Qatar: meteoric growth must not distract from 'severe human rights shortcomings' - part 1

By Rebecca Lowe

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A few years ago, Qatar was far from a household name in the West. A tiny nugget of land sandwiched between the Middle Eastern monoliths of Saudi Arabia and Iran, it quietly went about its business, barely attracting a cursory nod from the international community.

How much has changed. Propelled by rocketing gas prices, the world’s richest country per capita has launched itself into the limelight with no small fanfare. In Britain alone, Qatari investors own 80 per cent of the Shard, the tallest building in the European Union, alongside Harrods, the £1bn Chelsea barracks, the Olympic Village, 20 per cent of the London Stock Exchange, most of Sainsbury’s and a large chunk of the Canary Wharf financial district.

But its tentacles reach much further. State-owned broadcaster Al-Jazeera, which launched the world's first English language news channel based in the Middle East in 2006, will expand to the US later this year. The Qatar Investment Authority bought the controlling stake in football club Paris Saint-Germain in 2011, while the Qatar Foundation signed an unprecedented $218m sponsorship deal with FC Barcelona in 2010. To cap these successes, in 2022 Qatar will become both the smallest and the first Middle Eastern country in history to host the FIFA World Cup.

This youthful nation, which only finalised its borders in 2001, is clearly keen to prove it has come of age. Since the current Emir took power in 1995, the country has played a canny political game. Cosying up to the West, it has touted its progressive credentials abroad while expanding its power throughout the Arab region. One of the few countries in the region on friendly terms with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel, it has established itself as a skilful political mediator throughout several regional crises. Since 2011, it has also seemingly demonstrated its commitment to political reform by supporting the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria.

 


 

  Because of its interest in being influential, Qatar ends up engaging with groups that are potentially volatile… it’s a very risky policy

Lina Khatib
Co-founding Head of the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy, Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, Stanford University

 

The West, keen for steadfast Middle Eastern allies on which it can rely, has eagerly accepted Qatar’s advances. All things considered, it is not a bad choice. Women enjoy widespread civil rights, while religious pluralism is tolerated. And the regime has proved reliable and robust; unlike its Gulf neighbours – Bahrain, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates – here the Arab Spring has barely made a dent.

Yet is everything quite as rosy as it seems? Is this wealthy nation, slowly expanding its soft power throughout the world, really the free-thinking, altruistic force it claims to be? For many, the world would do well to remain wary. ‘Qatar is not as progressive as it likes to appear,’ says Lina Khatib, co-founding Head of the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University. ‘The country suffers from severe human rights shortcomings. It does not have an elected parliament and freedom of expression is seriously constrained.’

Chilling effect

Despite the success of Al-Jazeera, Qatar scores low on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index: 110th out of 179 countries. While the English version of Al-Jazeera has been openly critical of government policy, the Arabic version almost exclusively focuses on international affairs; generally, its editorial line rarely strays from that espoused by the Emir. During the Arab Spring, its credibility took a beating across the Middle East when its coverage became markedly skewed in favour of the protesters – in step with Qatari government policy – sometimes at the expense of accuracy and balance.

Scarce criticism can be found in local media outlets either. The country’s current media laws date back to the late 1970s and are weighted towards censorship over free speech. A new media law, as yet unsigned by the Emir, has proved far from a satisfactory replacement, including restrictions on criticising the royal family and state controls over press licences.

Doha, Qatar

‘There are a number of major problems,’ says Jan Keulen, Director of the Doha Centre for Media Freedom – which is 98 per cent funded by the state. ‘The law regulating the media should guarantee press freedoms and facilitate media development. This law mentions a lot of prohibitions on press freedoms without guarantees that the media can fulfil its role as a government watchdog.’

Because of the lack of certainty over the law, says Keulen, few people know what is and is not permitted, resulting in ‘a lot of self-censorship’. Many editors have profitable businesses and are ‘very close to the ones in power’, he adds, giving few news outlets the incentive to hold officials to account.

Social media is to some degree filling the gap left by the traditional press. The online Doha News has reported controversial events ignored elsewhere, while discussion forums often criticise government policy. Yet the case of poet Mohammed Rashid al-Ajami, recently jailed for 15 years for ‘insulting the Emir’ and ‘inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime’ after an incendiary poem he recited at a private gathering was posted online, has almost certainly had a chilling effect on those wishing to speak out.

Even before the case of al-Ajami the internet was hardly abuzz with subversive whispers. Civil society is all but inexistent in Qatar, with no viable political opposition and huge welfare subsidies that keep the population sated and silent. The widespread culture of reverence towards figures of authority dampens dissent further, explains Sultan al-Abdulla, founding partner of Sultan Al-Abdulla & Partners, based in Doha. ‘We have a culture based on respect of senior people in terms of either age or status, and while you are allowed to say what you think of certain policies of individuals, you cannot mock the person themselves.’

Click here to read part 2 >>

  • Voiceless majority
  • Unforeseen consequences

 

 

 

 

 


Rebecca Lowe is Senior Reporter at the International Bar Association and can be contacted at rebecca.lowe@int-bar.org