Freedom in the World
You are here
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Qatar held elections for the 29-member Central Municipal Council in April 2007. In May, political activists in Doha established the Arab Foundation for Democracy, a group committed to monitoring reform in the region. Elections for the national parliament did not take place in 2007, marking the third time they have been postponed since 2004.
Qatar gained independence from Britain in 1971. The following year, Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani deposed his cousin, Emir Ahmad bin 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. However, Al-Jazeera generally does not cover Qatari politics and focuses instead on regional issues. Elections were held in 1999 for a 29-member Central Municipal Council, a body designed to advise the minister of municipal affairs and agriculture. The poll made Qatar the first state of the Gulf Cooperation Council to introduce universal suffrage for men and women over 18 years of age. Hamad also 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 its Weill Cornell Medical College in Doha in 2002.
Fresh elections for the municipal council were held in 2003. Also that year, Qatari voters overwhelmingly approved a constitution that 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. The position has become a central element in the country’s long-term strategy to raise its international profile. Qatar has faced severe criticism among Muslim countries for its close alliance with the United States and its tentative links with Israel.
In April 2007, citizens again voted for the Central Municipal Council, choosing 29 members from 125 candidates. One woman was elected. Turnout reached 51 percent, a considerable improvement over 2003, when just 30 percent of the eligible electorate voted.
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 cabinet. The constitution states that the emir appoints an heir after consulting with the ruling 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. Elections for the parliament, delayed twice since 2004, were postponed again in 2007.
Only a small percentage of the country’s population—about 200,000 people out of 900,000 residents—is permitted to vote or hold office. The government does not permit the existence of political parties.
Although critics have complained of a lack of transparency in government procurement, Qatar was ranked 32 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index, making it the best performer in the Arab Middle East.
The constitution guarantees freedom of expression. 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. The top five daily newspapers are privately owned, but their owners and boards include members of the ruling family. 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. In October 2007, the government banned journalists from covering court proceedings. Journalists are forbidden from even entering the country’s courtrooms without first obtaining permission. restricting the media’s ability to monitor judicial corruption. Qataris have access to the internet, but the government censors content and blocks access to sites that are 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. In December 2005, the government permitted the Christian community of Qatar to build six churches, the first of their kind. The new constitution guarantees freedom of opinion and research, but scholars often practice self-censorship on politically sensitive topics.
The constitution grants freedom of assembly and the right to form organizations, but these rights are limited in practice. Protests are rare, with the government restricting 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, streamlining their operating requirements and restricting membership and activities. In May 2007, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted the Conference on Democracy and Reform in Doha. Over 300 activists and participants called for Arab governments to eliminate restrictions on free speech and the press. They established the Arab Foundation for Democracy, which will monitor progress on reform in the region. Sheikh Hamad contributed $10 million to the fund.
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 alleged abuses. In May 2007, Qatar was controversially elected to the UN Human Rights Council. 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. 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.
Many foreign workers face economic abuses like the withholding of salaries or contract manipulation, while others endure poor living conditions and excessive work hours. Worker complaints have included charges as serious as torture, imprisonment, and forced labor. Foreign construction workers have repeatedly demonstrated against poor living and working conditions. Female domestic servants are particularly vulnerable to abuse and are often lured or forced into prostitution.
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 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 criminal cases as well as commercial and civil suits. There are also Sharia and Civil appeals courts The Supreme Judiciary Council regulates the judiciary. 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 that are offered free of charge to citizens. In spite of government efforts aimed at reining in human trafficking, in 2007 Qatar dropped to Tier 3, the worst rating, in 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 charter 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 incidents of bias.