Freedom in the World
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Qatar celebrated the opening of the country’s first Christian church in March 2008. In June the emir appointed two new women ministers in a cabinet shuffle. Four years after the promulgation of a new constitution that included a provision for elections to the Consultative Council, the elections had yet to be held.
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 channelsin 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 suffragefor 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.
Municipal Council elections were held again 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 ruling family. Most rights in the new constitution do not apply to noncitizen residents, who form a majority of the population.
In 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. In July 2008, the emir appointed a new cabinet that included two women.
Qatar has hosted U.S. military forces for a number of years, and the U.S. presence grew significantly after 2001. The country has faced severe criticism in the region for its ties to the United States and its tentative links with Israel. However, it used a 2006–07 term on the UN Security Council to raise its international profile, and in 2008, it played an active role in mediating internal conflicts in Lebanon and Yemen.
Qatar is not an electoral democracy. The head of state is the emir, currently Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, whose family has a monopoly on political power. 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. Under the constitution, which was ratified by public referendum in 2003 and promulgated by the emir in 2004, elections are to be held for 30 of the 45 seats in a new Consultative Council; the emir has the power to appoint the other 15 members. However, the elections had yet to be held at the end of 2008. The existing 35-member Consultative Council is entirely appointed.
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 28 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index, making it the best performer in the 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 government has reportedly paid operating costs for the channel since its inception. As a result, Al-Jazeera rarely criticizes the ruling family. 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 2004 constitution explicitly provides for freedom of worship. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs regulates clerical matters and the construction of mosques. In 2005, the government permitted the Christian community of Qatar to build six churches. The first was opened in Doha in March 2008, and the remaining five were under construction during the year. The constitution guarantees freedom of opinion and academic research, but scholars often practice self-censorship on politically sensitive topics.
While the constitution grants freedom of assembly and the right to form organizations, 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 2005, the Ministry of Civil Service Affairs and Housing issued new regulations for NGOs and professional associations, streamlining their operating requirements and restricting membership and activities. In 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 foundation. 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 2007, Qatar was controversially elected to a three-year term on the UN Human Rights Council.
A 2005 labor law expanded some protections for citizens, but it prohibits noncitizen workers from forming labor unions. Foreign nationals, who make up most of the workforce, face severe disadvantages. Although the legal system grants foreign laborers some rights and they can appear before the same courts as Qatari citizens, fear of job loss and deportation often prevents them from exercising what rights they have. 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. In March 2008, the government announced plans to build a “worker’s city” for 50,000 laborers near Doha by 2010 in an effort to improve the living and health conditions of foreign workers. In June, the Consultative Council passed a new law calling for improved working conditions for domestic workers. It had yet to be approved by the emir at year’s end.
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 including family law, and civil law courts, which have jurisdiction over criminal cases as well as commercial and civil suits. 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 its 2008 Trafficking in Persons Report, the U.S. State Department again gave Qatar a Tier 3 ranking, noting that it “does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so.”
The constitution treats women as full and equal persons. Article 35 of the charter bans discrimination based on sex, country oforigin, language, or religion. In 2006, Qatar took the important step of implementing a codified family law, which regulates issues important for women, including inheritance, child custody, marriage, and divorce. While the 2006 law offers more protections for women than they enjoyed previously, they continue to face some disadvantages. Women continue to face societal discrimination, andfew effectivelegal mechanisms are available for them to contest incidents of bias.