Amazing, the jujitsu our brain is capable of. When I heard that seven surrounding countries had imposed a ‘blockade’ on Qatar, my first thought was not about the 400,000 Nepali migrant workers toiling there night and day, but about PSG, the Paris-based football club whose ups and downs in Europe I have closely followed over the years. The young Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who is just 37, owns the club via a Qatari investment vehicle.
Only then did my mind turn to the Nepali workers in Qatar. Horrific stories of their exploitation have emerged from the tiny Gulf state. In 2014, The Guardian reported that every other day, one Nepali worker died of exhaustion while working on constructions related to the 2022 football world cup that the tiny Arab country is hosting. The workers, most of them in their 20s and 30s and in the prime of their health, were dropping dead from sudden cardiac arrest. Although there have of late been some improvement in the living and working conditions of labor migrants in Qatar, these are inadequate, as various human rights organizations have pointed out.
Back to the blockade. This is a loaded word for Nepalis after their harrowing experience with sudden cessation in import of vital food and fuel from India. India kept denying that it had imposed any kind of blockade, attributing any obstruction in supplies solely to the protesting Madhesi parties. Yet it was India’s blockade, imposed with the sole intent of bringing the establishment in Kathmandu to its knees for daring to have an ‘anti-India’ constitution.
Yet the similarities between Nepal and Qatar end with the fact that both have now experienced blockades. Just like India is the big bully in South Asia, in the Persian Gulf, it is Saudi Arabia that likes to throw around its weight. The rulers of Saudi Arabia—which has 10 times more people and 200 times more land area than Qatar—are, frankly, jealous, jealous that the tiny Qatar has far surpassed the regional hegemon in terms of soft power, and in terms of sheer sex appeal.
The ruling House of Thani in Qatar has been able to turn their tiny outcrop in the Persian Gulf into a potent power. The cosmopolitan capital city of Doha is now the commercial heart of the Middle East. Qatar these days has top-notch education establishments. The Qatari soft power is spread far and wide by its world-class airline service and by a truly global English-language news channel.
Thanks to its abundant natural gases, the House of Thani sits atop a $166-billion economy, and manages foreign reserves worth $37 billion. With so much ‘natural’ money, the Qatari emirs would perhaps be forgiven for thinking they can buy pretty much anything they fancy, anywhere in the world. In fact, it is widely suspected that Qatar ‘bought’ the world cup hosting rights by bribing top FIFA officials.
This attitude also reflects in its treatment of migrant workers. The Thanis, it appears, almost believe labor migrants can be treated as slaves since it is paying them decent wages. And it is on the money sent back by these virtual slaves that the Nepali economy, otherwise battered by the never-ending political turmoil, has survived over the years. In the first 10 months of this fiscal year alone, Nepalis abroad sent nearly Rs 600 billion worth of remittance, a big chunk of it from Qatar.
So it is interesting that the World Economic Forum now projects the Nepali economy to this year grow by an astounding 7.5 percent, which, if realized, would make it the third fastest growing economy on the planet, behind only Ethiopia and Uzbekistan. There are many reasons for this, yet were it not for remittance that has led to a consumption boom in Nepal the country would not be growing half as fast. The hard reality is that Nepal is still a by and large remittance-based economy.
The parasitic Nepali state thus has no incentive to discourage labor migration, even if decent work conditions cannot be guaranteed for Nepali workers abroad, even if millions of acres of our fields lie fallow as there is no one to till them, even if most of this ‘cheap’ money that is flowing in is leaving as quick, most of it sunk in Italian designer bags, American smartphones and Chinese toys.
So any hint of turmoil in the Middle East sends shockwaves among the comfortable classes in Kathmandu, and millions of those of less comfortable means who directly depend on remittance for their daily expenses. Meanwhile, Nepalis working in Qatar fear their families back home could be thrown back into destitution if the blockade is not lifted soon.
The House of Thani might afford to buy the most expensive footballers in the world. Yet it has also failed to win the trust and goodwill of those on whose blood and sweat it has built a vast empire of fortune. For the chatterati back home, much like the uncaring Thanis, they would sooner think about the fortunes of their favorite football clubs than about their toiling compatriots abroad.
The writer is the op-ed editor at Republica. He can be contacted at email@example.com