Freedom in the World
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Qatar’s political rights rating changed from 7 to 6 because of free and fair municipal elections held on March 8.
Qatar held its first election 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, its election is 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 won a council seat.
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, Crown Prince Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, long recognized as the real power in the country, deposed his father in a palace coup while the emir vacationed in Switzerland. Since then, Sheikh Hamad has taken steps to introduce greater political openness. 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. The committee is to report to the government on its progress every six months.
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 the March municipal elections despite an extension of the registration deadline. 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 for the election. So Hamad’s motives for promoting political openness remain unclear. One explanation is that he regards gradual democratization as conducive to long-term economic development. Another is that by boosting the legitimacy of his government, he might forestall the type of violent civil unrest plaguing other Arab states, like neighboring Bahrain.
In late July, authorities announced the arrest of Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Hamad al-Thani, cousin of the emir and prime suspect in a failed 1996 coup attempt. Accused of masterminding a plot to restore the emir’s father to the throne, Hamad went on trial in September and faces a possible death sentence if convicted. More than 120 people, mostly former military and police officials, have been tried since 1997 for involvement in the attempted coup, 36 in absentia. On October 28, Doha’s higher criminal court announced the end of the trials. Verdicts are expected in February 2000.
In June, Qatar and Saudi Arabia ended over 30 years of dispute over their common border by signing a map defining a border acceptable to both. A longstanding dispute with Bahrain over two Gulf islands with reported oil reserves continues.
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 reach consensus with the appointed Majlis. Citizens have the right to appeal government decisions by petitioning the emir. Qatar’s first elections, for a municipal advisory council, were held in March and 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 plays an advisory role on issues such as road maintenance and food safety. It reports to the minister of municipal affairs, who is not required to heed its advice and may dissolve it at will. In July, the emir initiated work on a new constitution that will 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 a problem.
The judiciary is not independent. Most judges are foreign nationals whose residence permits 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 Shari‘a (Islamic) courts handle family, civil, and criminal cases. Shari’a court trials are closed to the general public, and lawyers are not permitted in the courtroom. While corporal punishment is practiced in accord with Shari‘a, amputation is prohibited. In October 1999, the Qatari higher criminal court heard the last of the cases of more than 120 defendants charged in connection with the 1996 failed coup. Verdicts are expected in February 2000.
The 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 in June they took the unprecedented step of criticizing state funding of Qatar’s 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 even discussions of the role of religion in Arab culture. Its controversial coverage captivates Middle Eastern viewers while drawing furious protest from regional leaders.
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 authorities 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 as voters in the March municipal election, and constituted 44 percent of registered voters. The government increasingly awards scholarships to women wishing to study abroad. Still, in this socially conservative country, society places restrictions on women even where the law does not. Although women may legally travel abroad alone, most travel with male escorts. 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 Shi‘ite mosques. Public schools provide compulsory instruction in Islam. Since Shari‘a courts handle most civil claims, non-Muslims, who cannot bring suit in Shari‘a courts, are at a disadvantage. The U.S. State Department notes an upward trend in religious freedom for Christians, including promised provision of land on which to build churches.
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 work schedules, but not wages. The government’s Labor Conciliation Board mediates disputes. Workers, excepting 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.