While the West has traditionally been vocal about concerns over workers’ rights abuses in the GCC countries, it is a widely known principle in international relations that self-interest trumps everything else. Ever since Qatar beat the USA, Australia, Japan and South Korea to win hosting rights to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in 2010, despite never having qualified to play in the World Cup itself, it has been suffering snide comments about its eligibility to host the event, ranging from bribery accusations to poor treatment of expatriate labor and, more recently, anti-LGBT laws. However, as the geopolitical sands have shifted during the past decade, the same countries are taking a visibly different position.
Berlin’s scramble for alternative gas supplies
Foreseeing a gas crisis in the coming winter months, Europe is quickly searching for alternative supplies to Russian gas. Azerbaijan is being wooed by the EU officials for the very reason, but strong Russian influence in the South Caucuses and a fragile ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan make this an unviable option. The other, relatively safe, option is the GCC. With this in mind, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is currently on a whirlwind tour of the biggest gas exporters in the region—Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar, eager to sign gas deals that can ensure a stable gas supply for German residents during the harsh winter months.
Chancellor Scholz’s 2-Day Trip
Chancellor Scholz’s first stopover was Jeddah, on 24 September 2022, where he met the Saudi Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). For the German economy, Saudi Arabia is an attractive source of hydrogen, which it wants to use for energy instead of natural gas. Ironically, just 4 years ago, Germany was among a handful of European countries that had imposed a ban on 18 Saudi nationals who were believed to be involved in the MBS–sponsored assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The next day, Chancellor Scholz flew to Abu Dhabi where a formal agreement was signed for the supply of LNG to Germany starting from December 2022. Germany has been rapidly developing its LNG terminal infrastructure under the realization that it has to reduce reliance on Russian gas and explore other sources. The initial shipment from UAE will be for 137,000 cu m, which is not a lot, but it is a first step at building deeper relations within the region. The same day, the Chancellor landed in Doha, where he met the ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, and even committed to send an official representative to the FIFA event, which is scheduled to kick off on 20 November 2022.
Despite pressure from home-grown as well as international groups to take a firm stand on the human rights situation in the Gulf countries, including not only poor workers’ conditions, but arbitrary political arrests and restrictions on gender minorities, the Chancellor did not raise these issues. He even praised the Qatari government for making progress on workers’ conditions, indicating that Berlin has more important things to worry about.
The FIFA World Cup—Berlin Sings a Different Tune
Since winning the FIFA World Cup hosting bid in 2010, Qatar has been developing its infrastructure rapidly, mainly through foreign labour from the Indian subcontinent. New roads, hotels and stadiums have been constructed. At the same time, thousands of workers have lost their lives due to dangerously high temperatures, absence of adequate breaks and drinking water, and squalid living conditions.
German football officials have repeatedly alleged corruption on the part of Qatar in being awarded the bid, while also calling for the decision to be reversed by FIFA. In one of the qualifying rounds last year, German players wearing black shirts, lined up to spell “HUMAN RIGHTS” to embarrass the Qatari government.
The GCC nations have always been willing to trade with the West as the autocratic regimes need western support to ensure their continued rule. Moreover, as the move is intended to weaken Russia on the international stage, the GCC sheikhdoms will be happy to comply, owing to strong Russian relations with Iran and Syria. Chancellor Scholz will return to Berlin a happy man after a successful tour, and official government representation to the World Cup in November will ultimately silence all voices from Europe supporting political, civic and economic rights in the GCC.
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