Architect Ben van Berkel from UNStudio was in doubt when he was able to design a complete metro system there in the run up to the World Cup in Qatar. This was due, among other things, to the working conditions in the oil state. At the same time, Van Berkel thought it was ‘gigantic’, a ‘spectacular task’. He knew no architect who had ever designed an entire subway system. And then he said yes, also to set an example. “Prefer a place where everything can be improved by one coalition of the willing (a pact with the benevolent, ed.), so don’t participate at all.”
In the run-up to the World Cup in Qatar, Dutch companies made a lot of money with construction projects related to the tournament. These were often lucrative assignments, but the tournament is controversial due to the corruption and human rights abuses with fatal consequences that preceded it. Should the Dutch companies have gone to Qatar?
The metro’s social function was the decisive factor
Van Berkel thinks so. In contrast to the construction company Bam, which states in writing that purely financial opportunities have passed, he saw a parallel with his work in China. Here, too, human rights and working conditions were discussed a lot. In the end, he decided to use his knowledge to “introduce a positive and structurally safe way of working”.
He also wanted that in Qatar. When they saw the metro there as a ‘social-interactive machine’, he was convinced. The innovative drive of the ‘culturally advanced’ Qataris, with their attention to art and sustainability, appealed to him. And why not help? “You can close your eyes and not go because it’s a country where you don’t want to work. But we note that Qatar is one of the most progressive of all the emirates.”
The metro’s social function was also the decisive factor for the design agency Mijksenaar. It did not investigate the working conditions in Qatar in advance, says business director Aad Kalkman. Still, he “scratched his ears” about doing business with Qatar, especially because of the oppression of the LGBTI community and the position of women. The metro could perhaps also have a positive influence on that, argues Kalkman. “The possibility of transportation allows people to see more of the world, and a world in motion stimulates social-emotional development.”
“We also want to make the next world championships”
Doubt was not in MTD director Hans Verhoeven’s dictionary. As by far the largest supplier of drinking water in his own words, he was going to the WC. “We also did the 2010 2014 and 2018 World Cups, so it’s not about Qatar for us. We also want to do the next World Cup. We follow our international clients because it’s disastrous for their image and the event if visitors get sick from water. ”
Nor did Verhoeven investigate Qatar in advance. He was so “in the flow from project to project to project” that he forgot. Marjan Kamstra, Qatar’s ambassador to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, asked him if he was aware of the human rights situation. Verhoeven subsequently entered into a shareholder agreement with a special clause in Qatar. This assumes that MTD can stop immediately if a partner violates the rules. He now also has that clause for a project in neighboring Saudi Arabia. While still in Qatar last month, he thanked Kamstra again for the tip.
Signify, which provided lighting at all eight stadiums, also says it has “legal agreements with partners that commit them to health and safety, environmental policies and employee wages in accordance with local labor laws.”
tightened Fifa rules
According to a spokesperson, Royal HaskoningDHV always carries out a risk analysis of compliance with human rights, limiting the impact on people and nature, combating child labor and preventing corruption. “If we can’t do the job to our standards, we won’t take on a project.” According to the spokesman, it saw customers “caring for their staff and also providing food” at construction sites in Qatar. At another construction site, a special employee was present to ensure safety.
There will undoubtedly still be abuse in Qatar, believes Verhoeven, but certainly not with him. He recently had to comply with the world football association Fifa’s stricter rules for working conditions, accommodation, adequate food, work clothes and contact with the home front. The union will also soon inspect its employees in Qatar. “Employees are under contract with MTD and we treat them as our own people. The accommodation is always single or double with air conditioning and a seat. Fifa is so over the top that you cannot avoid doing everything according to the law.’
UNStudio was led by lead developer Deutsche Bahn, which took care of the regulations. “Because we are close to them, we were sure that they would arrange checks and security. That is what they have promised.” How did Van Berkel check that promise? “We’ve seen the contracts.” Van Berkel went to Qatar ‘four or five times’ during the construction of the metro stations for the ‘aesthetic part’. “But I don’t know if we got to see everything.”
No more searching in Qatar
Van Berkel knows people will always ask if he should have left. But if he had to choose again, he would have said yes again. He believes helping is a better choice than running away. The same had also been done by engineering firm Royal HaskoningDHV, a spokesman said, although it “regrets the events in Qatar”. “We generally believe that withdrawing from areas where human rights are violated will not have a positive effect. ”
The most determined is Verhoeven. “If I had to choose again, I would have done exactly the same. There was no one among us who doubted Qatar, because we have a reputation to protect with organizations like Fifa and the IOC.” The construction company Bam does not want to comment on ‘if-then situations’.
An Arcadis spokesman says it will close its Doha office next year, while a Boskalis spokesman says the company is making ‘small or small’ more orders in Qatar after the port.
At Bureau Mijksenaar, the ‘conversation’ about Qatar continued during the work. Kalkman found it ‘extremely unpleasant’ to read that migrant workers, possibly thousands, have died during construction. In the end, they decided not to actively seek more work in the Middle East. If the company returns in the future, it will impose more conditions. For example, whether the project is a government initiative and how employment relationships are regulated and certified. “We could have done a lot more work on the stadiums, but we deliberately decided not to.”
Frijns Staal refused to answer questions. Arcadis and Boskalis referred to previously published press releases and newspaper articles about their activities in Qatar.
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‘It is likely that Dutch companies in Qatar were involved in projects with problems’
Dutch companies that helped build the facilities for the highly controversial World Cup in Qatar without investigating the conditions in the country. ‘Bizarre’, says Floor Beuming, coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa at the human rights organization Amnesty International.