Qatar's history of human rights abuses overshadows plans for $35 billion in U.S. investments

The Qatar Investment Authority's (QIA) plan to channel an estimated $35 billion into U.S. investments, along with opening an office in New York City, is raising questions about how this move might influence American foreign policy -- particularly given Qatar's poor track record with human rights.

The QIA administers a sovereign investment fund, allowing the oil-rich Gulf country to make strategic investments around the world. 

In explaining the U.S. investments and the new office in a Bloomberg News story, top Qatar diplomats said the sovereign investment will give Qatar’s fund managers “better access to new and existing investment partners." They also cited American jobs and growth in the U.S. economy as positive results.

Some groups, however, worry that the QIA investments may interfere with the efforts of Western democracies to improve human rights outcomes around the world.

Nicholas McGeehan, Gulf analyst at Human Rights Watch (HRW), recently told the Gulf News Journal that it is important to look at Qatar’s human rights record and to evaluate how one of the world's richest nations treats its citizens, and more importantly, those who come into Qatar from abroad to work.

McGeehan cited a history of human rights abuses related to the huge migrant worker population in Qatar, where the vast majority of inhabitants are not citizens but foreign workers. McGeehan said the plight of these migrant workers has been on the HRW radar for a while, especially during the recent construction boom within Qatar and the Gulf area.

“They're subject to an abusive labor system.” McGeehan said, characterizing the country's policies as basically equating to “trafficking and forced labor” that some argue is state-sanctioned.

On other issues, McGeehan said, Qatar is less of a usual suspect. For instance, he said, Qatar doesn't seem to have a lot of domestic dissent issues and wasn't extremely active in cracking down on freedom of expression in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

“It's been largely peaceful on that front.” McGeehan said.

Still, he said, people need to understand what goes on in the country.

“It's an autocracy.” McGeehan said. “It's not a democracy.”

In addition, McGeehan said that money and international business partnerships can have an effect on how outspoken countries can be when it comes to human rights.

“We go absolutely silent when it comes to the Gulf states.” McGeehan said, describing some of the outcomes of close economic relations between countries such as the U.S. and Britain, and Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

It doesn't help, McGeehan said, that Qatar’s efforts at public relations have been poor, especially in comparison with neighbors such as the United Arab Emirates, where the government has been a lot more effective in handling the country's image around the world.

“They knew that they would be under a lot of media scrutiny (in hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup.” McGeehan said. “They seemed catastrophically unprepared for that scrutiny… . You can't hide a problem that is too obvious... . They're trying to present public relations solutions, but they're not good enough.”

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Qatar Investment Authority

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