Boris Johnson prefaces his 800-word hagiography on Qatar - 'We can't afford to ignore our dynamic friends in the East' - with an anecdote about camel beauty contests, before concluding that Qatar is one of the emerging markets where Britain 'must expand our businesses and restore our instinct as a great trading nation.' Johnson is astute and knows precisely the message that he is conveying - Qatar still has its traditions and is entitled to hold on to them, but it is also awash with wealth and British companies should not fail to get their slice of the pie, whether it is in the form of Qatari investment in the UK or British companies winning contracts in Qatar. As Mayor of London, Johnson is entitled to try to attract foreign investment and cheerlead for British business abroad, but we should not be deluded into supposing that Qatar is a benevolent former colonial outpost. The truth is far more sinister.
Johnson laments the fact that "some human rights outcry" means that "they no longer have old-fashioned child jockeys on the back of camels" in Qatar. The outcry to which he refers arose from the fact that children as young as five who were imported from south Asia and east Africa were dying or suffering permanent disabilities due to their involvement in competitive camel racing. This was revealed in a 2005 study by four Qatar-based medics. They examined a sample of 275 injuries suffered between 1992 and 2003, recording fractured femurs, spines and pelvises and intracranial haemorrhages, as well as 18 neck injuries that resulted in 5 permanent spinal cord disabilities, and 3 deaths 'though it is possible that more patients died before arriving at the hospital.'
The practice is associated with the neighbouring United Arab Emirates, two of whose rulers faced an ultimately unsuccessful class action lawsuit for civil damages for child slavery in 2006 in the United States, but it was also popular in Qatar. It began in its competitive form in the mid-1970s and nobody knows how many children from Sudan, Mauritania, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan were brought to the Gulf and suffered injuries or died before pressure from the US State Department finally forced the Gulf states to take action in 2005. The use of foreign children in a sport that had the 'highest mortality of all sports in the region' is symptomatic of Qatar's continuing disregard for the welfare of its non-citizen workforce. Yet, Johnson makes no reference to any problem in that regard when he refers to Qatar's successful bid for the 2022 World Cup and his hope that the Qataris 'may need our expertise in keeping such a big project to a timescale and on budget'. That may be the least of British contractors' worries. At a press conference in Doha in February this year, Human Rights Watch warned that Qatar looks set to become "a crucible of exploitation and misery" in the run up to the 2022 World Cup unless its government radically improves labour conditions for the thousands of workers being imported from south Asia to build the stadia and infrastructure required to host the event.
Only hours later, a colleague and I witnessed at first-hand how shortcomings in Qatar's legal and regulatory framework currently conspire to trap vulnerable workers in the gas-rich Gulf state. We visited a group of 40 Nepalese workers who were occupying a half-built residential site 50 km north of Doha. The company that employed them had gone bust several months previously and had refused to meet its obligation to pay for the exit visas they must obtain to leave Qatar and their air tickets home, never mind the 6 months in unpaid wages that they said it still owed them. The workers had effectively been trapped in Qatar by the inaction of their employer - one of thousands of locally owned subcontractors that work on all major projects - but two high-profile British firms were only a couple of notches up the labour supply chain. Qatar's stubborn refusal to implement crucial labour reforms means that Johnson is encouraging British firms to bid for contracts in a country and a sector where there is obvious risk.
Londoners might welcome Qatari investment in their city and British companies have an understandable desire to win lucrative contracts in Qatar at a time when the domestic sector is so depressed, but neither should be under any illusions as to the reality of life for many foreign workers in Qatar. Far from being a quaint outpost of wealthy camel fanciers, Qatar is ruled by a small circle of individuals who combine huge ambition with a deeply problematic attitude to human rights. If Britain's business leaders don't want to be associated with serious and damaging abuses in Qatar, they should do their due diligence. The Mayor of London, for his part, should do a bit more research.