The awarding of the Football World Cup has clearly been a catalyst for human rights reforms in Qatar writes Emily Barley, and the same pressure now needs to be applied to other nations across the Middle East.

When FIFA announced back in 2010 that Qatar would host the 2022 World Cup, criticism of the tiny Gulf country was instant. Since then, outrage over the conditions Qatar's large migrant workforce live and work in has intensified and the country has become something of a by-word for abuse. Human rights organisations and the press have regularly reported on suffering, illness and death among workers, with heart attacks due to heat stress a common theme.

So it came as something of a surprise when last month the EU applauded Qatar in its annual report on democracy and human rights. The report praised Qatar's progress in a number of areas, including labour law reform, the dismantling of the kafala system (which tied workers to employers and was the source of much abuse), the introduction of a national minimum wage, new mechanisms for workers to report abuses, and the country's first public elections to the Shura Council which advises the Emir.

This fresh analysis of the situation suggests that the heightened scrutiny that came with Qatar's successful World Cup bid may have made all the difference. Public anger, diplomatic pressure, internal will for change, and practical support have come together to create progress. Of all these factors, the partnership between the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and Qatar in a 'technical cooperation programme', launched in 2017, has perhaps made the biggest difference.

This partnership with the explicit objective of labour law reform, where international experts worked closely with Qatari officials to introduce changes, has borne fruit. The ILO now counts among its successes the labour law reform highlighted by the EU report, plus progress on occupational health and safety. This progress includes the reporting of accidents at work and changes to protect against them; new measures on heat stress which ban outdoor working at the hottest times of the day during the summer and at any time temperatures rise above a safe level; training and expansion of government inspection and enforcement teams; and work to educate workers – including domestic workers – on their rights and how to seek help when they need it.

Abuse, particularly of migrant workers, is a common theme across the Arabian Peninsula and wider Middle East. Countries with substantial oil and gas reserves have structured their economies to support their own nationals with a relatively high standard of living, while importing workers from poorer countries to work in construction, agriculture, hospitality, and domestic settings. As might be expected, these two-tier societies have led to the exploitation of those considered 'less than', with poor working and living conditions, little or no individual autonomy for migrants, and legal frameworks that further widen the gap between the haves and have nots by tying workers and their visas to often abusive employers through the kafala system.

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While the rest of the region remains much as it was, Qatar has screeched ahead with its fairly rapid, wide-ranging reforms praised in the EU report as "[offering] an example for other countries in the region to follow."

Without the sunlight and scrutiny that came with Qatar's successful World Cup bid, it is a very real possibility that none of this progress would have been made. Looking at the country's nearest neighbours, the difference is clear. In Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, kafala is very much still in operation, with similar laws continuing in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

Credit should also be given to the Qatari officials who saw international condemnation and instead of denying or shrugging it off – as so many other countries have done in the past – chose to engage with the issue and dedicate considerable resource and effort to making changes.

The job is by no means complete in Qatar, with human rights organisations continuing to highlight ongoing problems and abuses, and the ILO and Qatari officials themselves setting out a series of next steps on reform. Perhaps most urgent among these is in enforcement – the country now has law to protect migrant workers, but many employers continue to flout it. A small army of inspectors need to be trained and set to work, and the country's judiciary needs to catch up and ensure the law is applied equally and fairly.

On this, the rest of the world has a role to play too. Companies headquartered in Europe and the US are among those that are alleged to continue abusing workers' rights and breaking the law. A little naming and shaming by human rights organisations to stimulate further public pressure would not go amiss.

But what is really key is that campaigners and policy makers recognise take the role of a 'critical friend'. Blunt, honest, condemnation of abuses combined with practical and technical support to improve the situation is so much more effective than simply booing from the side-lines.

Some still call for a boycott of the World Cup, despite growing evidence that the tournament has already been a force for good with a positive lasting legacy for migrant workers in Qatar. Anyone interested in actually making progress should be invested in rewarding that which has already been achieved, and ensuring that after the final whistle has been blown in the World Cup, serious scrutiny continues with further progress to match.

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