Freedom in the World
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Qatar made some progress with regard to religious freedom and human rights in 2006. The government in December 2005 formalized an agreement allowing six Christian churches to be built in the country at the Christian community’s expense; construction began in April 2006. In March, the state-sponsored National Human Rights Committee issued a critical report calling for revisions to the labor laws, which adversely affect foreign workers. Also that year, women made entrees into the political sphere, taking two appointed positions, at the Ministry of Education and Teaching and the National Human Rights Committee, and one elected position, at the Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
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 Britain recognized Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim al-Thani as the ruler of Qatar, and Abdullah signed a series of treaties of friendship and commerce with Britain. After World War II, Qatar rapidly developed its oil industry, and the resulting wealth enabled economic and social progress in the country.
Qatar became formally independent in 1971. Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani in 1972 deposed his cousin, Emir Ahmad ibn Ali al-Thani, and ruled until 1995 as an absolute monarch, with few government institutions checking his authority. In 1995, the emir was deposed by his son, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who began a program of gradual political, social, and economic reforms. Hamad dissolved the Ministry of Information 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 in the Middle East. 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. Over the next several years, Hamad accelerated a program to build Qatar’s educational institutions, inviting foreign universities to establish branches in the country; Cornell University of the United States established a separate campus of the Weill Cornell Medical College in Doha in 2002. In 2003, citizens elected the 29 members of the Central Municipal Council, a body designed to advise the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Agriculture, for four-year terms. When elections were first held for the council in 1999, Qatar had become 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. The new constitution, which was approved by almost 97 percent of voters, slightly broadened 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.
After previous cooperation during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Qatar began allowing the United States to use its Al-Udeid air base in 2001, and the U.S. presence has grown since then. The U.S. military’s Central Command, which oversees operations from East Africa to Central Asia, has established a headquarters facility in Qatar, and the country served as a major military hub during and after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
In January 2006, Qatar began a two-year term on the 15-member UN Security Council (UNSC). The position has become a central element in the country’s long-term strategy to raise its international profile. It has sought to utilize its highly visible role on the UNSC to enhance its image in the Muslim world, dissenting from Security Council votes targeting the governments of countries like Sudan and Iran, and joining the council’s efforts to halt fighting between Israel and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Qatar has faced severe criticism among Muslim countries for its close alliance with the United States and its tentative links with Israel.
Qatar is not an electoral democracy. The head of state is the emir, currently Hamad bin Khalifa 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. Voters elect local government representatives with limited powers over municipal services; these representatives report to the appointed minister of municipal affairs and agriculture. A 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 Consultative Council. The emir has the power to appoint the other 15 members. In early 2007, Qatar is scheduled to hold elections for the council. These elections have been delayed twice since 2004.
In the most recent elections in the country, citizens in April 2003 voted for a 29-member Central Municipal Council, which will serve a four-year term. Sheikha Yousef Hassan al-Jufairi won a seat on the council, becoming the first woman elected to public office. The body advises the government on local infrastructure issues, including street repair and trash collection. The 2003 voting was considered free and fair, but was marred by a turnout of just 30 percent of eligible voters. Only a small percentage of the country’s population—about 50,000 people out of 800,000 residents—is permitted to vote or hold office. The group is largely limited to those born to families present in Qatar before 1930, although some Qataris have had their citizenship revoked or restored for various reasons. The government does not permit the existence of political parties.
Critics allege a lack of transparency in government procurement, with few procedures in place to ensure fair competition for government contracts. Qatar was ranked 32 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The 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, and journalists practice a high degree of self-censorship. Reporters face possible jail sentences for slander, and such laws are applied more stringently to non-Qatari journalists, who make up a majority of journalists in the country. The five leading daily newspapers are privately owned, but their owners and boards include members of the royal family 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. As a result, Al-Jazeera rarely criticizes the al-Thani family. 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 matters and the construction of mosques. Converting to another religion from Islam is considered apostasy, a capital offense, but there have been no reports of executions for apostasy in recent years. The government regulates the publication of religious books and materials but has not prevented the importation of holy books for personal and congregational use. In April 2006, Qatar hosted the Fourth Conference for Interfaith Dialogue, the second time the country has hosted a conference with representatives from Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. In December 2005, the government signed an agreement with the Christian community of Qatar to proceed with the construction of six Christian churches, the first new churches since the coming of Islam. Construction on the first began in April 2006. 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 are rare, with the government placing strict limits on the public’s ability to organize demonstrations. All nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) need state permission to operate, and the government closely monitors the activities of these groups. In April 2005, the Ministry of Civil Service Affairs and Housing promulgated new regulations for NGOs and professional associations. The regulations streamline operating requirements for associations and set restrictions on membership and activities.
There are no independent human rights organizations, but a National Human Rights Committee (NHRC), consisting of members of civil society and government ministries, has done some work on investigating allegations of abuses. The NHRC has a human rights telephone hotline and presents regular reports to the cabinet on Qatar’s human rights situation. In March 2006, the government hosted a human rights conference in collaboration with the UN High Commission for Human Rights. The NHRC that month published a first-of-its-kind human rights report calling on the government to change its policies toward foreign workers, particularly those that encourage prostitution. Doha, in 2008, will become home to the UN Human Rights Center for Southwest Asia and the Arab Region. The goal of the center will be to provide training, documentation, collaboration, and empowerment to organizations and national institutions.
A new labor law came into effect in 2005, expanding some protections for citizens. However, the law prohibits noncitizen workers from forming labor unions. Foreign nationals, who make up most of the workforce in Qatar, face severe disadvantages in labor contract cases. Although foreign laborers have limited legal rights and can appear before the same courts as Qatari citizens, fear of job loss and deportation prevents many workers from exercising even these rights.
Foreign workers grapple with a host of different problems. Some complain of economic abuses like the withholding of salaries or contract manipulation, while others cite poor living conditions and excessive work hours. Worker complaints have included charges as serious as torture, imprisonment, and forced labor. The NHRC’s March 2006 report focused in part on the plights of foreign housemaids and construction workers. Foreign construction workers have repeatedly demonstrated against poor living and working conditions, and hundreds mounted protests in April after at least two workers died, reportedly from exposure to toxic gas. The authorities arrested and deported the leaders of the protest. Female domestic servants are particularly vulnerable to abuse and are often lured or forced into prostitution, according to the March report.
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: 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 divisions are united under the Supreme Judiciary Council, which regulates the judiciary. Qatar has a three-tiered system of courts—the Courts of First Instance, Appeal, and Cassation—which applies for both Sharia and civil courts.
The constitution protects individuals from arbitrary arrest and detention and bans torture. However, Law 17, issued in 2002, allows the suspension of these guarantees for the “protection of society.” The law empowers the minister of the interior to detain a defendant for crimes related to national security on the recommendation of the director-general of public security.
The government discriminates against noncitizens in education, housing, health care, and other services offered free of charge to citizens. In February 2006, government officials restored the Qatari nationality of 6,000 people, most of them dual citizens in Saudi Arabia, whose Qatari citizenship had been stripped in 2005. The government in 2005 began addressing problems related to trafficking in persons by legislating a ban on underage camel jockeys. In July 2005, the Ministry of the Interior established a human rights department to handle cases of human rights abuses and trafficking in persons. Qatar remains on the Tier 2 Watch List of the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report for its failure to meet basic standards in combating the practice.
The constitution treats women as full and equal persons. Article 35 of the constitution bans discrimination based on sex, country of origin, language, or religion. Nevertheless, women continue to face societal gender discrimination, and few legal mechanisms are available for them to contest instances of discrimination. Despite a constitutional ban that prevents women from acceding to the throne itself, women have recently made political gains. Two women were appointed to public office in May 2006: Sheikha bint Ahmad al-Mahmud became minister for education and teaching and Sheikha Ghaila bint Mohammad bin Hamad al-Thani became deputy chairperson of the National Human Rights Committee. Also in 2006, a woman was elected to Qatar’s 17-member Chamber of Commerce and Industry.