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Qatar 'raised bar on human rights in Gulf' despite blockade: HRW

Critics fear Doha's promise to reform will be broken and part of a 'short-term political strategy'
Qatar's proposed minimum wage for migrant workers is below that demanded by embassies who send workers to Doha (AFP)

Qatar's commitment to a series of reforms, despite a continued blockade on its borders and airspace, has raised the "bar on human rights in the Gulf", Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Thursday.

The rights group commended Qatar on its plans to introduce changes to support domestic workers and grant permanent residency to children born to Qatari mothers and foreign fathers.

Doha also pledged to reform the infamous Kafala system, which ties workers to individual sponsors for their visa and employment and improve the payment of wages for migrant workers.  

Qatar has promised to reform before and broken that pledge many times

Nicholas McGeehan

None of the reforms, however, have been implemented by Qatar yet and are expected to be introduced this year. 

HRW praised Qatar in its annual report on the state of human rights across the world, as it condemned other Gulf countries, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for their "sustained assault" on human rights. 

Nicholas McGeehan, a human rights researcher who focuses on the Gulf, described HRW's assessment as "optimistic". He also questioned whether Doha's embrace of human rights is a "short-term political strategy".

"Qatar has promised to reform before and broken that pledge many times," McGeehan told Middle East Eye.

"Citing the introduction of a minimum wage as progress glosses over the fact that the minimum wage proposed is below the minimum demanded by sending embassies.

"HRW's optimism is presumably based on the belief that what Qatar needs right now is a pat on the back. But only time will tell if this optimism is well-founded."

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt imposed a blockade on Qatar in June over allegations that Doha supported terrorism. Qatar has denied the claims. 

Following the blockade, the UAE threatened to imprison and fine its citizens if they publicly praise Qatar on social media. Saudi Arabia also arrested several clerics for refusing to support the Qatar blockade publicly.

Both countries had also blocked the Qatari-backed Al Jazeera news network. 

Belkis Wille, HRW's senior Qatar researcher, said that Qatar's proposed reforms, despite the ongoing blockade, demonstrated the Gulf country's commitment to support human rights. 

"Implementing its commitments to respecting the rights of Qatar women, millions of migrant workers and vulnerable refugees in the country will be the real measure of its success in 2018," said Wille. 

"Qatar could have retrenched into authoritarianism in the face of a political crisis but instead has responded in neighbourly relations by raising the bar on human rights standards."

In 2017, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, criticised Qatar during a speech at a freedom of expression conference in Doha. 

Roth condemned Qatar for its 2014 cybercrime law which blocked the Doha News website and called on Doha to end its rules that allow nationality to be passed on by fathers and not mothers. 

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