|By Geoffrey Miller
As the FIFA World Cup gets underway in Qatar, it is worth looking at the state of New Zealand’s wider relationship with the host nation.
While New Zealand often likes to think of itself as a small country, it comfortably outranks Qatar in both size and population.
In terms of area, Qatar is just over twice the size of the greater Auckland region. And the Gulf state’s population – at just under 3 million – makes New Zealand’s own 5 million figure seem generous.
But as the World Cup shows, size is no obstacle to Doha’s ambitions.
By some estimates, Qatar has spent over $US200 billion ($NZ325 billion) in preparation for hosting the tournament. This includes seven new stadiums – at a total cost of over $US6 billion – with the remainder being spent on building related infrastructure, such as a new metro system, airport, roads and hotels.
Of course, there have been widespread criticisms of Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup, particularly in relation to the country’s human rights record. An investigation by The Guardian in 2021 found over 6,500 migrant workers from South Asian countries such as India and Pakistan had died while working in Qatar since the country won its bid to host the World Cup in 2010.
In response, the Qatari government did not dispute the figure and said that ‘every lost life is a tragedy’ – but it also argued that only a minority of the recorded deaths were related to construction projects.
Like most other countries in the Middle East, Qatar also languishes well behind New Zealand when it comes to political rights and civil liberties. Freedom House, a US-based think tank, places Qatar near the bottom of its 2022 global rankings, with a status of ‘not free’ and a total score of just 25 out of 100. By comparison, New Zealand is one of the freest countries on earth, in fourth place and with a near-perfect score of 99 out of 100.
In its report, Freedom House notes Qatar’s monarchy and ban on political parties – and says the majority of the country’s residents are ‘noncitizens with no political rights, few civil liberties, and limited access to economic opportunity’.
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Still, despite a slow pace of reform and criticism that the World Cup hosting amounts to ‘sportswashing’, the spotlight on Qatar has probably led it to implement more reforms than it would have done otherwise. And Qatar’s Freedom House ranking is still considerably better than many of New Zealand’s other trading partners, including its biggest export market, China.
Qatar began implementing labour reforms in 2017. These have included the introduction of a minimum wage for all workers, a rarity in the Middle East, and other changes to employment laws to provide more rights for the migrant workers that make up most of Qatar’s population.
Even Amnesty International – which is otherwise critical of the pace and scale of Qatar’s reforms – says the country has made ‘important strides’ and ‘noticeable improvements’. Some of this can be put down to cooperation with the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which opened a dedicated office in Doha in 2018. A recent ILO survey of workers in Qatar found that 86 per cent of respondents thought the reforms had benefited them.
Of course, there is plenty of room and opportunity for Doha to do more.
After all, Qatar is the fourth-richest country in the world when measured on a per capita, purchasing power parity (PPP) basis. At $US93,000, the country’s average annual income is more than double New Zealand’s $US46,000, according to figures from the World Bank.
Qatar’s wealth has been built on enormous deposits of natural gas – the third largest globally, after Russia and Iran – along with the world’s 13th largest oil reserves. The war in Ukraine – and the desire from Europe and others to replace supplies of Russian energy – has seen Qatar become even more influential in 2022.
Joe Biden upgraded Qatar to the status of a ‘major non-NATO ally’ of the United States earlier in the year (the same status held by Australia), while a parade of European leaders have visited Doha in recent months.
In media, Qatar has created an outsized niche for itself by funding Al Jazeera, a TV network with a wide reach in both Arabic and English. Many New Zealanders have headed to Qatar to work for Al Jazeera’s English-language channel, which launched a decade after the original Arabic format began in 1996.
The network has not been without its detractors.
In 2017, a Saudi Arabia-led grouping of fellow Arab countries included the complete shutdown of Al Jazeera as one of 13 demands that Qatar would have to meet for an unprecedented blockade of the country to be lifted. The move was driven by perceptions by Saudi Arabia and its allies that Al Jazeera was interfering in their internal affairs and promoting Islamist movements, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood.
The rift – which began in June 2017 and was not lifted until early 2021 – saw Qatar almost completely isolated by some of its closest neighbours, which as well as Saudi Arabia (which shares an 87-kilometre border with Qatar) also included Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Consequences included the expulsion of Qatari citizens living in the four countries and the suspension of freight and passenger traffic by road, sea and air. This cut off many of Qatar’s food supplies that had previously come across the border from other Gulf countries. It also made life difficult for Qatar Airways, which was banned from operating to the blockading countries and even from using their airspace.
Qatar managed to survive the blockade in part by finding new trade and air routes through Turkey and Iran, but also by emphasising self-reliance. A homegrown dairy industry – focused on producing the fresh milk that was previously imported from Saudi Arabia – was one of the main outcomes of this strategy.
This focus on local production and self-sufficiency has remained even after the lifting of the blockade. Baladna – a state-supported dairy company that translates to ‘our country’ – has even expanded internationally, signing deals to expand into dairy production in Ukraine (before the war with Russia began) and Malaysia.
While this might concern New Zealand – given that dairy as one of its major exports to the Gulf region – Qatar’s wealth means that it will continue to have strong demand for imported goods, particularly premium products.
But a look at New Zealand’s trade with Qatar reveals a different picture to its Gulf neighbours.
New Zealand’s annual exports to Qatar have remained static at around the $NZ45 million mark since at least 2015. This makes Qatar only New Zealand’s 71st biggest export market – a stark contrast with other Gulf states such as the UAE, which holds 18th place and imports nearly $NZ1b of New Zealand goods and services each year.
Given the low level of trade, it might seem unsurprising that New Zealand has no embassy in Qatar. Still, there is an inevitable chicken-and-egg dilemma – without a dedicated diplomatic mission in Doha, Wellington has limited ability to smooth the way for New Zealand exporters to expand into its growing market.
New Zealand currently serves Qatar from its embassy in the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, a situation that is not ideal given that the UAE is one of Qatar’s chief rivals.
Doha’s aspirations to become a new Dubai seem clear: visa-free travel for 80 nationalities was introduced in 2017, in preparation for the World Cup, while the Qatar Grand Prix will become an annual fixture from 2023.
Opening an embassy in Qatar could also help New Zealand to finally secure a free trade deal with the six-country Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) bloc. An agreement was signedin principle in 2009, but has remained unratified ever since. In turn, a deal would also boost New Zealand exports to bigger Gulf markets such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
To this end, New Zealand might take some lessons from Australia, which opened an embassy in Doha in 2016 and now counts Qatar as its second-largest trading partner in the Middle East and North Africa region.
No recent New Zealand Prime Minister has ever visited Qatar.
But the World Cup shows how Qatar is becoming a global player.
Doha probably needs to occupy more space on Wellington’s radar