Battered by allegations that it mistreats migrant workers, aids terrorists and bribed its way to hosting the 2022 soccer World Cup, this secretive monarchy is trying something new: openness.
Qatar last month formed a new agency to craft the country’s image abroad and staffed it with 23 Qatari communications graduates, mostly from the local campuses of U.S. universities Northwestern and Georgetown.
“We are working towards having a more open policy when it comes to communications,” said a government communications director, who asked not to be named because he wasn’t yet officially appointed. “This is part of Qatar’s wider strategy to share our plans and our vision for the future.”
The effort comes as the U.S. and Switzerland in May launched separate probes into FIFA’s awarding of the World Cups to both Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022 and investigate officials from the world soccer governing body for alleged graft.
Human rights groups and trade unions, meanwhile, say Qatar has made scant progress on its pledge last year to improve the lives of low-paid migrant workers. The International Trade Union Confederation says about 900 expatriate workers a year die in the Gulf kingdom, mainly related to dangerous working conditions on construction sites, long hours in the heat and a lack of quality medical services.
Qatar’s Arab and Western allies have also been unnerved by the country’s offers to provide a haven to Islamist groups such as Hamas and its funding of U.S.-designated terrorist organizations, such as Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates pulled their ambassadors from Doha last year to protest those ties.
Qatar didn’t directly address those allegations, but said it has condemned terrorism and emphasized its role in mediating between regional adversaries, such as between the Afghan government and the Taliban. It has also been a key ally in fighting Islamic State.
For years, Qatar’s image abroad was intertwined with that of its Arabic-language broadcaster Al Jazeera, which has drawn criticism for a pro-Islamist bias—a charge it denies. In 2013, Al Jazeera bought former U.S. Vice President Al Gore’s Current TV channel and built a new American network that has since been lauded for quality journalism. But well-publicized internal conflicts and the recent departure of senior executives have hurt the network’s image.
“There’s a lot of confusion about what Qatar wants to be known for,” said Ghanem Nuseibeh, the founder and director of Cornerstone Global Associates, a political risk consultancy that focuses on the Middle East.
Qatar has hired public relations agencies over the years to help build its brand abroad but it has never, until recently, set up a communications department to reshape its message and make it more consistent.
With the World Cup bid, the conservative Muslim kingdom seeks to portray itself as a place for sports facilities and events; but also a mediator among fractious political parties in the Middle East, according to the Qatari communications director.
The change began after Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani took the throne from his father in 2013, making the emirate “increasingly strategic in thinking about its reputation and brand,” according to one U.S. official based in the Middle East.
The new communications department reports direct to the prime minister’s office and has been working in Doha with London-based Portland Communications, which the government hired last year. The office also has hired three other public relations and lobby groups in the U.S. since the start of this year, American records show.
Rebuilding Qatar’s battered image abroad won’t be easy though, analysts and Western diplomats warn, especially as its new PR strategy has become bogged down in controversy.
In May, during a trip for international media to view the accommodations of migrants working on World Cup-related projects, Qatari security forces arrested a team of British Broadcasting Co. journalists after they filmed what Qatar said was unauthorized footage of one particular worker’s accommodation.
“We deplore the fact that they were detained,” the BBC said in a statement. “Their presence in Qatar was no secret and they were engaged in a perfectly proper piece of journalism.”
Rights groups also have been critical of the so-called Government Communications Office’s response to a Washington Post article which cited estimates that a total 1,200 expatriate workers had died in Qatar since it was awarded the World Cup in 2010.
Qatar responded that “after almost five million work-hours on World Cup construction sites, not a single worker’s life has been lost.” The government requested a retraction of the article.
The Post later clarified its article, saying it “should have made clearer that the figures involved all migrant deaths in Qatar” and that “we are unable to verify how many deaths, if any, are related to World Cup construction.”
Tim Noonan, director of campaigns at the International Trade Union Confederation, said Qatar needed to focus on improving conditions for workers, rather than issuing statements that were “false and dangerous.”
The Qatari communications director said: “We do not mind criticism and we don’t mind different opinions. We welcome it. But what we do mind is inaccurate and unfair reporting.”