Debrief: Qatar's intrusive body searches

Strip search row hurts reputation of Qatar and its national airline

Gulf state apologises after outrage sparked by discovery of abandoned baby last month

WHAT'S THE STORY?

The discovery of a newborn dumped at a Doha airport last month, which led to female passengers - many of them Australians - undergoing strip searches and physical examinations, triggered global outrage and strained ties between Qatar and Australia.

On Monday, Qatar said the parents of the abandoned baby girl had been identified and efforts were under way to arrest the mother who was from an Asian country. Agence France-Presse said that for Qatar, this reference typically means a South Asian country.

The woman, who is not in the emirate, has been charged with attempted murder.

An unspecified number of airport police officers who ordered the body searches also face criminal charges, but the specific nature of the charges was not provided by public prosecutors, Reuters reported.

The baby, who survived, was discovered on Oct 2, wrapped in plastic and abandoned in a bathroom rubbish bin, prompting a lockdown of Hamad International Airport as the authorities searched for the mother.

Women on 10 Qatar Airways flights leaving Doha - including at least 13 Australians - were then led from aircraft to ambulances on the tarmac where they were subjected to strip searches and invasive medical examinations to see if they had recently given birth.

WHY IT MATTERS?

The incident came to light after affected Australian passengers spoke out and reports said British, New Zealand and French citizens were subjected to the searches.

The incident triggered diplomatic tensions as Qatar did not immediately apologise.

The tiny Gulf nation faced international condemnation led by Australia, whose Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the searches "appalling". Human rights groups said the searches could constitute sexual assault. The criticism led to a backlash online against state-owned Qatar Airways and threats to refuse service or refuelling to its jets at Australia airports.

Late last month, Qatar apologised for the incident and said investigations were ongoing.

The incident also resurrected criticism, particularly in the West, about treatment of women in the conservative Muslim nation where, among other things, it is illegal to become pregnant outside of marriage.

It also raised the question of whether foreign women travelling through the airport in Qatar could legally be subject to the same laws, and to invasive and potentially non-consensual procedures.

WHAT'S NEXT?

Qatar Airways in September reported losses of US$1.9 billion (S$2.6 billion) in the past year, citing the pandemic as among the primary reasons, but the incident could also potentially lead to damage to the airline's brand.

Since the incident, Qatar has repeatedly vowed to guarantee the future "safety and security" of passengers and has said it was looking at "potential gaps in the procedures and protocols" at the airport.

With the nation set to host the 2022 Fifa World Cup, the matter has dealt a blow to its ongoing efforts and struggle to reassure critics that its promises on women's rights, labour relations and democracy are credible.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 25, 2020, with the headline 'Strip search row hurts reputation of Qatar and its national airline'. Print Edition | Subscribe