19/10/2016 09:00 BST | Updated 20/10/2017 06:12 BST

Diamonds Show Flaws In Civil Society Approach To The Gulf

What do football and diamonds have in common? At best, both are "beautiful". Football is often called "the beautiful game". At worst, both are by-words for corruption, abuses and malfeasance. Both have also brought international scrutiny to countries in the Gulf and in situations where large sums of money are at stake.

Qatar is under pressure to reform employment law and practices to address workers' rights due to abuses uncovered during the construction of World Cup infrastructure in preparation for hosting the competition in 2022. The UAE (and especially Dubai) has attracted criticism of governance standards at its diamond trading exchange. This is pertinent as this year it chairs the Kimberley Process (KP), that certifies rough diamonds as being from conflict-free areas. Much of this scrutiny, criticism and pressure has come from international non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Amnesty International and others have highlighted abuses in Qatar, while Partnership Africa Canada (PAC), which dominates the KP Civil Society Coalition (CSC), is leading a boycott of the UAE's chairmanship. While less known than Amnesty International, PAC is a well-established Ottawa-based NGO that concentrates on building developing world NGOs focused upon rights and ethics in the natural resource sectors.

As Qatar, the UAE and other Gulf countries engage in greater depth with the international community and achieve milestones in that engagement, they will come under increased scrutiny from international NGOs. The football World Cup will be the largest sporting event ever held in the region. Dubai has emerged as a major diamond trading centre in the past five years and is the first Arab country to chair the KP. Gulf countries have historically avoided taking prominent positions in international initiatives and preferred to maintain a lower profile. In part, this reluctance stemmed from a desire to avoid attention on their internal affairs. The region's governments are now more confident. The result is a willingness to adopt a higher profile on the world stage. These same governments, accustomed to a compliant civil society, have proven ill-prepared for the scrutiny from NGOs and the resulting criticism and pressure.

For their part, international NGOs have struggled in their engagements in the region. I have watched other initiatives such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) struggle to gain traction in the region. EITI has some similarities with the KP. The two examples given here provide lessons to both the governments and the NGOs involved on how to conduct future relations for mutual benefit. Both case studies demonstrate the importance of engagement in good faith and the need for transparency. They also show the futility of conflict and antagonism. Amnesty International has succeeded in getting traction with the Qatari government through a combination of hard hitting reports and engagement on the issues. Qatar has also shown a willingness to engage and to act. The result is a 2015 decree that reforms employment law, giving workers more rights and seeking to end some of the worst abuses of the previous system. The law comes into force in December. Both sides have remained respectful of each other and shown that engagement can lead to positive outcomes.

By contrast, PAC has been involved in a car crash. It is boycotting the UAE's chairmanship of the KP and so will not attend the plenary session in Dubai in November. It did not attend a key meeting earlier this year and refused to participate in a UAE-organised workshop on rough diamond valuation. PAC has also launched fierce personal attacks against the UAE's representative Ahmed bin Sulayem, head of the Dubai Multi-Commodity Centre (DMCC) which hosts the diamond exchange. PAC's approach not only demonstrates a lack of respect but is proving ineffective. The boycott is the most recent tactic in a long running campaign against the UAE. This campaign risks distracting PAC from its primary goal of moving the KP beyond conflict free diamonds to embrace diamonds tainted by human rights abuses in countries such as Zimbabwe.

Fortunately, the PAC boycott has so far not prevented the UAE from achieving some success as chair, including the re-introduction of Venezuela into the KP and the implementation of a scheme to allow diamonds from non conflict areas of the Central African Republic to enter the market. PAC, which is funded largely by US and EU tax payers and in turn funds NGOs on the ground in Africa, has denied a voice to for a year to those it claims to represent, namely African NGOs from countries dependent on the diamond trade.

PAC needs to tread carefully or risk undermining the KP through following its own agenda. The KP is based on an inter-government agreement. NGOs, of which PAC is the self-appointed leader, are there only at the invitation of the member states (as are companies) and have observer status. Nevertheless, civil society's participation is vital for the KP's credibility. Mission creep and heavy-handed tactics could lead to breakdown in the trust between the KP's stakeholders.

For both governments and NGOs in the Gulf, engagement and mutual respect is the path to success. Governments have to face up to some hard truths but the reputation gains are worth the pain. For NGOs, reports and campaigns only go so far, talking to governments who are the only ones who can enact change, is more likely to lead to success.