As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the world, governments throughout the Middle East are being forced to respond to what has become a devastating public health crisis. Of all the countries in the region, Iran has suffered the most with roughly 140,000 confirmed cases and more than 7,500 deaths as of May 26, 2020. In the Arabian Peninsula, the disease has thus far done considerably less harm, with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states and Yemen reporting far lower numbers than Iran.
Qatar’s number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has surpassed 47,000 while the death toll has remained relatively low at 28.
Qatar’s response to the crisis provides an interesting case of how the Gulf countries are dealing with the pandemic. As of May 26, Qatar’s number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has surpassed 47,000 while the death toll has remained relatively low at 28. Officials in Doha have imposed a series of strict measures, such as shutting down educational institutions, banning the entry of foreigners into the country, requiring the use of masks in public places (with one of the highest penalties in the world for failing to comply), and enforcing partial lockdowns to better contain the virus’ spread among the country’s small but diverse and urban population.
Nonetheless, Qatar still faces the challenge of having a large, low-income, and often poorly treated foreign labor population, posing further risks to the country’s global reputation and the public health of its population.
Advantages and Lessons Learned
Qatar’s enormous wealth, small population, and stable central government have undoubtedly placed the country in a strong position to preemptively and decisively address the COVID-19 crisis before any significant increases in cases. But perhaps what has most prepared the country to address a national crisis like COVID-19 is the lessons it has learned from facing nearly three years of economic blockade imposed by its neighboring countries.
The blockade and loss of access to import networks quickly taught Doha valuable lessons about securing the supply of critical goods.
In 2017, Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) imposed a blockade on Qatar, cutting off its access to key maritime, ground, and air shipping routes. The siege forced the Qataris to quickly reconfigure their national supply chain and logistics system. With a heavy reliance on imports and transshipment of critical goods through the ports, highways, and airports of these once-friendly neighbors, the blockade and subsequent loss of access to these networks quickly taught Doha valuable lessons about securing the supply of critical goods and even producing them locally.
As Qatar expert Andreas Krieg has pointed out, when the Gulf crisis first broke out in 2017, Doha was far less resilient in food security and highly dependent on imports. Yet after the siege was imposed almost three years ago, the country took steps to mitigate the supply chain challenges that the blockade presented.
The government quickly moved to not only geographically diversify the country’s supply chains (diverting imports from Saudi Arabia and the UAE to countries like Turkey and Iran) but also speed up localization of strategic commodities (cement, steel, plastics, etc.) and agricultural products. Companies such as the publicly-traded Baladna – a major producer of dairy products in Qatar – were quickly established, with thousands of cows and other livestock imported from as far away as Australia.
Qatar’s strategic reserves of perishable goods and food products have grown enough to last the country ten months.
Furthermore, the government also took the initiative to expand its stockpile of critical supplies like medicine and food. Qatar’s strategic reserves of perishable goods and food products have grown enough to last the country ten months in the case of a continued supply shortage, according to Krieg. With strong central controls over the Qatari economy, the government in Doha was also able to prevent food price volatility by imposing direct price controls or reaching into its deep pockets to provide further subsidies for the population.
Such efforts have had a direct impact on Qatar’s ability to face the COVID-19 crisis. When initial concerns were raised about food supplies and difficulty meeting local food demand, the government confirmed that food stockpiles would last at least a year.
Labor Rights Issues
Despite some of the positive steps that Qatar has taken to respond to the crisis, the government has nonetheless still faced criticisms over how its response has affected the vulnerable migrant workers in the country who have experienced the greatest increase in infection cases. Indeed, the COVID-19 crisis in the country has shed light on the public health risk created by poor living conditions for foreign laborers.
Doha’s Industrial Area, which has recently been locked down with residents not permitted to leave the zone, is one of the main clusters of Coronavirus cases in Qatar. Migrant workers, often from South Asian countries like India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, are subjected to crowded and unsanitary conditions ill-suited for practicing social distancing measures.
“Migrant workers trapped in camps such as those in Qatar are at particular risk of exposure to the virus.”
Amnesty International’s Deputy Director of Global Issues, Steve Cockburn, recently said: “As the world struggles to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, migrant workers trapped in camps such as those in Qatar are at particular risk of exposure to the virus.” As long as the pandemic and its aftermath continues, Qatar will have to re-asses the ways it handles its sizeable foreign worker population in order to ensure safer and healthier working conditions.
The Way Out of a Crisis
Thankfully, the country has the financial resources to weather the storm for the foreseeable future. The country’s leadership has already approved large stimulus plans, injecting significant liquidity into the market and providing guarantees for businesses and individuals. Through Qatar Development Bank, the government has rolled out a $21 billion USD support package primarily aimed at small and medium-sized enterprises providing them with financial support to face challenges to meet payroll and rent expenses. The government has also committed to supporting Qatar Airways and continuing work on projects to prepare the Gulf state for the FIFA World Cup in 2022, despite the financial and operational challenges precipitated by the crisis.
Doha will offer free testing, treatment, and a continuation of salaries for all Qatar’s residents including migrant workers.
The government has also implemented other measures to reduce the financial burden on citizens and residents. For example, the state has imposed a six-month moratorium on utilities and exemption of rent payments for certain industries. In response to the migrant workers’ plight which has received significant press in recent years, Thamer bin Hamad Al-Thani, Qatar’s Deputy Director of the Government Communications Office, wrote in the New York Times that the government in Doha will also offer free testing and treatment, as well as a continuation of salaries, for all Qatar’s residents including migrant workers.
Being among the richest countries in the world, Qatar is certainly in a position to make these promises to its residents, but the question of how successful it will be in fulfilling them remains unanswered. The market for one of Qatar’s biggest sources of revenue, liquified natural gas (LNG), is unstable and oversupplied with low prices likely for the foreseeable future.
Qatar Petroleum – the country’s national oil company and largest employer, announced that it would begin to cut its workforce as it faces the dual shock of COVID-19 and a massive drop in global oil prices. Outside of the oil and gas sector, Qatar Airways has announced plans for significant job cuts. The company has also entered into talks with Boeing and Airbus to defer aircraft orders into the future.
Qatar has acted decisively in leveraging its wealth, supply reserves, and healthcare system to minimize spread of COVID-19.
Ultimately, Qatar has acted decisively in terms of leveraging its national wealth, abundant supply reserves, and top-notch healthcare system to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Yet there still remain a number of challenges when it comes to the condition of foreign workers and the associated risks to public health in the time of a pandemic. These issues will continue to provide a challenge to the Qatari leadership and may potentially pave the way for future changes in the country’s economy.
Beyond Qatar: Vulnerabilities of the “Gulf Model”
However, Qatar is far from being alone in terms of being vulnerable to the “Gulf model” that depends so heavily on foreign labor. With some of the world’s highest migrant-to-local workers ratios, the GCC states are home to 23 million foreign workers who constitute 14 percent of the world’s migrants. GCC countries such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have also faced wide criticism for the treatment of foreign workers in these countries.
Many low-skilled workers from the developing world who work in the Gulf are “surviving on a drip feed of monetary compensation.”
Confined to congested labor camps on the outskirts of major Arabian cities, many low-skilled workers from the developing world who work in the Gulf are “surviving on a drip feed of monetary compensation.” For Gulf states at large, there are grave concerns about these overcrowded camps becoming greater hotbeds for the pathogen.
Rights groups such as Amnesty International have documented conditions in such compounds where migrant workers face terrifying realities amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in which, on top of serious health concerns, they no longer have their livelihoods all while lacking any option to repatriate. In this regard, Qatar’s promise to maintain wage payments to the foreign workers is to be commended.
By contrast, a recent incident in the UAE brought the struggles of unpaid migrant workers to the forefront. On May 19, a video was widely circulated by social media activists showing riots in the industrial district of Musaffah in Abu Dhabi where the disgruntled workers of Sawaeed Holdings protested for not being paid their wages and salaries for three months. Witnesses reported that police intervened and arrested many of the employees who participated in the unrest and damaged the company’s vehicles and property.
Yet, in order to create better conditions for migrant workers currently bound by the Kafala system[i] in the Arabian Peninsula, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates must take bold steps to mitigate threats to the health of these foreign laborers which, by extension, endanger all people in the Gulf and the greater Middle East.
The systems that govern migrant labor and institutionalize systemic discrimination unquestionably need further reform.
Furthermore, the systems that govern migrant labor and institutionalize systemic discrimination are unquestionably in need of further reform. Rather than merely “chipping away” at the exploitative kafala system, experts such as Hiba Zayadin maintain that fundamentally ending such systems is key to overcoming major issues stemming from the abuse of migrant workers.
Governments in the Gulf can use COVID-19 as an opportunity to better tackle longstanding issues of labor rights violations, abuse, and a lack of protection for vulnerable migrant workers. Locally, nationally, regionally, and globally, cooperation is necessary in order to protect the Gulf and the rest of the world from COVID-19. Therefore, there is a major need for all GCC states to put aside political, tribal, and ideological conflicts in order to help each other cope with this pandemic while addressing their shared vulnerabilities. Unless they do, overcrowded and unsanitary labor camps in the Gulf will continue to be the “perfect environment for a virus to spread.”
GCC states need to put aside political, tribal, and ideological conflicts in order to help each other cope with this pandemic.
Unfortunately, the Coronavirus pandemic has not prompted the countries blockading Qatar since mid-2017 to reconsider or soften their foreign policy approach toward Doha. To the contrary, earlier this month, the Saudis spread a fake story about a coup d’état that was underway in Qatar. Such continued weaponization of misinformation underscores how the six Gulf monarchies are not willing to end the GCC’s dormancy in order to use the Council as an institution that can enhance trans-national coordination in the struggle against COVID-19.
[i] The current form of the system was created in the 1950s and applies mostly to construction and domestic work. Under Kafala, “the workers are tied to their employers and sponsors, who have the power to grant or forbid their entry and exit into and from the country. In short, the employers control the workers’ visas and legal status. Due to the extent of this control, it has been likened to a modern form of slavery.” The system is used in all the Gulf States and to a lesser extent in Jordan and Lebanon as well.
Brett Sudetic is an advisor with Gulf State Analytics. As a management consultant, Brett has advised government organizations and state-owned enterprises throughout the region.
Lea Marchl is a contributor to Gulf State Analytics.