Washington: A top international law firm that was ordered by the Qatari government to conduct an “independent review” into allegations of ill-treatment of labourers at World Cup construction sites is also a paid lobbyist for an arm of Qatar’s Al Jazeera television network, The Daily Telegraph can disclose.
DLA Piper has received more than $300,000 (Dh1.101 million) in lobbying fees this year from Al Jazeera America (AJAM), according to official filings in the US, raising questions over whether it could conduct an unbiased assessment into allegations that have cast a pall over preparations for the 2022 World Cup.
The review was instigated in response to claims in The Guardian that Nepalese workers were dying at the rate of one per day as they toiled in extreme heat on World Cup infrastructure projects. The story caused an international outcry and Sepp Blatter, the head of the football world governing body Fifa, said on October 4 that Qatar “needs to intervene” to address concern over its labour practices — forcing Qatar, which contests the allegations, to launch a public relations offensive. That same day, Ali Ahmad Al Kholaifi, the international affairs director at Qatar’s labour ministry, announced that DLA Piper had been asked “to undertake an independent review of the allegations and provide a report on their veracity to the ministry”.
The review was given greater urgency on Monday when an Amnesty International report alleged that migrant workers were still being “treated like cattle”, living in squalid conditions and often unpaid for several months by unscrupulous contractors.
Last week the Qatari foreign ministry again twice cited the DLA Piper “independent review” as proof of its commitment addressing labour concerns, first in responding the Amnesty report and then to a European Parliament debate on migrant labour in Qatar, which an official said was “premature” while “DLA Piper’s investigation is on-going”.
Hiring DLA Piper to review the allegations has raised eyebrows in Washington, where earlier this year the firm won a contract to lobby for the newly launched channel, AJAM. Al Jazeera became a semi-private entity in 2011 to facilitate its global expansion plans and is designated a “private institution of public utility” that remains close to the Qatar government.
Last month, its chairman, Shaikh Hamad Bin Thamer Al Thani accompanied the Emir of Qatar on an official visit to Oman. David Weinberg, a senior fellow specialising in Saudi Arabia and Gulf affairs at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies think tank in Washington, said DLA Piper’s appointment to the review risked creating the perception of a conflict of interest.
“Qatar could have chosen any international law firm to launch this investigation, but instead chose the same firm that has been paid handsomely to lobby for Al Jazeera America,” he said. “This choice risks sullying the Qatar brand and makes them look more interested in a World Cup cover-up than in fighting forced labour.” Official lobbying declarations show AJAM paid DLA Piper $120,000, $100,000 and $90,000 in the first three quarters of this year.
It is not clear if it remains retained by Al Jazeera, but filings show the relationship had not been terminated at the end of September. The Qatar investigation by DLA Piper is understood to have begun and is being led by a team from the firm’s international trade division based in London.
A spokesman for DLA Piper in London declined to comment.
However, a person at the firm with first-hand knowledge of the review rejected any suggestions of impropriety — perceived or otherwise — before describing the “independent review” more as a legal assessment on behalf of the Qatari government. “We are instructed by the ministry of labour, as the world’s largest law firm, to act as their lawyers and give them a view on the allegations and what the situation is,” the source said, adding that neither party had any interest in a “Mickey Mouse” review that would be ridiculed.
Earlier this month, Blatter visited Qatar and praised its government’s efforts to address concerns over labour practices. “The labour laws will be amended and special attention will be paid also to inspections of the workers’ accommodation,” he said. On Friday he called on Europe to shoulder far more responsibility for workers’ conditions in Qatar. “The big companies are mostly from European countries and if you are a construction company you are responsible for your workers,” he said at a press conference in Rome.