Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Qatar's civil liberties rating improved from 6 to 5 due to modest improvements in academic freedom and women's rights.
Political reform moved at an unhurried pace with limited advances in 2004. Qatar promulgated its first written constitution in June 2004, more than one year after it was approved by the vast majority of the 71,406 Qataris who voted in an April 2003 referendum. The new constitution sets the stage for elections to a new parliament, tentatively scheduled for 2005.
For the first half of the nineteenth century, the Al Khalifa family of Bahrain dominated the territory now known as Qatar. The Ottoman Empire occupied Qatar from 1872 until World War I, when the United Kingdom recognized Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani as the ruler of Qatar and Sheikh Abdullah signed a series of treaties of friendship and commerce with the United Kingdom. After World War II, Qatar rapidly developed its oil production industry, and the oil wealth contributed to economic and social development in the country.
Qatar became formally independent in 1971. From 1971 to 1995, Emir Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani ruled as an absolute monarch, with few government institutions checking his authority. In 1995, the emir was deposed by his son Hamad, who began a program to introduce gradual political, social, and economic reforms. Hamad dissolved the Information Ministry shortly after taking power, an action designed to demonstrate his commitment to expanding press freedom.
In 1996, Hamad permitted the creation of Al-Jazeera, which has become one of the most popular Arabic language satellite television channels. Al-Jazeera, however, generally does not cover Qatari politics and focuses instead on regional issues such as the situation in Iraq and the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the past few years, Sheikh Hamad accelerated a program to build Qatar's educational institutions, attracting foreign universities to establish branches in Qatar; Cornell Medical School opened a branch in Doha in 2002. In 1999, Qatar held elections for a 29-member municipal council and became the first state of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to introduce universal suffrage.
In 2002, a 38-member committee appointed by Hamad presented a draft constitution, which was refined and presented to the public in a referendum in April 2003. This new constitution, which was approved by almost 97 percent of voters, slightly broadens the scope of political participation without eliminating the monopoly on power enjoyed by the Al Thani family. Most rights in the new constitution do not apply to the majority of people living in Qatar - noncitizen residents.
Though political reform moved ahead slightly and slowly in 2004, Qatar took steps to ostensibly demonstrate outward signs of openness to reform by hosting numerous regional conferences throughout the year, including training for women from the Arab world planning to run for political office, a regional conference on incorporating human rights into education curriculums, and a conference on human rights and Islam.
Qataris do not have the power to change the top leadership in their government democratically. They possess only limited power to elect local government representatives with limited powers over local services. These representatives report to the minister of municipal affairs and agriculture, who is appointed by the emir. The head of state is the emir - currently Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani - and the Al Thani family has a monopoly on political power in Qatar. The emir appoints a prime minister and the cabinet. The constitution states that the emir appoints an heir after consulting with the royal family and other notables. A new constitution, ratified by public referendum in 2003 and promulgated by the emir in 2004, provides for elections to 30 of the 45 seats in a new advisory council, and the government announced tentative plans to hold these elections in 2005. The government does not permit the existence of political parties.
Qatar was ranked 38 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index. Critics allege a lack of transparency in government procurement, with few proper procedures in place to ensure fair competition for government contracts.
The new constitution guarantees freedom of expression, and the state has generally refrained from direct censorship. However, content in the print and broadcast media is influenced by leading families. The five leading daily newspapers are privately owned, but their owners and board members include royal family members and other notables. Although the satellite television channel Al-Jazeera is privately owned, the Qatari government has reportedly paid operating costs for the channel since its inception. Qataris have access to the Internet through a telecommunications monopoly that has recently been privatized, but the government censors content and blocks access to certain sites deemed pornographic or politically sensitive.
Islam is Qatar's official religion; however, the new constitution explicitly provides for freedom of worship. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs regulates clerical affairs and the construction of mosques. Converting to another religion from Islam is considered apostasy and is a capital offense, but there have been no reports of executions for apostasy. The new constitution provides for freedom of opinion and research, but scholars often practice self-censorship on politically sensitive topics.
The constitution provides for freedom of assembly and the right to form organizations, but these rights are limited in practice. Public protests and demonstrations are rare, with the government placing strict limits on the public's ability to organize demonstrations. All nongovernmental organizations need state permission to operate, and the government closely monitors the activities of these groups. There are no independent human rights organizations, but a National Committee for Human Rights (NCHR), consisting of members of civil society and government ministries, has done some work on investigating allegations of human rights abuses. The NCHR has a human rights hotline and presents regular reports to the government cabinet on the human rights situation.
The law prohibits labor unions, but allows joint consultative committees of employers and workers to deal with disputes. Foreign national workers, who make up most of the workforce in Qatar, face severe disadvantages in labor contract cases. Although foreign laborers have limited legal rights to appear before the same courts as Qatari citizens, fear of job loss and deportation prevents many workers from exercising even these limited rights.
Despite constitutional guarantees, the judiciary is not independent in practice. The majority of Qatar's judges are foreign nationals who are appointed and removed by the emir. The judicial system consists of two sets of courts that became unified under a Higher Judicial Council in 1997: Sharia (Islamic law) courts, which have jurisdiction over a narrow range of issues, such as family law; and civil law courts, which have jurisdiction over commercial and civil suits. These two sets of courts have been united under the Supreme Judiciary Council.
The constitution protects individuals from arbitrary arrest and detention and bans torture. Defendants are entitled to legal representation. There are no reports of widespread violations of human rights in Qatar. Prisons meet international standards, and the police generally follow proper procedures set in accordance with the law.
The government discriminated against non-citizen foreign nationals in education, housing, health care, and other services offered free of charge to citizens.
The new constitution treats women as full and equal persons. Article 35 of the constitution bans discrimination based on sex, country of origin, language, or religion. Despite legal guarantees of equality, women continue to face societal gender discrimination, and few legal mechanisms are available for women to contest instances of discrimination. Sharia law gives preference to men over women on a range of issues related to family law, including divorce, custody of children, and inheritance. Qatari women must receive permission from male guardians to obtain driver's licenses, and men sometimes prevent female relatives from traveling alone. Women have the right to participate in elections and run for office. In the April 2003 municipal elections, Sheikha Yousef Hassan al-Jufairi became the first woman elected to public office.