Qatar made headlines in international news last week from a very critical point — the treatment of and struggle by foreign workers, especially those working to build the venues for the Fifa World Cup, scheduled to take place in Doha in 2022. In about eight years from now, Doha will be donning quite a new appearance and entering a phase of great constrictions. The reports on the state of foreign workers are largely negative. Western countries have raised their concern on the situation. Similarly, parliamentary committees, human rights organisations and even from within Fifa itself, football’s world governing body, there have been observations on the grievances of foreign workers.

Qatar has fought hard to win this great world event. It will be the first Arab country to host the football World Cup. However, some reports estimated that up to 400 foreign workers will lose their lives while building the installations needed for this mega sporting event. No one knows exactly how this figure was calculated, but it has been reported even on the BBC. The issue is rather suspicious. Installations have been built all over the world for sporting events, where workers have sometimes faced hazardous conditions and even death. But never did one get to hear such an international outcry like the one currently being experienced over Doha.

In fact, there was some reports demanding — because of the alleged hardships faced by foreign workers — withholding of the event in Qatar altogether. In the coming months and years, we will see this outcry pop up again and again, the issue will not disappear soon.

Foreign workers consist of large a percentage of the workforce in the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries: Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, UAE and Kuwait. Between them, they have millions of foreign workers. Some international estimates in 2010 put it at 53 per cent, which is more than half of the entire population. These workers are employed in all kinds of jobs — domestic, construction, private enterprises, skilled and low skilled jobs, while some are even self-employed.

Last week, Saudi Arabia issued a number of warnings to non-permit holders working in the country. They were told either to correct their legal status or leave. Some of them did neither, thereby leading the country into very precarious situation. There were forced deportations, which drew protests from human rights groups. Qatar comes on top of the list of countries hosting expatriate workers. It is estimated that 86 per cent of the population living in Qatar comprises non-citizens; the figure for UAE is 70 per cent; Kuwait 68.8 per cent; Bahrain 39.1 per cent; Oman 28.4 per cent, while Saudi Arabia has the lowest with 27.8 per cent. According to an estimate by United Nations Development Programme, looking for eight countries in the world with the highest presence of expatriate workforce, Saudi Arabia stood at number four, with almost 9.1 million workers. So the problems the Gulf countries are facing cannot be solved easily. Over and above that, one has to deal with international criticism.

One issue that stands out here is that of kafala or sponsors. Almost every foreign worker has to have a sponsor from within the local population. Although it does not relate to every worker, but a good percentage comes under this category and this system has been criticised as inhumane .

It is a well-known fact that a good number of foreign workers in the Gulf are needed for a longer time. Some of them have been here for more than one generation. They know nothing about their motherland. From their speech or action, they cannot be distinguish from the local people. A certain category of foreign workers is high in demand for the development programmes of the Gulf states, such as doctors, university professors, engineers, computer programmers, nurses, journalists and the likes. Similarly, some construction workers will be needed en masse for new projects.

However, no efforts have been made to understand and accept the culture of these workers. Nothing in our school curriculum explains to our youngsters the great civilisations these people belong to. The only thing the public knows is to convert some of them to Islam. It is a good move, but not enough as some of these efforts, unfortunately, are being labelled as propaganda, rather than trying to understand and alleviate their hardship in a globalising world. We should not dismiss the issue, thinking that it either does not exist or is temporary. The more we think about finding a real solution to this, the better it is.

Unless we look at this issue in its totality and come up with a new and humane approach towards foreign workers, we will be hunted in the foreign press and face other means of criticism, which will give us a negative image in the world.

Mohammad Alrumaihi is a professor of Political Sociology at Kuwait University.