Zahir Belounis, a French soccer professional who said he’s trapped in Qatar, may be heading home by next week. He isn’t happy.
The 33-year-old midfielder, who first came to the country in 2007 to play for the Doha-based Military Sports Association, said his team denied him an exit visa after he filed a case in local court in February this year for unpaid wages. This week, he said, he was offered an exit visa if he signs a document that retroactively terminates him on Feb. 1.
While Belounis said he hasn’t decided if he will sign, agreeing to the terms will probably prevent him from collecting his final two years of salary under the five-year contract he signed with the Military Sports Association in 2010, he said.
“I don’t have choice,” he said in a phone interview today. “If I want my exit, I have to sign this retroactive termination contract.”
Qatar has faced scrutiny over its treatment of foreign workers since winning the right to host the 2022 World Cup three years ago. The U.K.’s Guardian reported Sept. 25 that 44 Nepalese workers died between June 4 and Aug. 8. Qatar said Oct. 3, through the state-run Qatar News Agency, that it hired the law firm DLA Piper to investigate the allegations.
Workers’ rights were discussed earlier this month at a meeting of FIFA’s top officials, during which the group postponed a decision on whether to move the dates of the 2022 tournament amid concern over the emirate’s summer temperatures, which can reach 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit).
Foreigners make up about 80 percent of Qatar’s population of 2 million. Under the country’s sponsorship system, most must obtain their employer’s permission any time they want to leave the country. Belounis, who hasn’t left Qatar since May 2012, said his employer won’t approve an exit visa unless he agrees to their terms.
“I did nothing wrong,” he said in an interview from his Doha home earlier this month. “I have a contract. The club didn’t pay me. I asked for my rights from the court.”
The intervention of the French embassy and even French President Francois Hollande, who visited Qatar in June and met with the then Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, failed to secure his freedom, he said. The French embassy didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.
Belounis left Switzerland’s FC La Tour/Le Paquier and came to Qatar in 2007 to play for the division-two Military Sports Association, he said. In 2010, he signed a five-year contract with the club and played for the 2010-11 season. The team was then promoted to division one and became a separate club called Eljaish Sports Club.
Rather than play for Eljaish, Belounis said he was transferred to the division-two Al-Markhiya Sports Club and he stopped receiving the salary he was promised in his contract.
Last February, he filed a case in the local court. He is seeking damages plus four unpaid years of his five-year salary, which Belounis didn’t disclose. The contract, which he showed Bloomberg News, gave the team the option to terminate him after three years with sixty days advanced notice, which Belounis said he didn’t receive.
While he said he will continue his court case even if he is allowed to leave, he thinks agreeing to a retroactive termination will prevent him from collecting two years worth of salary.
His case became tied up over whether his contract is with the Military Sports Association or the new Eljaish club, he said. Both clubs declined to comment on Belounis. A call to the office of Qatar’s Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed bin Abdullah Al-Mahmoud wasn’t answered.
Qatar is the richest country in the world per capita, according to the International Monetary Fund. Its offshore waters hold the world’s third-largest natural gas reserves. The country plans to spend $200 billion before hosting the world’s most-watched sporting event on new stadiums, a rail and metro system, a port, roads and a city for 200,000 people.
Belounis said Qatar deserves the World Cup “but there are a few things you need to resolve,” he said. “This system kills the family, killed a lot of families.”
Belounis, who is of Algerian decent, was brought up in Paris and used to play for FC Saint-Lo Manche in Normandy. He now lives in the house provided him by his employer with his wife and two children. He is no longer being paid and said his savings are dwindling. He spends his days driving his children to and from school and he no longer exercises to keep in shape. His soccer career is over, he said.
“I stopped my career,” he said. “I did nothing wrong.”
He recently sold his furniture and now says he is “camping” on the floor of his house waiting to leave. The ordeal has strained his family life and caused stress for his wife and children, he said.
“Maybe I will sign,” he said, in reference to the termination offer. “I have to take care of my family. They know I don’t have choice. I hope the government will understand this. It’s not fair at all.”