How Qatar Walks The Tightrope Between Islamism And Modernity

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Author: David Anderson / Middle East / Published by: Forbes

The Connecticut-sized, natural gas-rich nation of Qatar in the Persian Gulf is often cited by optimists as a sane role model for Arab world. Qatar’s stated goal is to turn their hydrocarbon based economy and traditional society into more a diversified, outward looking system. This is often considered as opposition to the traditional, strict Islamic values of their population: it is a complicated and delicate balance.

Qatar aspires to become a world center of sport, education, and international diplomacy. They have been largely successful: attracting the Arab Games in 2011, World Cup in 2022, and even making a play for the 2020 Olympics. Large prestigious Western university campuses and cultural institutions dot the capital Doha, and the royal family is a moneyed superpower in the art world.

There is a firm social divide: foreigners make up 90% of residents

Diplomatically Qatar spends billions to aid various Arab economies. Using cash they punch above their weight on the world stage. For a country of 260,000 Qataris and 2M resident guest-workers, the actual citizenry of Qatar is more a large family than a nation state. This includes a friendly division along three local tribal lines.

The internecine Sunni-Shi’ite split, so electric in neighboring Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, an so catastrophic in Iraq, is barely noticeable in Qatar. It is a quiet place and there is a firm social divide between the foreigners, 90% of the residents, and locals. One can spend a week in Doha and not meet a single real live Qatari.

Even in non-democracies, rulers must be receptive to the values of the citizenry, as well as the general political zeitgeist they wish to live by.  For Gulf state rulers, this means balancing traditional “Salafist” Islamic considerations with modern international values: two often conflicting goals. “Salafist” is the polite word for Wahhabi, an austere Saudi interpretation of the Koran which could charitably be described as the sharp end of militant Islam.

Like all its neighbors in the Gulf Co-Operation Council, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Emirates, Oman, Qatar is an absolute monarchy and has been ruled by the same family since its founding in 1971, although the Al Thani family has been in charge since the 1700s.

Being citizens of a rich petro-state allows considerable freedom. Note during Arab Spring there were no demonstrations in Qatar

Their challenge is to unite a vision of a glamorous, relatively open society and the citizenry’s support for a strict Islamic dynamic: to be a slick trendy jet-set capital without too many un-Islamic cocktails and bikinis. How women dress and the availability of liquor are two good barometers of the “Islaminess” of a country, as well as a balance. Qatar strikes it delicately where local women dress conservatively, a cultural rather than legal requirement, and liquor is available in snazzy international hotels.

This difficult tightrope gets particularly taught when it comes to ISIS-Daesh. Support for ISIS from private Gulf donors is, or rather was, significant. ISIS’s intentions towards the Gulf monarchies are, of course, murderous.

As an aside, understand that being citizens of a fantastically rich petro-state, Qataris do not have to work or innovate for money in the way other countries do: they are the ultimate rentiers whose tiny population has won the geological lottery. This allows considerable freedom of action, ensures the loyalty of a wealthy citizenry, and a standard of living with so many cradle to grave perks as to be almost embarrassing. In the Arab Spring there were no demonstrations in Qatar. Running a country with oil and a huge population like Iran, or no oil and a poor population like Yemen, is a much more challenging business. So Qatar can throw money around on (allegedly) subsidizing Qatar Airways, rescuing poor-relation Egypt from near bankruptcy, or financing their TV network Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera-America was broadcast from New York until last year when oil prices made it uneconomical.

Al Jazeera TV is also emblematic of the difficulties of combining Western values and conservative Islam.  Al Jazeera’s open, liberal journalistic tradition is antithetical to the way news is reported in the Gulf and Arab world. It was formed at the former Emir’s behest in 1996 in Arabic as an open honest satellite TV station: the CNN of the Arab world. Available throughout the Middle East, and later globally, its outspokenness lost Qatar many friends in a region where open criticism embarrasses and annoys several, surrounding harsh dictatorships.

Over the years, Al Jazeera’s English service has become one of the world’s foremost influential news networks and many high profile Western journalists have defected to it. When it comes to the media, Qatar has elected to go with the Western model of freedom and unbiased journalism. Some of their stories are less anti-Israel than the BBC’s.

More vexing to Qatar is the problematic treatment of foreign guest laborers such as construction workers and female domestics. It is a problem doing damage to all Gulf nations’ reputations, but only in the last few years have the conditions of millions of Asian workers in the Gulf become a human rights cause celeb. Our own president-elect branded a golf course and resort in nearby Dubai with questionable worker treatment.

Qatar’s futuristic skyline was built with South Asian muscle, remittances from which are a powerful source of economic assistance in the workers’ homelands, but their rights and pay are often sub-par.

Lately, a real stinker of a problem has been the importation of workers from North Korea. Of all available resources, to import workers from North Korean is a terrible idea. There are no more exploited labor slaves on the international market than North Koreans. Flown directly from Pyongyang, they’re kept in sealed construction sites and robbed of all almost all their wages by Kim Jong Un’s goons. While other guest workers’ embassies help their people, North Korean embassies are the facilitators and beneficiaries of their citizens’ misery.

Qatar has done an impressive job of creating a modern, relatively open and forward looking society within the wishes of a materially satisfied but spiritually conservative citizenry. Emir al Thani can continue to rule, and provide the stability and good global behavior the international community requires. This tightrope balance has to be continued.


Originally Published:  13th February, 2017

Published on:   Forbes [original post]

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