Abuse and exploitation of the country’s large migrant workforce persisted in 2021 despite the introduction of labor reforms, in part because of ineffective implementation and because certain elements of the kafala (sponsorship) system remained in place. Women in Qatar continued to face severe discrimination and violence due to abusive male guardianship policies.
In July, Qatar passed new laws to regulate its first legislative election, which took place in October; however, the laws effectively disenfranchised thousands of Qataris from voting or running because of their nationality by lineage. This led to debate among Qataris on social media as well as small-scale demonstrations led by members of one of Qatar’s largest semi-nomadic communities. Politically motivated arrests and detentions followed.
Qatar’s migrant labor force of over 2 million people comprises approximately 95 percent of its total labor force. Approximately 1 million workers are employed in construction, while around 100,000 are domestic workers.
In February, just six months after Qatar introduced significant labor reforms that allow migrant workers to change jobs without employer permission and set a higher minimum wage for all workers, regardless of nationality, Qatar’s advisory Shura council pushed back with recommendations that would have effectively undone a crucial step forward in protecting migrant workers. The recommendations were not adopted. Qatar’s labor minister earlier stressed to Shura council members, to alleviate concerns from Qatar’s business community, that while the law allowed workers to submit a request to change employers, it was still “subject to approval or rejection after communicating with the concerned parties.” The Shura council recommendations and labor minister comments indicated a willingness to backtrack on reforms and cast doubt on its effectiveness in promoting true job mobility.
In March, Qatar’s minimum wage, which applies to all workers, came into force. In addition to the minimum monthly basic wage of 1,000 Qatari riyal (US$275), the legislation stipulates that employers must pay allowances of at least 300 and 500 Qatari riyal for food and housing respectively if they do not provide workers with these directly. However, employers across Qatar still frequently violate workers’ right to wages paid in full and on time and the authorities’ efforts to detect violations and enact swift and deterrent penalties have largely failed. Wage abuses only worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Other abusive elements of the kafala system remain, namely that a migrant worker’s legal status in Qatar remains tied to a specific employer, where an employer can apply, renew, or cancel a worker’s residency permit, and that “absconding,” or leaving an employer without permission, remains a crime. Workers, especially low-paid laborers and domestic workers, often depend on their employer not just for their jobs, but for housing and food. Passport confiscations, high recruitment fees, and deceptive recruitment practices remain largely unpunished. Workers are banned from joining trade unions or exercising their right to strike. Such impunity and remaining aspects of the kafala system continue to drive abuse, exploitation, and forced labor practices.
While Qatar introduced some tougher measures in May to protect workers from heat stress, the authorities continued to enforce a rudimentary midday summer working hours ban. Moreover, for seven years, Qatar has not made public any detailed or meaningful data on migrant worker deaths that would allow an assessment of the extent to which heat stress is a factor. Medical research published in July 2019 concluded that heatstroke is a likely cause of cardiovascular fatalities among migrant workers in Qatar. Climate change is expected to lead to further increased temperatures in Qatar.
In May, Qatari authorities forcibly disappeared a Kenyan security guard and labor activist, Malcolm Bidali, detaining him in solitary confinement for a month, after which they conditionally released him back to his company’s worker accommodations. On July 14, Qatar's Supreme Judiciary Council handed down a criminal order stating that Bidali had broadcast and published "false news with the intent of endangering the public system of the state" under article 6 of the controversial cybercrime law, arising purely from the exercise of his right to freedom of expression. The court ordered him to pay a fine of 25,000 Qatari riyal (approximately US$6,800) and ordered the confiscation of his personal mobile phone and the blocking in Qatar of his Twitter and Instagram accounts through which “the crime was committed.” On August 19, Human Rights Watch and other international organizations called on Qatari authorities to quash his conviction and to urgently reform its judicial processes, including the cybercrime law. Bidali left Qatar on August 16.
In a report released in March, Human Rights Watch documented how the discriminatory male guardianship concept, which is incorporated into Qatari law, regulations, and practices, denies women the right to make many key decisions about their lives. Women in Qatar must obtain permission from their male guardians to marry, study abroad on government scholarships, work in many government jobs, travel abroad until certain ages, and receive some forms of reproductive health care. The discriminatory system also denies women the authority to act as their children’s primary guardian, even when they are divorced and have legal custody, without regard to the child’s best interests.
Single Qatari women under 25 years of age must obtain their guardian’s permission to travel outside Qatar, and women can also be subject to travel bans at any age by their husbands or fathers. Qatari women are also required to have a guardian’s permission in order to work for some government ministries and institutions, and women who attend Qatar University face restrictions on their movements. Some hotels also prohibit unmarried Qatari women under 30 years old from renting a hotel room, and Qatari women are prohibited from some events and bars that serve alcohol.
Qatar’s Family Law also discriminates against women in marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance. Women are required to have a male guardian’s permission to marry. Once married, a woman is required to obey her husband and can lose her husband’s financial support if she works or travels or refuses to have sex with him, without a “legitimate” reason. Men have a unilateral right to divorce while women must apply to the courts for divorce on limited grounds. Under inheritance provisions, female siblings receive half the amount their brothers get.
While the family law forbids husbands from hurting their wives physically or morally, and there are general criminal code provisions on assault, Qatar has no law on domestic violence or measures to protect survivors and prosecute their abusers. No law explicitly prohibits corporal punishment of children either.
Women can be forced to return to their families by the police if they leave their home, including when fleeing abuse. In January, a Yemeni woman was killed by her former Qatari husband outside a family court that had ruled in her favor in a dispute concerning their child.
Qatar allows men to pass citizenship to their spouses and children, whereas children of Qatari women and non-citizen men can only apply for citizenship under narrow conditions. This discriminates against Qatari women married to foreigners, and their children and spouses.
Women continued to report that they faced intimidation by government cyber security for their tweets or other online actions about women’s rights or other political issues, including through interrogations, being asked to sign pledges not to speak about these issues, and being asked to give officials access to their Twitter accounts or surrender their electronic devices to them.
Freedom of Expression
Qatar’s penal code criminalizes criticizing the emir, insulting Qatar’s flag, defaming religion, including blasphemy, and inciting “to overthrow the regime.” Qatar’s 2014 cybercrimes law provided for a maximum of three years in prison and/or a fine of 500,000 Qatari riyal (around $137,325) for anyone convicted of spreading “false news” (a term that is not defined) on the internet or for posting online content that “violates social values or principles,” or “insults or slanders others.”
In January 2020, Qatar amended its penal code to impose up to five years in prison for spreading rumors or false news with ill-intent and/or a fine of 100,000 Qatari riyal (around $27,465). The new text does not define who determines what is a rumor or “fake news,” how to make such a determination, or what standards are to be used in doing so.
In August and September, newly introduced election laws that effectively disenfranchise thousands of Qataris from voting or running in Qatar’s first legislative elections provoked controversy and debate among Qataris on social media as well as small-scale demonstrations. Qatari authorities responded to the criticism by referring seven people for prosecution on charges of “spreading false news” and “stirring up racial and tribal strife.” Informed sources told Human Rights Watch that Qatari authorities arrested and detained at least 15 people in the aftermath, some of whom remained detained without charge a month later.
Qatar’s decision to arbitrarily strip families from the Ghufran clan of the Al Murra tribe of their citizenship starting in 1996 has left some members stateless 20 years later and deprived them of access to key human rights. In 2021, Qatar made no commitments to rectify their status.
Stateless members of the Ghufran clan are deprived of their rights to work, access to health care, education, marriage and starting a family, owning property, and freedom of movement. Without valid identity documents, they face restrictions accessing basic services, including opening bank accounts and acquiring drivers’ licenses, and are at risk of arbitrary detention. Those living in Qatar are also denied a range of government benefits afforded to Qatari citizens, including state jobs, food and energy subsidies, and free basic healthcare.
Sexual Orientation and Morality Laws
Qatar’s penal code criminalizes extramarital sex. Individuals convicted of zina (sex outside of marriage) can be sentenced up to seven years imprisonment. In addition to imprisonment, Muslims can be sentenced to flogging (if unmarried) or the death penalty (if married) for zina. These laws disproportionately impact women, as pregnancy serves as evidence of extramarital sex and women who report rape can find themselves prosecuted for consensual sex.
In addition to banning sex outside marriage for Muslims, Qatar punishes consensual sexual relations between men above sixteen, Muslim or not, with up to seven years imprisonment (article 285). It also provides penalties between one and three years (article 296) for any male who “instigates” or “entices” another male to “commit an act of sodomy or immorality.” A penalty of ten years’ imprisonment (article 288) is also imposed on anyone who engages in consensual sexual relations with a person above sixteen, outside marriage, which could apply to consensual same-sex relations between women, men, or heterosexual partners.
Journalists and printers operate under section 47 of the 1979 Press and Publications Law, which bans publication of “any printed matter that is deemed contrary to the ethics, violates the morals or harms the dignity of the people or their personal freedoms.”
Climate Change Policy and Actions
As a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, Qatar is contributing to the climate crisis that is taking a growing toll on human rights around the globe. The country has the sixth highest greenhouse gas emissions per capita globally, a considerable portion from air conditioning. Qatar has taken few steps to move away from production and use of fossil fuels and instead is doubling down on producing liquified natural gas (LNG) for export. It has the world’s third largest reserves of natural gas and until recently was the world’s largest exporter of LNG. Qatar has yet to submit its second Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), a Paris Agreement-mandated five-year national climate change action plan due at the end of 2020. Its first NDC contained no quantitative targets.
As one of the world’s hottest countries, Qatar is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Ninety-seven percent of Qatar’s population lives along an exposed coastline making them particularly vulnerable to both sea level rise and extreme weather events.
Key International Actors
In January, Saudi Arabia ended its years-long isolation of Qatar, which began in 2017 when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates closed their borders to Qatar and expelled Qatari citizens over allegations of Qatar’s support for terrorism and ties with Iran. All four countries restored their diplomatic relations when Qatar suspended its World Trade Organization case against the UAE’s economic isolation efforts.
Qatar played a key role in Afghanistan after the United States military withdrawal in August propelled a Taliban takeover of Kabul, both by extensively aiding the US in evacuating tens of thousands of vulnerable people from Afghanistan and by operating daily flights starting in early September to deliver humanitarian aid to the country.