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The gradual expansion of political and civil liberties in this tiny oil- and gas-rich emirate continued in 2002, though the reform process has yet to be institutionalized and appears to be driven primarily by the government's desire to upgrade its military and strategic partnership with the United States. A draft constitution commissioned by the emir four years ago was completed in July, but remained "under review" at the end of the year.
Ruled by the al-Thani family since the mid-1800s, Qatar gained independence in 1971. For nearly a quarter century, Emir Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani ruled with few checks on his authority, much as his ancestors did under Ottoman and British protection. The al-Thani family had long embraced the Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam founded in neighboring Saudi Arabia and had enforced many of its strict social codes, such as gender segregation. The ruling family also shared with its Saudi counterpart a propensity for corruption, which nearly crippled its economy in the late 1980s.
In 1995, the emir was overthrown by his son, Hamad, who proceeded to launch a progression of economic and social reforms that have thoroughly transformed the emirate. In hopes of establishing Qatar as a regional business and tourist center on par with Dubai, Hamad poured billions of dollars into infrastructure modernization, lifted the prohibition on alcohol, and encouraged Western investment in the tourist sector. Scores of modern hotels, nightclubs, and amusement parks sprang up in Doha, which the guidebook Lonely Planet once called the "dullest place on earth."
Hamad broke with the country's tradition of consulting closely with neighboring Gulf of Cooperation Council (GCC) states, several of which he accused of plotting a counter-coup to restore his father to the throne. His $150 million investment in the 1996 creation of Al-Jazeera, an all-news satellite station now watched by more than 30 million viewers in the Arab world, enormously bolstered Qatar's international prestige. To the chagrin of neighboring monarchs, Hamad also expanded the scope of public freedoms in Qatar and lifted some restrictions on women's rights. Press censorship was formally lifted with the dissolution of the Information Ministry in 1995. Four years later, Qatar held elections for a 29-member municipal council, becoming the first GCC state to introduce universal suffrage. However, not one of Qatar's leading families fielded candidates, ensuring that the election would not become an indirect referendum on the new political order.
While Qatar's neighbors declined to offer high-profile diplomatic or military support for the American war in Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and have distanced themselves from the campaign to oust Saddam Hussein, Hamad seized the opportunity to reposition the emirate as the most accommodating strategic American ally in the Persian Gulf region. The U.S. Air Force base at Al-Uneid, 30 miles outside the capital, has been upgraded to accommodate heavy bombers, and the number of American military personnel in Qatar has grown to exceed those in Saudi Arabia. Qatar is expected to serve as the regional headquarters of the U.S. military central command in the event of war with Iraq.
In July 2002, a 38-member committee appointed by the emir presented him with a new draft constitution, still under review, that explicitly provides for political and civil liberties, judicial independence, and the establishment of a consultative council (Majlis al-Shura). Two-thirds of the 45-member chamber are to be directly elected through universal suffrage, while the emir will appoint the remainder. The precise legislative functions of the proposed body are not entirely clear, as the 150-article draft constitution has not yet been published, but they reportedly include approval of legislation and the budget.
Qataris cannot change their government democratically. Chosen by law from among the adult male members of the al-Thani family, the emir holds absolute power, though he consults informally with leading members of society on major policy issues. Although the 1970 basic law provided for a partially elected consultative council, no legislative elections have ever been held. An elected municipal council in Doha reports to the minister of municipal affairs, who is not required to heed its advice and may dissolve it at will.
While arbitrary arrests and detentions are prohibited by law, citizens and foreign nationals arrested in security cases have been subjected to prolonged pretrial detention in the past. Detainees generally receive access to legal counsel, and there have been no cases of alleged torture in recent years. The judiciary is not independent, as most judges are foreign nationals whose tenure may be revoked at any time. A separate system of Sharia (Islamic law) courts handle most civil cases. Corporal punishment is practiced in accordance with Sharia. Trials are public, though a presiding judge may close proceedings to the public if they are deemed sensitive, and defendants have the right to appeal.
In October 2002, a Qatari court sentenced a Jordanian journalist, Firas Majali, to death on charges of espionage. Majali's family claimed that defense lawyers were not permitted to present a defense of their client, whose conviction appeared timed as retaliation for Jordan's closure of the Amman bureau of Al-Jazeera.
Freedom of expression is limited. State-owned broadcast media generally reflect official views. Independent media outlets encounter little direct governmental interference, but exercise self-censorship on matters concerning the royal family and Qatari foreign relations. Al-Jazeera, which has gained international attention for airing the views of political dissidents from around the Arab world, virtually ignores domestic Qatari politics.
Freedom of association is limited to social, cultural, and professional groups registered with the government. Political parties do not exist, and the government has refused to sanction a number of activist groups concerned with issues such as consumer protection, the environment, and Palestinian rights. Public demonstrations are generally prohibited, though some anti-Israel protests have been tolerated.
Workers may not form independent unions or bargain collectively, though they may belong to joint consultative committees of worker and management representatives that discuss issues such as working conditions and schedules, but not wages. The government's Labor Conciliation Board mediates disputes, and private sector workers may strike if mediation fails. Foreign nationals, who comprise three-quarters of the workforce, are less inclined to assert their rights for fear of losing their residency permits, though strikes by foreign workers in response to employer abuse and nonpayment of wages have become frequent.
Islam is the official religion in Qatar, and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs controls most formal Islamic institutions. The country's small Shiite Muslim minority is allowed to practice openly, but not to organize traditional ceremonies and rituals, such as self-flagellation. While public worship by non-Muslims remains officially prohibited, they are allowed to conduct services privately. In 2000, the government authorized the first-ever construction of three churches to accommodate growing numbers of resident Westerners. Non-Muslims cannot bring suit in Sharia courts, which handle most civil claims.
Women have been granted the same limited political rights as men, but legal discrimination still exists in some areas, such as divorce and inheritance. Women are still prohibited from applying for a driver's license without the permission of a male guardian. The legal system provides for leniency in cases where women are killed or assaulted for violating social norms, though so-called "honor killings" are rare. The government has actively encouraged women to join the workforce. According to official statistics, women hold nearly 40 percent of private sector jobs and 45 percent of governmental jobs, though both figures appear to refer to overall employment, including foreign nationals. In November 2002, the emir announced the appointment of the country's first female cabinet minister.