Football puts dent in Qatari segregation

Football puts dent in Qatari segregation

Football puts dent in Qatari segregation

El-Jaish’s Kembo Ekoko (L) fights for the ball with Lekhwiya’s Ahmed Yaser during their Qatar’s Crown Prince Cup final football match in this file photo. AFP photo

Qatar is employing football to put a significant first chip in the wall that segregates its minority citizenry from its majority foreign labor and expatriate population.

The move that Qatari officials say is one of the undertakings they made in their successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup constitutes a first tentative step by a Gulf state towards some form of integration of non-nationals in a region largely populated by states in which citizens account for only a small percentage of the population.

The move, involving a Worker’s Cup in which 24 teams of foreign workers established by their employers, mostly construction companies, could see the Cup’s top clubs play against Qatar’s top league teams in a Super Cup later this year.

Nasser Yaacoubi, marketing manager of al-Ahli Doha, one of Qatar’s top league clubs owned by a member of the ruling al-Thani family and a pioneer of forging sports bridges between Qataris and non-Qataris, has seen his efforts triple stadium attendance. “Everybody likes football, everybody loves the ball. We have reached the stage where we realize that there is a huge potential support base that we can tap into,” he said.

Qatari officials said initiatives like that of Mr. Yaacoubi were in line with promises they made in bidding for the World Cup. Qatar pledged in its bid to initiate “a broad set of programs to promote the sustained integration [of foreigners] into Qatari life with football as the fulcrum” that would include “a forum that would connect migrant workers and expatriates with local football clubs and register existing amateur leagues with the [Qatar Football Association].”

The undertakings has forced Qatar to seriously address an existential problem for which there is no immediate solution: how does a citizenry that constitutes a mere 12 percent of the population give rights to its 88 percent foreign majority without losing control of its society, state and culture?

A major litmus test is looming as Qatar prepares to announce what it says will be a major overhaul, rather than the abolition of the kafala system. The reforms are expected to include shifting sponsorship from employers to the government and granting workers greater freedoms, such as the right to change employers after serving notice. Workers currently need their employers’ permission to change jobs.

Another litmus test is likely to be whether the enhanced welfare standards adopted by the 2022 Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy that is responsible for delivery of the World Cup for all contracts related to the tournament, as well as similar standards approved by Qatar Foundation are integrated into the law of the land.