Soccer Player Stuck in Qatar Gets Permission to Leave Country

Zahir Belounis, a French professional soccer player, said he’s been given permission to leave Qatar after being trapped in the country for a year and a half over a salary dispute.

“I am leaving tomorrow afternoon,” he said in a telephone interview from the country’s capital, Doha, after receiving his exit visa. “I have so much to do. I am really happy.”

The 33-year-old midfielder, who first came to the country in 2007 to play for the Doha-based Military Sports Association, said last month that his team had denied him a visa after he filed a case in a local court in February this year for unpaid wages. 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 before now, he said.

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 newspaper said Sept. 25 that 44 Nepalese workers died between June 4 and Aug. 8 amid “appalling labor abuses.” Amnesty International reported “widespread and routine abuse” of migrant workers in a Nov. 18 report.

The country’s government pledged to amend its labor laws to better protect workers and will step up work-site inspections, Sepp Blatter, president of soccer’s governing body FIFA, told reporters Nov. 9 after meetings with Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani and labor ministry representatives.

Union ‘Delighted’

Foreign workers make up 88 percent of Qatar’s population of 2 million, the highest ratio of migrants to citizens in the world, Francois Crepeau, the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, said in a Nov. 10 report. Under the country’s sponsorship system, most must obtain their employer’s permission any time they want to leave the country.

FIFPro is “delighted to hear Zahir Belounis’s ordeal will soon be over,” the Netherlands-based players union said in an e-mailed statement. The union said it’s sending a delegation to Qatar tomorrow for a four-day visit “to help prevent future misery for those who find themselves powerless under the working conditions of Qatar’s kafala sponsorship system.”

Belounis, who is of Algerian decent, 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 organization called Eljaish Sports Club.

Court Case

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, seeking damages plus four unpaid years of his five-year salary, which Belounis didn’t disclose. His case became tied up over whether his contract is with the Military Sports Association or the new Eljaish club, he said.

The Qatar foreign ministry didn’t immediately respond to a e-mail seeking comment. An official at Eljaish Sports Club declined to comment when called today, and the Military Sports Association couldn’t be reached.

Belounis, who hasn’t left Qatar since May 2012, said today he planned to turn off his mobile phone and prepare for his departure. He said he was looking forward to many supporters greeting him upon his arrival in Paris. The ordeal had been a strain on his wife and two children, he said.

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