DOHA: Qatar has been hit by an “unprecedented campaign” of criticism since winning the bid to host the 2022 World Cup, its ruler Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani said on Tuesday, lashing out at “double standards” in a fierce rebuttal just weeks before the tournament starts.

The energy-rich and conservative Islamic Gulf state has spent tens of billions of dollars on hosting the first World Cup on Arab soil, but has faced mounting attacks over its human rights record and criticism for its treatment of migrant workers and the gay community.

The alleged abuses affecting legions of low-paid laborers who power Qatar’s economy and who built its gleaming World Cup stadiums have been a lighting rod for protest around the world, especially in Europe.

Qatar has repeatedly pushed back, insisting the country has improved protections for migrant workers and claiming the criticism is outdated.

In a rare public airing of frustration, Sheikh Tamim said Qatar was the victim of “fabrications”, hinting at hidden motives behind the criticism.

“Since we won the honour of hosting the World Cup, Qatar has been subjected to an unprecedented campaign that no host country has faced,” he said in a televised speech before the emirate’s legislative council, 26 days from the November 20 kick-off.

FIFA awarded the World Cup to an Arab country for the first time after a contentious bidding process in 2010. Qatar has since faced constant scrutiny over its treatment of foreign workers as well as LGBTQ and women’s rights.

This week, the government angrily rejected a report by the Human Rights Watch group which said police have arbitrarily detained and abused members of the LGBTQ community ahead of the World Cup.

The emir said Qatar had initially accepted negative commentary “in good faith” and “even considered that some criticism was positive and useful, helping us to develop aspects that need to be developed.

“But it soon became clear to us that the campaign continues, expands and includes fabrications and double standards, until it reached an amount of ferocity that made many wonder, unfortunately, about the real reasons and motives behind this campaign,” he said addressing a session of the Shura Council as Doha gears up to host football’s main global event.

Qatar expects 1.2 million visitors during the 29-day tournament, creating an unprecedented logistical and policing challenge for the tiny, gas-rich peninsula of less than three million people.

Sheikh Tamim said the event was a chance for Qatar to show “who we are, not only in terms of the strength of our economy and institutions, but also in terms of our civilisational identity.

“This is a great test for a country the size of Qatar that impresses the whole world with what it has already achieved. We accepted this challenge out of our faith in our potential, we the Qataris, to tackle the mission and make it a success. It is a championship for all, and its success is success for all.”

Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar and critics point out that women’s rights are restricted by male guardianship laws.

But the Gulf state has faced particular attention over the foreign workers who have built the infrastructure for Qatar’s economic miracle.

Conditions on construction sites were long condemned by international unions — ranging from safety standards to hours worked in the searing summer temperatures.

Rights groups including HRW and Amnesty International have insisted that Qatar and FIFA should do more to compensate workers who died or suffered injury on Qatar’s mega projects. They have demanded that FIFA set up a $440 million compensation fund — equalling the World Cup prize money.

But reforms have been praised by the union leaders who previously fought the government. Doha has introduced reforms including rules to protect workers from heat and a monthly minimum wage of 1,000 riyals ($275) and dismantled the “kafala” system that had prevented workers from changing jobs or leaving the country without the consent of their employers.

Foreign workers account for 85% of the some 3 million population of Qatar, which is among the world’s top natural gas producers and one of the wealthiest nations per capita.

Sheikh Tamim said higher energy prices had helped Qatar realise a government budget surplus of 47.3 billion riyals ($12.8 billion) for the first half of 2022, versus a projected deficit, and gross domestic product growth of 4.3%, according to initial estimates.

“The budget surplus will be directed to reducing the level of public debt and increasing the state’s financial reserves,” he said.

Published in Dawn, October 26th, 2022

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