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Qatar continued work on important economic reform during 2001, buoyed by increased oil and gas prices. It also enjoyed a higher international profile, as host of the World Trade Organization's ministerial meeting in November and as home of Al Jazeera television, which gained millions of viewers for its exclusive on-site coverage of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.
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 bin Khalifa al-Thani, 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. In foreign policy, he has taken a broadly pro-U.S., moderate-Arab position.
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.
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, which help insulate it from oil price fluctuations. 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. Special focus has been placed on promoting the tourism industry, with the hopes of keeping Qataris and resident ex-patriates in the country during holidays as well as attracting foreign visitors. In January 2001, the government offered five tourist attractions, including hotel spas and amusement parks, for privatization. Qatari Telecoms has been privatized, and power and water utilities have been partially privatized. New laws allow 100 percent foreign ownership of certain companies in the educational, health, tourism, and agricultural sectors.
Still, economic reform is likely to continue slowly, facing resistance from Qataris, who prefer the higher-paying jobs in the public sector. For their part, private firms avoid hiring Qatari nationals, who they say lack the work ethic of the foreign expatriates who make up 80 percent of the population. Religious leaders oppose the "Western influence" that comes with foreign investment. Moreover, austerity measures requiring Qataris to pay for their electricity and water are so politically sensitive that journalists are punished for writing about them.
In March 2001, the International Court of Justice resolved a long-standing territorial dispute between Qatar and Bahrain over the Hawar Islands and several other territories off the Qatari peninsula. The court awarded the Hawar Islands to Bahrain, and Zubarah, a disputed town on the Qatari mainland, to Qatar. Two minor islands also went to Qatar. Both sides readily accepted the decision, which is binding and may not be appealed, and hailed a "new era of cooperation," which began with a revival of calls to build a causeway between the two states. The improvement in relations will undoubtedly create economic opportunities for both states.
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. 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. Also, surprisingly, Qatar's leading families did not field candidates. 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. However, most observers are skeptical about the degree of power the new legislature will actually have. Officials maintain that significant executive power will remain concentrated in the hands of the emir, according to Gulf Arab tradition.
The civilian security force under the interior ministry includes the general police force; the investigatory police (mubahathat), which handles sedition and espionage cases; the special state security investigative unit (mubahith), which handles internal security and intelligence gathering; and the independent civilian intelligence service (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. An appeals court sentenced 19 people, including the emir's cousin, to death in May for their participation in a failed 1996 coup. Eighteen other defendants received life sentences, and 29 were freed. A lower court had sentenced 33 people to life imprisonment and acquitted 85 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 recently have criticized state funding of the royal family. The editor in chief of the daily Al-Watan in Doha was brutally assaulted in June after criticizing the energy minister's proposal to charge consumers for water and electricity.
The satellite television all-news channel Al Jazeera, which is owned and operated by a member of the ruling family, gained international attention following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. With exclusive footage of American air strikes in Afghanistan and of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, the channel gained millions of viewers and added the United States to its list of critics. U.S. officials accused Al Jazeera of bias against the U.S.-led war on terrorism in its coverage. The station has for years been renowned for its interviews with dissidents and exiles throughout the region, debates that include opposition views, commentary on human rights issues, and discussions of religion in Arab culture. The controversial coverage captivates Middle Eastern viewers while drawing furious protests from regional leaders. However, it rarely criticizes Qatar itself, and does not have a correspondent covering the emirate.
The government has been working to make public services available to the public via the Internet. Qatar has some 45,000 Internet users. In March 2001, an Arab-American employee of Qatar's foreign affairs ministry was sentenced to two years in prison and deportation for "harming" Qatar in articles published on the Internet.
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. Human rights groups criticized the decision by the World Trade Organization to hold a ministerial meeting in Qatar, on the grounds that the emirate prohibits public protest. The meeting was held in November 2001, as police vehicles and barricades provided a security zone around the site.
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 to authorities are tolerated, and a large foreign population practices discreetly. There are 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 the 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 governmental or domestic employment, may strike if mediation fails. Employers sometimes exercise leverage over foreign workers by refusing to grant mandatory exit permits. Foreign nationals employed as domestic workers face sexual harassment and physical abuse. Although the authorities have investigated and punished several employers, most apparently do not report abuse for fear of losing their residence permits. Some 25,000 Egyptian nationals live in Qatar, but the hiring of Egyptians was banned in 1996 when Qatari officials accused Egypt of involvement in the failed 1996 coup.