Millennials take over Qatar, but Real Change has Yet to be Accomplished

The quirky Emir of Qatar since the mid-1990s, Sheikh Hamad b. Issa al-Thani, stepped down in favor of his fourth son, Tamim, 33, this morning. It is a historical step and insofar as it might form a precedent in the Gulf Cooperation Council of 6 Gulf sheikhdoms heretofore mainly ruled by old men, it is likely most unwelcome among their ranks.

Sheikh Hamad presided over the growth of the Qatari gross domestic product from $8 bn. annually in 1996 to $174 bn. a year today. The Qatari citizen population is only about 250,000, making the peninsula the wealthiest per capita in the world (mainly based on natural gas exports). Sheikh Hamad innovated in allowing the Aljazeera satellite news channel to be founded and operate relatively independently. It changed Arab television journalism forever, airing multiple points of views on key issues and allowing critics of the various Arab regimes to be heard. Aljazeera gave a platform to the revolutionaries of 2011 at a time when local Tunisian, Egyptian or Libyan media attempted to downplay the revolutionary youth movements. Qatar also began playing a mediating role in disputes in the region, as when it negotiated a truce in 2008 between the Shiite Hizbullah and its Sunni opposition in Lebanon.

In the past two years, Qatar’s reputation has suffered among many Arab youth because of its backing for the religious Right (Ennahda in Tunisia, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere). Qatar has been a hawk on Syria, seeking the overthrow of the Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad and being willing to arm even radical Sunni groups who have affiliated with al-Qaeda. On the other hand, its Arabic-language television station has been quiet about the crackdown on Shiite protesters in Bahrain by a Sunni monarchy. Sheikh Hamad once had a reputation for even-handedness, which in recent years he has squandered in pursuit of the spread of Sunni fundamentalism in the region. Likewise, the jailing this year of a poet for 15 years for insulting the ruling family pointed to a deep hypocrisy, since Aljazeera had pointedly criticized Hosni Mubarak in Egypt for his crackdown on dissent and criticism of his regime.

Sheikh Hamad explicitly made reference to the creative role of Arab youth in recent years, saying

“Our young [people] have proven over the past years that they are a people of resolve and fortitude; capable of accommodating the spirit of their time; realising its necessities fully and profoundly; coping with its newest; and above all contributing by their original thinking and creative initiatives. Thanks to all this, I recall the words of the fourth Caliph, Ali bin Abi Taleb, May Allah be pleased with him, who said: ‘Teach your children other than that what you were taught; as they are created for a time other than yours.'”

The absolute ruler of a Gulf sheikhdom urged Generation Y to put their faith in science (al-`ulum, and not just ‘knowledge’ as the official translation has it):

“The future lies ahead of you, the children of this homeland, as you usher into a new era where young leadership hoists the banner; bearing in mind the aspirations of future generations; working restlessly and relentlessly to achieve them, seeking guidance and support from God first and from the citizens; deriving force from the experience gained in running the country’s affairs; and the profound knowledge of realities in our region, particularly the Arab World. While I am certain you are up to the responsibility, I urge you, to fear God by seeking knowledge and working hard; let [the sciences] be the beacon lighting your path; helping you build the future of the nation to its best; by knowledge emerge able generations, capable of shouldering responsibilities and embracing the straight right path.”

While Sheikh Hamad is among the more interesting political minds in the Middle East and he has helped shake the region up in ways that are often positive, there are a number of potential steps his successor could take that would be truly revolutionary.

Sheikh Tamim will likely revive the plan to move to an elected consultative assembly. But what would really change the Gulf would be for him to accept becoming a constitutional monarch. Kuwait was, 6 years ago, the closest of the GCC countries to that form of government, but it has become much more authoritarian. It is a hard sell for Qatar to promote democracy elsewhere in the Arab world, yet to lack it at home in Doha.

Likewise, the GCC countries suffer from a local labor shortage produced by their vast hydrocarbon wealth, which generates the need for workers and for businesses beyond what local populations can supply. Millions of Indians, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Filipinos and others have flooded into the region. Qatar’s population is 1.8 million, but about 1.5 million of that consists of guest workers. Guest workers in the Gulf states most often need an in-country patron or ‘kafeel,’ whose relationship to them can often be exploitative. Even workers from India or the Philippines who have lived for many years in a Gulf country are limited to relatively short-term visas. They can easily be deported or denied renewal of their visa, which is how any concerted attempt at workplace unionization or strikes are dealt with. There is typically no path to citizenship for these guest workers, even if they live in a GCC country all their lives.

Using Qatar’s natural gas wealth as a platform on which to pursue renewable energy and its export to energy-hungry Pakistan and India would help firm up Qatar’s future in a world where hydrocarbons are likely rapidly to decline in value. Qatar is vulnerable to losing coastline if the seas rise 3 or 4 feet in this century, as is expected because of climate change.

So another really important innovation Sheikh Tamim could pursue would be to offer citizenship to long-time residents, to regularize immigration laws and establish a path to citizenship for immigrants, and to allow unions, strikes and more justice for the workers who are making Doha run.

This step in turn would require a national educational system that could induct the immigrants into a Qatari national identity.

A return of Aljazeera to more even-handed editorial policies would increase Qatar’s prestige.

Sheikh Tamim would raise his country’s esteem in the eyes of the world if he pardoned poet Muhammad al-Ajami and established genuine freedom of speech in the country. Qatar achieved its current stature by demanding more open societies elsewhere in the Arab world. It risks undermining those achievement by being seen as hypocritical.

And a return of Qatar to its 2008 role of mediator and peace-maker would benefit it and the region Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt has been a disaster, and the Sunni radicals in Syria are damaging the reputation and prospects of the rebels there. For Doha to pick winners so boldly risks a backlash if they don’t do well. And, violent interventions like that in Syria could someday backfire by attracting violence to Doha.

14 Responses

  1. JC – I don’t think that Qatar really cares about being seen as hypocritical. As you are well aware, every power/state on this planet is hypocritical, from the US, UK to Russia and China.

    I think the transition is a distraction aimed at providing hope for the citizens who perhaps were becoming restless. It appears Shiek Hamad thinks by giving power to his young 30-something son, that will appease the youth of Qatar for a while. Yet, like Obama, Tamim will fail miserably, as those in power only care about preserving the establishment.

  2. It seems that Professor Cole sees world events as a “flash in the pan.” He called Egypt’s revolution and transition to democracy a “disaster,” [actually Cole referred to Morsi’s rule that way, not the revolution or democracy] while calling Qatar’s slow trek to participatory government a detriment to progress. What is more the truth is that Egypt’s revolution was inevitable and the result of decades of autocratic rule. Progress is slow and there is nothing inherently worse in leadership by an American educated scholar with a scientific background, who happens to see politics through the eyes of an evolving philosophy of the Muslim Brotherhood than in what has plagued Egypt for decades. Each time a Muslim nation elects a Muslim government, we hear the cries of those like Professor Cole lamenting that an Islamic based government is seen as more viable by the majority of the people vis-a-vis a secular one. This shows a shortsightedness in his views of history, particularly Islamic history and a clear indication of both prejudice and fear of governments that are Islamically based (except for Shia governments, which he seems quite fond of).

    The fact of the matter is that one size does not fit all. There is no evidence or clear religious text that asserts that a monarchy is inherently bad or that democratic rule is prefer in all instances. If recent history in the region is any indication, when the majority of Qataris want change, they will ask for it; demand it if their requests go unanswered. It is not necessary for us to tell them they need to do this or that. I would say to him that the world is watching our own democracy intently and seeing that it doesn’t work so well; being in serious need of tweaking.

    There will be no winners or losers in Syria for Professor Cole to fret about and to think Qatar need fret about. Its wealth and status among nations is established and it is the Ass(ad) and those like him who need to fear alliance. He is the kind of leader the world is convulsing to get rid of and he wears not the crown of a monarch. He is simply a pig for power, ruthless and evil. Would Professor Cole have Qatar align itself with this piece of crap? Violence is the only call he will respond to. Our nation has repeatedly asked him to relinquish power. We’ve asked him to transition the power. Has he responded with anything other than murder? Nor will he. Qatar is on the side of justice, as is America, Britain, and so many other nations in the world. If Ass(ad) wins, we all lose. Not because we arms “radicals” as Professor Cole cries, but because we allowed a tyrant to live to see another day to brutalize and destroy his own people and land.

    So, a poet is imprisoned for attaching the ruling family there. Not the best of what we see as being characteristic of a free nation. But, look at our own nation, as democratic as we think her to be. Pvt. Manning will likely be imprisoned for life. What was his crime really? He showed us how careless our military adviser are and how wanton they are in affairs of life. Now, we seek to quiet Snowden, who has shown us how far afield our government has traveled from the spirit of its own Constitution and the rights of the people to feel safe and secure in their own homes. We have an ever-growing 4th branch of government; a industrial military complex, that is supposed to be controlled by a commander-in-chief, most of whom have no training to so control and most of whom know nothing about either military or intelligence operations. They are, therefore, puppets, who dance to their puppeteers, their military and intelligence advisors. They cow to they, so easily jettisoning the moral and legal principles that make America great.

    Advise Qatar? Please. It is our own democracy that is in jeopardy. We are despised world over for our military invasions and our inept foreign policy. Why should anyone choose in good faith to listen to us?

    • Apparently this mild piece has hit a nerve.

      Criticism of Professor Cole in minding his own backyard might make sense if he didn’t post any criticism of the US. But a large chunk of his blog posts does. His speciality is on the Middle East. He’s very qualified in giving advice and making criticisms, be it Egpt, Qatar, US, etc, which he has a right to express, and for the most part, bang on.

      This only comes off as an over-defensive reaction along Arab Sunni Islamist leanings, being in denial, resenting the criticisms as biased slights and hypocritically trying to deflect very real issues and problems based on irrational arguments and appeals.

  3. Qatar is unusual in the Mideast to the extent of its ties and orientation to Western interests.

    After the U.S. Armed Forces removed themselves from Saudi Arabia, Qatar became home to a regional command for the U.S. military.

    Qatar gave several milion dollars in foreign assisatance to Israel as a reward for its 2005 Gaza disengagement to construct a soccer stadium that could be used by Arabs and Jews alike.

    Qatar denounced the continued detention of IDF corporal Gilad Shalit by Gazan militants.

  4. DO THE QATAR ROYALS TRULY BELIEVE THEY WILL BE KEPT AROUND BY THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD AND THE SALAFISTS AFTER THEY SEIZE POWER IN THE REGION? SEEMS A TRULY SELF DECEIVING APPROACH THAT WILL END IN THEIR (AL THANI) OWN DESTRUCTION. earlier today I attended a lunch with the Ambassador of Iraq who warned raqi experience with the Salafis and Al Qaida is these elements have no flexibility or room for compromise, hey are all or nothing in their beliefs, and thus cannot form any kind of coalition or lead any diverse society. Sheikh Tamim is making a Devils Deal if he truly believes his monarchy will survive the Salafis he is supporting. They will Not return the favor; rather they will ensure Sheikh Tamim is relegated to the dust bin of history. How does his father and Uncle make such misguided judgments is a bigger mystery.

  5. > “So another really important innovation Sheikh Tamim could pursue would be to offer citizenship to long-time residents, to regularize immigration laws and establish a path to citizenship for immigrants, and to allow unions, strikes and more justice for the workers who are making Doha run.”

    I simply do not see this happening in my lifetime among any of the GCC or Gulf Arab countries. Human rights concepts for citizenship and workers, barely registers, and is not a priority for them. To be fair, this is true for most of Asia. Even if Qatar did have an inkling for labour and immigration reforms, the others would vehemently be against such inclusions.

    • Actually it seems I may have not given the right picture on reforms, at least on citizenship, in the region. The UAE has stepped up naturalization. At the same time though, it has stepped up discriminatory sectarian/ethnic deportations and stripping of citizenship of reformists, activists or those they believe are politically undesirable to their dictatorship.

      Bahrain’s security police forces are heavily made up of naturalized citizens as well, who happen to be mostly Sunni to shore up the regime’s numbers over the majority Shia population, such as Balochis and other ethnicities from Pakistan.

  6. Sheikh Tamim is supposedly a Salafist who thinks his own father is a heretic and is too soft. Keep dreaming Professor Cole, because none of the things you suggest are remotely plausible, especially in light of the Al Thani-Al Saud family feud and the fact that the Saudis basically installed Tamim because the GCC is basically the Saudis’ Warsaw Pact and Qatar under King Hamad was basically like Hungary in 1956 (starting to break off the leash).

    As far as the immigration goes I personally don’t understand why they don’t deport the Indians and Filipinos and bring in people from the other Arab states, at least then there wouldn’t be as many linguistic/cultural absorption issues. But then again the reason they import outsiders is because they specifically don’t want to add new citizens. It’s obvious: They want the labor, not the people.

    The idea that Qatar would ever decide to adopt an American-style immigration policy is hilarious because it would never ever happen. Ever. Overnight all those Indian “citizens” would essentially render the native Qatari population meaningless by sheer population numbers and suddenly the Indian Union would be adding a new state, or worse it would be like Fiji in the Middle East, where any time an Indian got in office the military would overthrow them.

    Ideas like yours are really why I am starting to be disillusioned with Progressivism, because a lot of Progressives don’t want to acknowledge that nationalities, cultures and borders are actually a layer of protection for people preventing the whole world from being run by one set of neoliberal policies and then becoming some sort of weird monoculture.

    • You are the one who is naive. They don’t bring the Arabs to the Gulf because the latter’s claim on citizenship would be much stronger than that of the South Asians. They prefer Hindus to their brethren.

      This issue may someday be resolved in the same way as Roman slavery was.

      • In fairness: I believe that Sami’s final two sentences in his second paragraph anticipate your point: “But then again the reason they import outsiders is because they specifically don’t want to add new citizens. It’s obvious: They want the labor, not the people.”

      • I guess I’m not clear on the concept of “citizenship.”

        If Qatar is a kingdom, then the king owns all property, including the human beings who live there.
        They are “subjects,” not “citizens,” as I understand those 2 words.

        Even a person “owning” a cell phone, for example, is a misnomer. The phone belongs to the king, who suffers the person to act as if it is their property. But that suffrance can be revoked at any time.

  7. That was exactly what I said, Professor. If they wanted to add new citizens they would add cultural relatives but because they don’t want to, they brought in Filipinos and Indians (who I might add, they treat horribly, but that’s a feature not a bug).

    Youth doesn’t always mean modernity either, look at how the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb basically flushed the achievements of the three emperors before him down the toilet because he viewed them as effete heretics.

  8. @Mace: You will forgive most of us for not seeing Syria moving in a democratic direction regardless of who comes out on top of this conflict. It seems from your writing that your distaste for evil Rawafidh clouds your perception. Perhaps you think the murder of Hassan Shehata this week was a positive step towards democracy in the region?

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