the British Empire,” he says.

“Historically,” McManus adds, “kafala was used for providing assurances in financial or legal interactions – providing bail for someone in a criminal case, or a guarantee for debt. So, this structure – which was basically a poor person who needs bail, relying on someone of means – was actually quite benign.”

However, “the British extended that logic to labour – to a system of work sponsorship for entry and visas”, he says, adding: “It’s taken the idea of someone being sponsored for legal requirements, and said in order to bring people into the country they must be vouched for. So, we got that switch, and that’s obviously the structure now.”

Clearly, he says, Qatar isn’t absolved of blame. The nation has been independent for 50 years so “could have decided to adapt or change” the kafala system. “However, before anyone who’s British throws stones about this terrible system, they need to realise there’s a historic link there … If you’ve grown up in a country like Britain, where there hasn’t been a proper reckoning with historically what it has done, how do you expect people to have that inbuilt sense of comparison, to be able to spot hypocrisy or complicity?”

Although Westerners in Qatar also work under kafala – in that they must be sponsored – the country’s silent caste system means no Europeans or Americans would ever be abused. The worst they would face is summary dismissal, as occurred during Covid.

In fact, Westerners, including Britons, in Qatar can be pretty nasty themselves to foreign workers like maids. “I witnessed people from my country who would behave very differently towards someone cleaning their home in Britain than they do in Qatar,” McManus says. As domestic staff “don’t have the same rights”, he adds, that “immediately changes the relationship … I saw behaviour which I don’t think people would engage in elsewhere”.

After scandals around the abuse of workers broke there were moves to change kafala laws, supposedly to make employment fairer. Human rights organisations, though, say reforms don’t go far enough. Amnesty says there is lack of “implementation and enforcement … Thousands of workers across all projects are still facing issues such as delayed or unpaid wages, denial of rest days, unsafe working conditions, barriers to changing jobs, and limited access to justice, while the deaths of thousands of workers remain uninvestigated”.

McManus says: “The cynic might say that once the attention moves on after the World Cup a lot of this will just be left as it is.” If legal changes aren’t enforced, “in terms of workers, their material, daily interactions, won’t have changed very much”. McManus notes, though, that while Western nations condemn the treatment of migrant workers, their own governments are not renowned for treating refugees with respect. We have our own “transgressions”, he says. Rather than indulging in “whataboutery” we should have a “degree of reflection”.

LGBT rights

THERE has been much anger around the issue of homosexuality being illegal in Qatar. LGBT activists have called for the World Cup to be cancelled. England’s FA chief executive Mark Bullingham assured LBGT fans they won’t be arrested if they hold hands or kiss in public. Britain’s Foreign Secretary James Cleverly drew ire when he said LGBT fans should “respect the law” in Qatar.

McManus paints a curdled picture of Qatari heterosexuality: around 43% of marriages are to a relative, often a first cousin, so there is “above average instance of genetic disease”.

On his first visit, he was offered male sex toys in a shop. “The population is overwhelmingly comprised of men, most of whom work six or seven-day weeks and live in labour camps. Contact with the opposite sex comes mainly in the form of the occasional interaction with a shop assistant or administrator.

“Workers have more opportunity for intimacy with each other, of course. But living four to eight people in a dormitory room does not exactly offer a lot of privacy. Of course there are gay people in Qatar. Unfortunately, Qatar isn’t alone in being a place where LBGT rights aren’t really a thing.” Like many aspects of Qatari life, McManus says how LBGT people are treated will “be linked to your passport. If you’re from the West, in terms of the hierarchy, you’re second only to Qataris”. He thinks it is unlikely Qatar – a publicity-conscious regime which dreams of being a “global player” – will crack down on LGBT fans regarding “what goes on behind closed doors”. However, how authorities would react to “public displays of affection is harder to predict”.

The patriarchy

WOMEN’S rights are severely curtailed. Qatar, though, isn’t “as restrictive a country” as Saudi. “Women have been allowed to drive, albeit under certain conditions, for several decades. They’re encouraged by the state to work. Three times as many women as men graduate from university. Yet at the same time, most Qataris adhere to various schools of Wahhabism, an austere, ultra-conservative movement that eschews even music and shaving as part of the return to a ‘purer’ form of Islam.

“The country is shaped by highly patriarchal notions of family. Women require the approval of a male guardian – usually their father or husband – to marry, study abroad, or in many cases, even to obtain a driving licence.”

Still, there are many extra-martial affairs and pre-marital sex even though both are banned. Young people whisper phone numbers to each other in shopping malls to arrange hook-ups. “In hotels, you’ll often see women with full face veils on which is actually quite rare in Qatar – they cover their hair but don’t wear face veils.” These women in full face veils in hotels “aren’t overly pious, it’s because they’re going to meet a lover and don’t want their faces seen on security cameras”.

Sexual freedom “has to be on the down low, which has psychological impact for sure. How must it feel to not be able to publicly be who you are? It must be incredibly difficult”. The regime may want to be slightly more “progressive”, but strong conservative elements mean moving “too fast” could cause a dangerous backlash and do more harm than good, McManus suggests.

Strange land

TO outsiders, Qatar is complex and contradictory. It has been accused of propping up Islamic extremism and terror, which led to Saudi, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severing diplomatic relations. However, President Biden designated Qatar a “major non-Nato ally”.

McManus says that regional politics are “complicated”. There is no real civic society, no free speech, or free press, but Qatar created one of the world’s biggest media brands: Al Jazeera.

Qatar hovers around the top of the world’s richest nations, sometimes even taking first place. It owns the Empire State Building – and more of London than the royal family. Qatar’s hydrocarbon wealth means the tiny indigenous population is showered with riches by the autocratic absolute monarchist regime. That’s why Qatar is a literal boomtown able to spend $200 billion on the World Cup – and why the average Qatari blows $4,000 monthly on luxury goods. Most Qataris drive top-of-the-range cars and want for nothing. There is a fashion for falconry, with birds costing around $35,000. Some have “stables” full of birds of prey. Migrants are treated like trash but there is a “state-subsidised falcon hospital”. Young Qatari men spend nights racing expensive cars around cities that have grown out of the desert in the last few decades. There is no taxation but no democracy either. That’s the trade-off, as McManus explains. Clearly, though, just as there are many LGBT Qataris, there are also many who want democracy, migrants respected, and women’s rights.

Although the present is rosy, the future isn’t. Climate change means a hydrocarbon economy can’t last forever. The regime wants to turn Qatar into a knowledge economy, but state oppression and brutal migration laws are hardly conducive. Many museums stand sadly empty.

Qatar’s inordinate riches have created a dark ethnonationalism. “Qatar jealously protects its wealth by making citizenship by birth or naturalisation next to impossible to maintain. Mechanisms have been created for distributing the largesse in the form of free university education, generous gifts of land and well-paid jobs in the state sector.”

That has caused real social dislocation. “Elderly Qataris who remember having no running water watch their grandchildren race Ferraris down Doha’s streets,” McManus says.

“The government bends over backwards to make sure [Qataris] can have all-expenses-paid apprenticeships to work in oil. You want to study at university – here’s a grant. You want to study abroad – here’s more grant.” Around 80% of Qataris work in the public sector; utilities are effectively free. There are a lot of disaffected youth, though. Like Westerners, wealthy Qataris grow jaded. When life comes on a “gilded platter” it saps ambition, “dulls motivation” and the desire to succeed and improve. “But if you want it, you can absolutely get it,” McManus says.

Unlike in the West, there is no real risk of poverty if Qataris do badly at school or don’t work hard. Some do get into debt though mostly due to “trying to keep up with the Joneses pressure”. If your neighbours have Land Cruisers and Maseratis, you might feel that a Porsche is an absolute necessity.

Gilded prison

FALCONRY, a national obsession, represents a psychological connection to a lost past that is imagined as idyllic. The ancestors of modern Qataris were Bedouins who used falcons to hunt for food in the desert. McManus sees an echo of Brexit Britain, and the nostalgic shudder for lost imperial glory which helped cause our rift with Europe. Qatar is in the grip, says McManus, “of nationalism, pure and simple”. He adds: “Unfortunately, it’s a heady cocktail that is supped by many across the world. Britain was very much enthral to that during the 2016 referendum.” America, France and Italy also mainline ethnonationalism, he notes. Like in Qatar, “there’s a not insignificant number of people whose response to the changing issues of the modern world is to hark back to an imagined past when things were ‘better’”.

The grim echoes of both past British rule and modern British life should make the UK public a little less judgmental about Qataris, McManus hopes. If we were born into their lives, would we be any different, he wonders. To some extent, Qataris are trapped in a golden prison of their own creation. The Qatari dream is, in fact, a nightmare for those who fall into the country’s orbit.

The nation is as much “sweet poison” for Qataris as it is for migrant workers, and the LGBT football fans from the West arriving in Doha today.

Will the World Cup prompt Qatar to modernise, as some defenders of the tournament claim? McManus says one thing is for sure: it’s good to hold the event in the Middle East, a region that rarely gets any world “treats”. Certainly, he doesn’t think a nation like Britain, should be “hectoring” Qatar. “That’s not a good look given the historical record,” he says. “Ultimately, holding prominent events generates attention which can be useful at highlighting issues.

However, no-one changes their views by being shouted at. “If Qatar is going to change, it will be the people of the country who will be the means for change. As outsiders, the best way to aid is to be an ally to those people campaigning for change within the country, rather than trying to assume the mantle ourselves.”

On that note, McManus needs to dash. He’s got a plane to catch – to Doha. He’s got tickets for four games.