Bruno Barbey/Magnum Photos

Doha, Qatar, with the ‘dallah,’ or coffee pot, monument in the foreground, 2010


On August 23, Libyan rebels raised their flag over Bab al-Aziziya, the once-impregnable complex housing Muammar Qaddafi’s headquarters in Tripoli. Though the dictator himself still remained at large, the overrunning of one of the nerve centers of his regime had enormous symbolic power and seemed to offer definitive proof of the rebels’ strength. And yet on several newscasts, a different story about the uprising was emerging: along with the rebels’ tricolor with white crescent and star, the presidential compound at Bab al-Aziziya was briefly shown flying the maroon and white flag of Qatar, the tiny, gas-rich Arabian emirate more than two thousand miles away.

Though little noted in the West, Qatar’s enthusiasm for the Libyan revolt had been on display from the outset. The emirate was instrumental in securing the support of the Arab League for the NATO intervention back in March, contributing its own military aircraft to the mission. It also gave $400 million to the rebels, helped them market Libyan oil out of Benghazi, and set up a TV station for them in Doha, the Qatari capital. Following the conquest of Bab al-Aziziya, however, it became clear that the Qataris were deeply involved on the ground as well. Not only did Qatar arm the rebels and set up training camps for them in Benghazi and in the Nafusa Mountains west of Tripoli; its own special forces—a hitherto unknown contingent—helped lead the August offensive on the capital. (Although Qatar’s military is one of the smallest in the Middle East, with just over 11,000 men, its special forces were trained by the French and other Western countries and appear to possess considerable skill.) The day the rebels captured Bab al-Aziziya, Mahmoud Jibril, the leader of Libya’s interim government, singled out Qatar for its far-reaching support, despite “all the doubts and threats.”

In fact, the battle for Libya is only one of several Arab uprisings this year in which Qatar has played a provocative part. In Tunisia and Egypt, no Internet and broadcast medium did more to spread the cause of popular protest than Al Jazeera, Qatar’s government-backed satellite television news network. In early April, the Qatari prime minister publicly called for the resignation of embattled Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh—a statement that departed from the more conciliatory position of other Gulf nations and led Saleh to charge that Qatar “has conspired against Yemen.”

In May, the Qatari government hosted the Doha Forum, an annual, Davos-like conference about democracy and free trade that featured an opening session about the “revolutions” that have “rocked the Arab world.” And in July, despite Qatar’s good relations with the Assad regime before the Syrian uprising began, it became the first Gulf nation to close its embassy in Damascus.

Nor is 2011 the first time Qatar has been accused of stirring up trouble against entrenched regimes in the Middle East. As long ago as 2002, nearly every country in the Arab League had formally protested unfavorable coverage on Al Jazeera, and no fewer than six—Jordan, Saudia Arabia, Kuwait, Tunisia, Libya, and Morocco—had at some point withdrawn their ambassadors to Doha. “In the past, many Arab leaders didn’t even want to talk to me,” the Qatari emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, told the Financial Times in an interview last year.1

At the same time, Qatar has been something of a gadfly in Middle East diplomacy, styling itself (not always successfully) as a third-party broker everywhere from Israel and Lebanon to Darfur and Afghanistan. Since the autumn of 2010, Qatar has helped stage a series of meetings between Western officials and representatives of the Taliban—leading to speculation that the Taliban might open an office in Doha. In mid-June, WikiLeaks released a US State Department cable showing the extent to which Qatar’s tentacular involvement in regional politics had managed to irritate Mubarak’s Egypt, with a native population some three hundred times larger:

Egypt is determined to thwart every single initiative Qatar proposes during its current term as president of the Arab League, to include proposals that are in Egypt’s national interest…. The Egyptian DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] said Qatar’s involvement in Sudan, Palestine, and Al Jazeera’s vitriolic broadcasts against Egypt were the main causes of Egyptian leaders’ ire, to include that of President Mubarak. Challenged to list actions Qatar had taken in Sudan against Egypt’s interest, Naguib readily conceded there were none. Qatar’s offense, he said, stemmed from the mere act of its mediation in Egypt’s back yard.

There is little about Qatar to suggest it as a hotbed of political agitation. Occupying a thumb-shaped peninsula in the Persian Gulf, it is a country the size of Connecticut, wedged between two of the largest and most reactionary powers in the region: Saudi Arabia, which abuts it, and Iran, with which it shares its economic lifeline, the largest natural gas field in the world.


Like most of its near neighbors, Qatar is a hereditary monarchy; it has been ruled by the same family since the nineteenth century. (The inaugural speech of the democracy conference was given by Qatar’s heir apparent, His Highness Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.) There is no independent legislature and political parties are forbidden; civil society groups outside the state are virtually nonexistent. Qatar is also the only country other than Saudi Arabia to be dominated by the conservative Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam, and its legal system is based in part on Sharia law. Owing to the country’s acute demand for labor, moreover, more than 85 percent of the 1.7 million people who live in Qatar—and 90 percent of the labor force—are foreign workers with no political rights. (The native population is 225,000.)

In view of its extraordinary economic situation, it is difficult to see why the Qatari leadership would want to upset the political status quo. With the third-largest gas reserves of any country, it is now the leading exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Over the last decade, rapidly growing demand for LNG has turned Qatar into the richest country in the world as measured by GDP per capita, which the CIA estimates at $179,000—a figure that is only expected to increase in coming years. Allowing the emirate to develop at breakneck speed, this vast resource has also permitted it to offer its citizens an enviable standard of living without having to bother with the encumbrances of deliberative democracy. When I visited Doha this summer, there was much talk about the revelation that 29,000 Qataris—more than a tenth of the native population—are now millionaires.

Indeed, Qatar appears to have a decidedly different approach toward popular revolt in its own neighborhood. When Iranian security forces were condemned internationally for attacking protesters after the disputed 2009 election, the Qatari prime minister asserted that it was an “internal matter” and that “we must respect the right of each state to solve its own problems.” In March, as Bahrain began its violent repression of protesters in Manama’s Pearl Square, Qatar supported the controversial military intervention led by Saudi Arabia to prop up the regime.2

At the same time, although Qatar contains the principal overseas headquarters of the US military’s Central Command (CENTCOM) and was a key staging ground for the invasion of Iraq, it has also given support to Hamas and other militant groups. After a visit in 2009, Senator John Kerry complained, “Qatar can’t continue to be an American ally on Monday that sends money to Hamas on Tuesday.” But the ties continue: in late April, reports surfaced that Hamas’s political leadership was exploring a relocation from Damascus to Doha; and in August, the Israeli press revealed that Israel’s foreign ministry was taking steps to limit Qatar’s influence in Palestinian areas because of its support for Hamas and “anti-Israel” groups abroad.

For decades, Qatar has been the home in exile for the prominent Egyptian Sunni cleric Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has deep connections to the Muslim Brotherhood. Although his strident views on Israel have drawn controversy in the West, he is considered a moderate Islamist by many Arabs, and an Al Jazeera talk show on which he often appears, Sharia and Life, is watched widely across the Middle East. Sheikh Qaradawi’s support for the revolts in North Africa and the Levant has spread the message of popular uprising to his tens of millions of devout followers. Just a week after Saudi and other Gulf forces crossed into Bahrain, however, he declared that “there is no people’s revolution in Bahrain but a sectarian one,” referring to the Shia majority who took a leading part in the uprising, thus giving religious backing to the crackdown and Qatar’s apparent endorsement of it.

And yet Qatar has not shied away from embracing—at great expense—many of the trappings of liberal cosmopolitanism. Over the past decade, it has not only hired RAND, the American think tank, to revamp its K–12 education system along contemporary Western lines; it has also placed a strong emphasis on what the vice-president of Qatar University, Sheikha Bint Jabor al-Thani, described to me as “teaching our people how to think.” Through a government-funded entity called the Qatar Foundation, the country has built a 2,500-acre “Education City” for local outposts of the Weill Cornell Medical College, Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Texas A&M’s School of Engineering, and other Western institutions. The foundation has also supported a Doha branch of Bloomsbury, the British publishing house, a Center for Media Freedom, and a political discussion show broadcast by the BBC, Doha Debates, in which opposing panelists argue before a live audience about usually taboo topics like government accountability, political Islam, and the status of women in the Arab world.


All of this has led some observers to wonder just what exactly Qatar is up to. “It’s the emir,” David Roberts, a Qatari policy analyst at the Doha branch of the Royal United Services Institute, a British security think tank, told me. “But where does he get these ideas?”


To the first-time visitor, Doha, Qatar’s waterfront capital, can seem a baffling combination of feverish activity and provincial sleepiness. Much of the present cityscape—and even the land it is sitting on—is less than a decade old. A huge new airport, designed to receive 24 million passengers per year, will replace the present one by the end of 2012; and that, in turn, will double capacity again in a further expansion to be completed in 2015. Three years ago, the emirate inaugurated the Museum of Islamic Art, a travertine I.M. Pei complex that occupies its own island on the Doha waterfront and houses a collection that rivals any of its kind in the West; in another three years, it aims to finish a new National Museum designed by Jean Nouvel—an even more ambitious project that was described to me as “pharaonic.” Northwest of town, in addition to the high-tech classrooms of Education City, the Qatar Foundation is building a teaching and research hospital that will purportedly have the largest endowment—$7.9 billion—of any medical institution in the world.


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


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


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.”


Hussein Malla/AP Images

Sheikh Hamad, right, and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Jaber al-Thani at the Arab Summit, Damascus, March 2008

Even in the Gulf, however, the Qatari position can be difficult to read. In 2006, for example, after Israel’s war in Lebanon, the Qatari emir spoke of Hezbollah’s “victory” over the Israelis and provided millions of dollars to help rebuild four heavily bombed Hezbollah villages. Yet only a few months later Qatar invited Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to the Sixth International Conference on New or Restored Democracies, a UN–sponsored forum—leading to a caustic rebuke from Saudi Arabia. (Livni declined, but later gave the keynote speech at the 2008 Doha Forum on Democracy, Development, and Free Trade.) And in early May of this year, with Gulf troops helping the Sunni leaders of Bahrain enforce the crackdown on mostly Shia protesters, Moqtada al-Sadr, the Iraqi Shia leader and outspoken critic of the Gulf intervention, was a guest of the Qatari emir in Doha.

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera’s English-language service, which was started in 2006, has been praised in the West for its aggressive and comprehensive reporting on the recent revolts—even in the Gulf. (It is now available in several US cities, including Washington, D.C., and New York.) In July, the network produced Shouting in the Dark, a fifty-minute documentary about the uprising in Bahrain whose blunt examination of the crackdown caused the Bahraini government to lodge a formal protest with Qatar. Yet unlike Al Jazeera’s Arabic service (which did not show the documentary), Al Jazeera English is not watched by tens of millions of Arab viewers in the Middle East; its audience is predominantly elite, Western, and international—people who do not pose a direct threat to Qatari or regional stability.


The longer one stays in Doha, the clearer it becomes that its social and political realities are managed with remarkable subtlety. Migrant workers, many of them from South Asia, form the vast majority of the population yet remain nearly invisible: they are housed in labor camps far from the city from which they are bussed in to construction sites before dawn. Even more discreet are the huge American military installations tucked into the desert. In other unobtrusive corners there are now Catholic and Anglican churches, and even a liquor store outside of town, to cater to the growing expatriate population (you need a special license to enter it). Locals, meanwhile, talk of a lively culture of social exchange, which, however, is to be found mainly behind closed doors. (Public gatherings are strictly regulated and rarely occur.) According to tradition, Qatari men will often take part in a majlis, a neighborhood klatch that typically takes place in private homes.

In the end, Sheikh Hamad’s particular genius, it seems, has been to promote Qatar as one of the most sophisticated and open societies in the Arab Gulf, all the while being careful to keep its own closed political and social system—and its status in the Islamic world and among the traditional Gulf monarchies—largely intact. Indeed, for all its activist foreign policy, Qatar’s concerns, like those of other Gulf nations, are essentially parochial: military security, food security, social stability, and an economic system that can be sustained, in a hostile climate, over the very long term—even beyond the era of gas and oil.

From this perspective, Qatar’s involvement in the Arab uprisings, and its remarkable military intervention in Libya, may take on a different cast. “They have been playing a deep game,” Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a specialist in politics and security in the Gulf at the London School of Economics, told me. By taking the lead in Arab world support for the Libyan rebels, he suggested, the emirate has not merely put itself on the side of revolutionaries (and in its direct support for various individual rebel leaders maximized its chances of picking an ultimate winner); it has also allowed Qatar and other Gulf states that have followed suit to show they are responsible members of the international community, while deflecting attention from the Gulf itself. For Qatar, at least, promoting democracy abroad and investing lavishly in a comparatively young population at home have allowed the emir to stay ahead of the changes sweeping through the region, all the while strengthening his hold on power.

—September 27, 2011

Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute