2001 Scores

Status: Free
Freedom Rating: 6.0
Civil Liberties: 6
Political Rights: 6


Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani celebrated five years as Qatar's emir in 2000. In this short time, he has begun to improve political openness and transparency, relax press censorship, and initiate a strong policy of economic diversification and privatization. In foreign policy, he has taken a broadly pro-U.S., moderate Arab position while continuing to maintain political stability at home.

Qatar became a British protectorate in 1919 and gained independence when Great Britain withdrew from the Persian Gulf in 1971. Under the 1970 Basic Law, an emir is chosen from among the adult males of the Al-Thani family. The Basic Law also provides for a council of ministers and a partially-elected Majlis al-Shura, or advisory council. In practice, the 35-member Majlis is fully appointed.

In 1995, Sheikh Hamad, then crown prince and long recognized as the real power in the country, deposed his father in a palace coup while the emir vacationed in Switzerland. He has since taken steps toward gradual democratization. Press censorship was formally lifted with the dissolution of the information ministry in 1995, and in 1998 the emirate held direct elections to the board of the powerful chamber of commerce and industry. In July 1999, Hamad appointed a committee to draw up a permanent constitution over three years with a provision for a directly elected parliament with legislative power.

Qatar's first election was held on March 8, 1999, for a 29-member advisory council on municipal affairs. Although the council is limited to issuing opinions on a narrow scope of issues, the election was regarded as a watershed in a region where rulers traditionally resist sharing power with their constituents. By allowing women to vote and to stand as candidates, Qatar became the first Persian Gulf state to hold a direct election on the basis of universal suffrage. Six women were among the 248 candidates, but none of them won seats.

Analysts note that Sheikh Hamad's commitment to democratic reform appears to outweigh that of his subjects. Unlike other countries in the region, Qatar has come under virtually no popular pressure to reform. Only 55 percent of eligible Qataris registered to vote in last year's municipal election. The Economist attributed the lack of enthusiasm to the strong conservative nature of Qatari society. Indeed, women candidates admitted to facing criticism of their decision to stand. And surprisingly, Qatar's leading families did not field candidates. Hamad's motives for promoting openness may include a belief that democratization promotes economic development, or that a boost to the legitimacy of his government may forestall the type of violent unrest plaguing other Arab states like neighboring Bahrain.

With only about 20 years left as a major oil exporter, Qatar has made a priority of diversifying and attracting foreign investment. It boasts the third largest gas reserves in the world, and the government has adopted a strategy to lure foreign investment in gas in order to finance economic infrastructure, such as facilities for export-intensive industry, as well as physical infrastructure such as roads, airports, bridges, and power plants. Tax incentives and laws allowing increased foreign ownership in local firms are expected in the near future.

Under pressure from neighboring states, Qatar shut down the Israeli trade mission in Doha following renewed violence between Israelis and Palestinians in the fall. An ongoing dispute with Bahrain over two Gulf islands with potential oil reserves continues, with a ruling by the International Court of Justice at the Hague due by early 2001.

A Qatari high criminal court jailed 33 people, including a cousin of the emir's, in February for "attempting to overthrow the head of state by force" in a failed 1996 coup. Eighty-five other defendants were acquitted, including 20 tried in absentia. The case reportedly went to an appeals court in September.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Qataris cannot change their government democratically. Political parties are illegal, and there are no organized opposition groups. The emir holds absolute power, though he consults with leading members of society on policy issues and works to achieve consensus with the appointed Majlis. Citizens have the right to appeal government decisions by petitioning the emir. March 1999 elections to the municipal advisory council were considered by international observers to be free and fair. Participation was surprisingly low: of 40,000 eligible voters, only 22,000 registered. But the vibrant campaign included televised debates, posters, and informal gatherings to discuss matters of municipal policy. The elected council reports to the minister of municipal affairs, who is not required to heed its advice and may dissolve it at will. In July 1999, the emir initiated work on a new constitution that is expected to provide for a directly elected parliament.

The civilian security force under the interior ministry includes the general police force; the investigatory police, or mubahathat, which handles sedition and espionage cases; the special state security investigative unit, or mubahith, which handles internal security and intelligence gathering; and the independent civilian intelligence service, or mukhabarat. Suspects in security cases may be detained indefinitely while under investigation and are generally denied access to counsel, though long-term detention occurs infrequently. Torture is reportedly not common.

The judiciary is not independent. Most judges are foreign nationals whose residence may be revoked at any time. However, courts have been known to summon senior officials and members of the ruling family as witnesses. Civil courts have jurisdiction in civil and commercial disputes, while Sharia (Islamic law) courts handle family, civil, and criminal cases. Sharia court trials are closed to the public, and lawyers are not permitted in the courtroom. While corporal punishment is practiced in accord with Sharia, amputation is prohibited.

Media in Qatar have been virtually free of government interference since the lifting of censorship in 1995, but self-censorship is still pervasive because of real or imagined social and political pressures. State-run television, radio, and newspapers generally avoid taboo subjects such as Islam and the royal family, but recently have criticized state funding of the royal family. The satellite television channel Al-Jazeera operates freely. Owned and operated by a member of the ruling family, the all-news channel presents interviews with dissidents and exiles throughout the region, lively debates that include opposition views, commentary on human rights issues, and discussions of the role of religion in Arab culture. The controversial coverage captivates Middle Eastern viewers while drawing furious protests from regional leaders. In 2000, the government announced plans to launch an "e-government" to make some public services available via the Internet within 18 months. Qatar reportedly has some 45,000 Internet users currently.

Freedom of association is limited to private social, sports, trade, professional, and cultural societies registered with the government. Political parties do not exist, and political demonstrations are prohibited.

Foreign nationals employed as domestic workers face sexual harassment and physical abuse. Although the authorities have investigated and punished several employers, most women apparently do not report abuse for fear of losing their residence permits. Some 25,000 Egyptian nationals live in Qatar, but hiring Egyptians was banned in 1996 when Qatari officials accused Egypt of involvement in the failed 1996 coup.

Women have made important gains in recent years. Although the number of women in the workforce is still very small, women have begun to find jobs in education, medicine, and the news media. According to one study, the number of Qatari women in government jobs increased by 61 percent between 1991 and 1997. Women participated as candidates and voters in municipal elections, making up 44 percent of registered voters. The government increasingly awards scholarships to women wishing to study abroad. Still, in this socially conservative country, society restricts women even where the law does not. Women may legally travel abroad alone, but most travel with male relatives. Legal discrimination still exists in family matters such as divorce and inheritance.

The Wahhabi order of Sunni Islam is the state religion. While public worship by non-Muslims is officially prohibited, services conducted privately with prior notification of authorities are tolerated, and a large foreign population practices discreetly. There is a small number of Shiite mosques. Public schools provide compulsory instruction in Islam. Since Sharia courts handle most civil claims, non-Muslims, who cannot bring suit in Sharia courts, are disadvantaged. The U.S. State Department notes an upward trend in religious freedom for Christians, including promised provision of land on which to build churches. In February 2000, the government identified a piece of land on which it will allow the construction of three churches: one Catholic, one Anglican, and one Orthodox.

Workers may not form unions or bargain collectively. They may belong to joint consultative committees of worker and management representatives that discuss such issues as working conditions and schedules, but not wages. The government's Labor Conciliation Board mediates disputes. Workers, except those in government or domestic employment, may strike if mediation fails. Employers sometimes exercise leverage over foreign workers by refusing to grant mandatory exit permits.

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