Arrest of Brits exposes troubled UAE-Qatar relations
James M. Dorsey
Delegates display red cards with the words ‘Show Qatar the Red Card’ as they support better working conditions for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. AFP PhotoThe 10-day detention of two World Cup 2022-related labor rights researchers from Britain points to escalating hostilities between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) over Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood. The event also highlights Qatar’s lack of transparency due to its silence about the fate of the two men, and has sparked fears that Qatar may be backtracking on its promises to improve the working and living conditions of its majority foreign worker population.
Krisna Upadhyaya and Gundev Ghimire, British nationals of Nepalese origin, were detained last week in Doha as they were about to leave for the airport. They were released 10 days later.
The two men were in Qatar to investigate labor rights on behalf of the Global Network for Rights and Development (GNRD), a Norway-based group with alleged links to the UAE. The two men were last heard of on Sunday, in a series of tweets suggesting that plain-clothes Qatari security personnel were following them at close range.
Since winning in 2010 the right to host the 2022 World Cup, Qatar has been stung by a campaign of critics from international human rights groups and international trade unions. The campaign draws attention to Qatar’s restrictive kafala (sponsorship) system that puts workers at the mercy of their employers. Qatar has since promised to substantially improve their conditions and rights but has yet to make good on the promises, which critics see as a first step.
Even if they were arrested on the grounds that GNRD allegedly is not a bona fide human rights group, the recent detention of the two Brits fuels mounting suspicions among human rights groups and trade unions that Qatar may not be serious about matching its words with deeds.
The GNRD, funded by anonymous donors to the tune of 3.5 million euros a year, has heaped unwarranted praise on the UAE’s widely criticized human and labor rights record, according to veteran Middle East journalist and author Brian Whitaker. Several Qatari nationals have been arrested in the UAE on spying charges, one of whom was dubbed a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International and sentenced to prison. These two facts have led to the suspicion that Upadhyaya and Ghimire were detained because they had possibly been working, unwittingly, for the alleged UAE front organization.
If in fact related to Qatar’s escalating dispute with the UAE, their arrests would signal that efforts to mitigate differences among Gulf states over Qatar’s idiosyncratic foreign policy have failed.
In March the UAE withdrew its ambassador from Doha in protest at Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood, alongside Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. UAE hostility towards the Brotherhood is long-standing and deep-seated. Alleged Brothers have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms in legal proceedings that have been condemned by rights groups. An emergency meeting of Gulf heads of state earlier this month to confront the threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) made no mention of the dispute. In recent weeks, however, the UAE has taken a lead in confronting the Brotherhood and other Islamists, with air attacks on Islamist forces in Libya.
Moreover, the UAE, like Qatar, has become a focal point of criticism of labor rights records and sponsorship systems. Citing Foreign Office reports, The Guardian earlier this year accused the UAE of torturing detained British nationals. The UAE has denied the charges.