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The Strange Power of Qatar

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Jacques Brinon/AP Images
Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir of Qatar, right, and his wife, Sheikha Moza, Paris, June 2009

Yet for all the development, there is little sense of urban vitality. Though Doha is the center of the country’s political and economic life, its salient features are shopping malls, office towers, and mid-rise hotels with private beaches, often set apart by disconcertingly large and empty open spaces. So far, the Western university campuses have attracted only a few hundred students, and during my two visits to the Museum of Islamic Art, I had the place virtually to myself. Everywhere I went—invariably by car, since there is no public transport to speak of and distances and climate preclude walking—vast construction projects were under way and the wide boulevards were clogged with traffic. But apart from one historic outdoor market where older Qataris still shop and men come at night to smoke shisha, I saw no public gathering places, and hardly any street life.

Indeed, it can be difficult to encounter Qataris at all. I was driven to my hotel by an Eritrean on a two-year foreign worker contract; when I arrived, I was greeted by a Vietnamese doorman and a Thai receptionist. At many of the offices I visited, I found that mid-level, and often senior, positions were occupied by non-Qatari Arabs and Westerners. So dominant are expatriates in the private sector that the Qatari government has begun a policy of “Qatarization” to force the hiring of native applicants. The huge pool of skilled foreign labor, moreover, is itself dwarfed by the well over one million unskilled migrants who feed the insatiable demand for construction workers.

The elusiveness of Qatari society is compounded by what expatriates in Doha describe as the traditional insularity of the local population. “This is a contrast with elsewhere in the Arab world. In Morocco and Syria you are embraced, brought into homes. It doesn’t happen here,” one Western professional who recently took a high-level position for a Qatari government organization told me. “It’s not uncommon to find people who have been here ten years and have never been inside a Qatari home.”

Still, it seems clear that Sheikh Hamad, the Qatari emir, enjoys unusual popularity. Bahrain, just twenty-five miles to the northwest, has roiled with violence; the United Arab Emirates, to the southeast, has jailed activists calling for liberalization and reform; Saudi Arabia has witnessed the greatest protests in thirty years in its nearby Eastern Province. By contrast, the only time in recent memory Qataris have taken to the streets was when the country improbably won its bid to host the 2022 World Cup last December.

The few young Qataris I met showed far more interest in the country’s sudden emergence as a “country that matters,” as one young woman put it, than in its becoming more democratic. The Arab Youth Survey, in its most recent study of eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds in ten Arab countries, found that just one third of Qatari respondents—the lowest of any country polled—ranked democracy as “very important,” compared to nearly three fourths in the neighboring emirate of Abu Dhabi. The same survey also found that 88 percent of young Qataris thought their country was “going in the right direction.” In late February and early March, when Facebook activists tried to organize a Qatari “Day of Rage,” the page was quickly deleted and no one showed up.3

3.

When Sheikh Hamad came to power in 1995 by deposing his father, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani, Qatar was a fairly typical small Gulf monarchy. It was hardly known abroad, and although Sheikh Khalifa had established a generous welfare state during the 1970s oil boom, much of its wealth was concentrated at the top. Doha still had the atmosphere of an old pearl-diving town—pearling having been the mainstay of the Qatari economy until the collapse of the industry in the 1930s—and was conservative even by Gulf standards. Women were not allowed to drive and were rarely seen in public; international news magazines were carefully screened for overly suggestive photographs before appearing on newsstands.

Some of this was owing to historic ties with Saudi Arabia. The Qatari peninsula had been sparsely populated until the late eighteenth century, when a series of fishing villages grew on the coast and Wahhabi tribes began to migrate from the Arabian interior. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it came under Ottoman and then British protection, but remained extremely poor with hardly any modern institutions until the discovery of oil in the mid-twentieth century.4 Even after it gained full independence in 1971, its policies seemed to move largely in lockstep with Saudi Arabia’s. By the early 1990s, however, Qatar had become enmeshed in a border dispute with its much larger neighbor and, according to several Gulf analysts I spoke to, was chafing under Saudi influence.

Against this background, Sheikh Hamad’s accession to power became an opportunity for the country to redefine itself. In 1996 he founded Al Jazeera, which quickly became the first major Arab broadcaster to report aggressively on developments throughout the Middle East. That same year, an Israeli trade mission arrived in Doha—an unprecedented event in the Gulf that was followed by a visit to Qatar by then prime minister Shimon Peres.5 Soon after, the emir began building a $1 billion air base for the US military, which was facing increasing pressure to leave Saudi Arabia.

In part, these various moves were spurred on by the emir’s close adviser, the foreign minister (and since 2007 prime minister) Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Jaber al-Thani. They seemed intended to strengthen the tiny emirate’s legitimacy as an autonomous state. “This is the big thing Sheikh Hamad did when he deposed his father,” J.E. Peterson, a Gulf specialist and former adviser to the government of Oman, told me recently. “He showed that Qatar was going to pursue an independent strategy and wasn’t just going to be under the Saudi thumb.”

At home, meanwhile, the emir closed Qatar’s information ministry, the traditional symbol of state control of the press, and quickly announced a series of far-reaching political reforms. These included the creation of an elected municipal council in the Qatari capital; the writing of a new constitution, to be approved by referendum; and giving women the right to vote and run for municipal office (as well as drive cars). There was even talk of an elected parliament.

Unlike the recent efforts of other Gulf monarchies—such as the announcement by Saudi Arabia in late September that it too would grant women the right to vote and run in municipal elections, while maintaining a prohibition on driving—the Qatari reforms were not driven by pressure from below. And in some respects, the changes were dramatic. Encouraged by the emir’s glamorous wife, Sheikha Moza, who chairs the Qatar Foundation and has been a leading influence on domestic reforms, Qatari women have begun to challenge the patriarchal system with increasing boldness. (They still wear traditional dress—though sometimes with Western clothes underneath and with earrings visible under loosely wrapped hijabs.) Some have pursued high-level public careers, and divorce rates are now among the highest in the Middle East. Sheikha Bint Jabor al-Thani of Qatar University, where students are divided by gender, told me, “The student population is now 77 percent women. I think we will reach 85 percent soon. This is a concern for some people. Men are being left behind.”

Yet many of the political reforms have stalled. Parliamentary elections, originally promised for 2005, have been postponed indefinitely. For the time being, despite Sheikh Hamad’s talk of elections, the country continues under the old, largely unaccountable system of governance, with virtually all major decisions emanating from the Emiri Diwan, the office of the emir.

According to Mehran Kamrava, the director of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Doha, the announced reforms were a way for the emir to secure international support while consolidating control over the fractious al-Thani clan; once that was done, the pressure was off. In a 2009 study of Qatari politics, Kamrava wrote, “the prospects for the political system becoming democratic do not seem even remotely possible.”6

4.

When Sheikh Hamad founded Al Jazeera in 1996 with a grant of $140 million, its main innovation, according to longtime staff members and observers, was simply its ability to cover breaking news in Arabic with something approaching Western standards of independence. “We didn’t have this mission of pushing democratization,” Mhamed Krichen, a news anchor with Al Jazeera’s Arabic service since its founding, told me in Doha. “But that was the logic we created when we began to show both sides of an issue. It was not easy to put Israelis on the channel.”

Over its first decade, the organization made a name for itself with provocative coverage of September 11, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Its frequent airing of statements by Osama bin Laden and its unparalleled access to militants raised frequent accusations that it had an anti-American bias. (The New York Daily News called it “an Arab propaganda outfit controlled by the medieval government of Qatar that masquerades as a real media company.”) But for viewers in the Middle East, Al Jazeera’s credibility came from its willingness to test the boundaries of what could be reported—and above all from its uncanny ability to capture the prevailing mood of the street.7

With Al Jazeera’s growing influence, however, it also became a powerful element in Qatar’s foreign policy. In cables from 2009 released by WikiLeaks, the US embassy in Doha reported that Qatar–Saudi relations had improved as a result of “toned down criticism of the Saudi royal family on al-Jazeera,” and that Qatar’s prime minister told Mubarak, “‘we would stop al-Jazeera for a year’ if he agreed in that span of time to deliver a lasting settlement for the Palestinians.” (He declined the offer.) While insisting on the network’s independence, Krichen acknowledged that “after fifteen years, and all that has happened—the intifada, September 11, bin Laden, Iraq, and now all these revolutions—in general there are now lots of similarities” between what Al Jazeera covers and Qatari foreign policy.

The government’s growing involvement in Al Jazeera seemed to be underscored on September 20, when it was announced that Wadah Khanfar, the highly regarded Palestinian who had been director general of the network since 2003, was being replaced by Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim bin Mohammed al-Thani, a natural gas executive who is a member of the royal family. A few weeks earlier, WikiLeaks had released further cables showing that Khanfar met with State Department and other US officials on several occasions over the past decade to hear concerns about Al Jazeera; while the reasons for Khanfar’s departure remain unclear, the Qatari government may now be more concerned about the appearance of foreign influence than of its own.8

During the recent uprisings, observers in the Middle East noted that Al Jazeera’s Arabic service skirted over the protests in eastern Saudi Arabia and was initially slow to report on the revolt in Syria, which had been a Qatari ally. Above all, it seemed to ignore the violent repression in Bahrain. “I was in Bahrain in February, and everyone on the street was talking about why Al Jazeera was not covering it,” said Toby Matthiesen, who recently wrote about the revolt in these pages.9 “It’s thirty-five minutes by plane from Doha. People are being shot in the streets. And the Qataris were not showing it.”

  1. 3

    The failed Facebook protest, which was to take place on March 16 and may have been organized outside the country, seemed to have anti-Western overtones, calling for an end to ties with Israel, the expulsion of US forces from Qatar, and the exclusion of the emir’s liberal-minded wife from public affairs, while decrying the sale of alcohol and the construction of a church. See L. Barkan, “Clashes on Facebook Over Calls for Revolution in Qatar,” Middle East Media Research Institute, March 3, 2011. 

  2. 4

    As late as mid-century, Qatar did not have a telephone exchange and slavery was still practiced.  Rupert Hay, Britain’s political officer in Qatar at the time, wrote that “before 1949 there was, practically speaking, no administration and [Qatari rule] was entirely patriarchal.” See Jill Crystal, Oil and Politics in the Gulf: Rulers and Merchants in Kuwait and Qatar (Cambridge University Press, 1995). 

  3. 5

    The Israeli trade mission in Doha, which acted as an informal channel for political contacts with Israel, remained open through the second intifada and the war in Lebanon, until it was officially closed by the Qatari government in 2009 to protest the war in Gaza. Several people I spoke to, however, said that a low-level Israeli presence continued in Doha until 2011. For a discussion of this relationship, see Uzi Rabi, “Qatar’s Relations with Israel: Challenging Arab and Gulf Norms,” The Middle East Journal, 2009. 

  4. 6

    Owing to Qatar’s long history of palace coups, the government has taken steps to marginalize dissent within the ruling house and among leading families, including banning members of a tribe associated with a 1996 plot to restore the previous emir that was allegedly backed by Saudi Arabia. See Mehran Kamrava, “Royal Factionalism and Political Liberalization in Qatar,” The Middle East Journal, Summer 2009. 

  5. 7

    For a superb account of Al Jazeera’s remarkable first decade, see Hugh Miles’s Al Jazeera: The Inside Story of the Arab News Channel That is Challenging the West (Grove, 2005). 

  6. 8

    The day after the announcement, Khanfar gave an interview to Al Jazeera in which he denied that it was linked to the Wikileaks revelations or to political pressure. 

  7. 9

    Joost Hiltermann and Toby Matthiesen, ” Bahrain Burning,” The New York Review, August 18, 2011. 

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