The World Economic Forum — the folks who organize the annual winter retreat in Davos, Switzerland, for the international elites who claim to know how the world should work — say that Qatar has the most efficient government on the planet.
The evidence of that efficiency is everywhere in the tiny, oil-rich emirate in the Persian Gulf. The soaring, glimmering skyline of Doha is a testament to engineering know-how, foreign investment, and design. The stadiums and athletic facilities under construction for the 2022 World Cup promise to add to the country's impressive infrastructure, too.
"The efficiency of government has a significant bearing on a country's competitiveness and economic growth," the World Economic Forum said in a recent press release.
But Qatar also happens to be an absolute monarchy that discriminates against women, exploits workers from the developing world, and allegedly bribed corrupt FIFA officials to host the World Cup.
Torture, incommunicado detentions, suppression of the press, and a lack of women's rights are common in the country, according to Amnesty International. On Monday, Swiss officials announced they were widening their investigation into alleged money laundering in the bidding process that awarded the World Cup to Qatar. The Swiss were already working with American federal prosecutors on FIFA corruption.
As those investigations proceed, observers have been raising questions about Qatar's construction of soccer facilities, too.
Around 1.5 million foreign migrants comprise 90 percent of Qatar's workforce, according to Sunjeev Bery, Amnesty International's advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa. Many of them are working under the so-called "Kafala" system, in which bosses hold workers' passports and wield near-total power over their lives.
"Under Qatar's Kafala employment sponsorship system, foreign migrant workers cannot change employers or leave Qatar without the permission of their current employer," said Berry on Wednesday in testimony before a US Senate subcommittee hearing on the governance and integrity of international soccer. "Even if an employer is not paying the employee, the employer can still block the employee from changing jobs or leaving the country."
The situation can be a living hell for workers from Nepal, the Philippines, and elsewhere who journeyed to the Gulf to make a buck for their poor families back home. "Foreign migrant workers have become suicidal after being trapped without pay by employers in Qatar," said Bery.
It's no surprise the World Economic Forum would laud a country that critics say promotes abusive labor practices, said Nick Buxton, a spokesman for the Transnational Institute, an Amsterdam-based think tank.
"Efficiency is the ultimate goal for corporations," he told VICE News. "The World Economic Forum is a corporate-driven body. They need to maximize profit. Things like human rights and democracy might be desirable, but they are less important. That's why Qatar arises as a model."
Georgia State University historian Allen Fromherz, author of Qatar, A Modern History, told VICE News that the nation has a different conception of rights from those in the West. He said that the royal family has been working in recent years to improve the country's human rights record, but noted that this effort must go through a traditional system of tribal consultation.
"When you are dealing with a very small country, a lot of what is going on in representation and politics is informal face-to-face meetings," Fromherz said. "The chiefs of tribes get together and discuss things. They don't write it down. They come to a consensus."
Perhaps the Forum admires the emirate's efficient government because its deliberations bring to mind the clubby atmosphere of the Davos retreat itself. At Davos, presidents, chief executives, pop stars, and other luminaries hobnob in an Alpine resort to discuss how they are running the world without voters or protesters or anyone else who can't afford the $40,000 cost of attendance bothering them.
The other efficient governments on the Forum's top 10 list include bastions of centralized authority like the United Arab Emirates, a Gulf nation similar to Qatar; Singapore; and Hong Kong. At the bottom of the list were the business-friendly tax havens Switzerland and Luxembourg.
The countries admired by the Forum reflect a distinct set of priorities, said Buxton.
"This is quite a corporate wet dream of what governments should look like," he remarked.
Follow John Dyer on Twitter: @johnjdyerjr