Freedom in the World
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For the seventh consecutive year, Qatar failed to hold promised parliamentary elections in 2011. In March, authorities detained human rights activist and blogger Sultan al-Khalaifi and released him in April without charge. Twenty-nine citizens were elected, including one woman, in municipal council elections in May.
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 for 23 years as an absolute monarch. 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.
The country held its first elections in 1999 for a 29-member Central Municipal Council, a body designed to advise the minister on municipal affairs and agriculture. The poll made Qatar the first state of the Gulf Cooperation Council to introduce widespread voting rights for men and women over 18 years of age. Hamad also accelerated a program to strengthen Qatar’s educational institutions, inviting foreign universities to establish branches in the country.
In addition to Central Municipal Council elections in 2003, Qataris voted in a referendum that overwhelmingly approved its first constitution, which came into force in 2005. The new constitution slightly broadened the scope of political participation without eliminating the ruling family’s monopoly on power. However, most rights in the new constitution do not apply to noncitizen residents, who form a majority of the population.
Voter turnout for the 2007 Central Municipal Council reached 51 percent, a considerable improvement over 2003, when just 30 percent of the eligible electorate voted. The most recent Municipal Council elections were held in May 2011. Four of the 101 candidates were women; the only woman who had previously served on the Council was re-elected. Voter turnout was 43 percent, with just 13,606 registered voters participating.
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. Qatar was deeply involved in regional politics. It provided military and political support for the revolution in Libya and played a diplomatic role in the Israel-Palestine prisoner swap in October.
Qatar is not an electoral democracy. The head of state is the emir, whose family holds a monopoly on political power. The 2005 constitution states that the emir appoints an heir apparent after consulting with the ruling family and other notables. The emir is also responsible for appointing a prime minister and cabinet. The constitution stipulates the formation of a new elected parliament, the Advisory Council (Majlis Al-Shura). Elections are to be held for 30 of the 45 seats for 4-year terms, while the emir has the power to appoint the other 15 members. Although elections for this body were scheduled for 2010, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani extended the existing 35-member Council’s current session until 2013; its members are entirely appointed. Since 1999, voters have elected local government representatives with limited powers to the 29-member Central Municipal Council; these representatives serve four-year terms and report to the appointed minister of municipal affairs and agriculture.
Only a small percentage of the country’s population is permitted to vote or hold office. The government does not permit the existence of political parties.
Critics continue to complain of a lack of transparency in government procurement. However, Qatar was ranked 22 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index, making it the best performer in the Middle East.
Although the constitution guarantees freedom of expression, both print and broadcast media content are influenced by leading families. Journalists practice a high degree of self-censorship and face possible jail sentences for slander. In March 2011, state security forces detained human rights activist and regime critic Sultan al-Khalaifi for unknown reasons. Allegations swirled that he was arrested for blogging and for his efforts to have three allegedly detained Qatari citizens released. Authorities released al-Khalaifi in April without charge. In June, Qatar’s Cabinet approved the draft of a new media law which will prevent journalists from being detained by authorities without a court order, and allow them to protect their sources unless required to do so by a court. Criticism of the royal family and “friendly countries”, as well as discussion of national security, will remain off limits. While the law claims that state censorship is forbidden, journalists will be required to obtain licenses and will be monitored by the Ministry of Arts, Heritage and Culture. The law was not ratified by year’s end.
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 held, the government has reportedly paid for the channel’s operating costs 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, though the constitution explicitly provides for freedom of worship. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs regulates clerical matters and the construction of mosques. The first two churches to be built for Qatar’s Christian community were opened in Doha in 2008 and 2009, while another three remained in the planning or construction phase at the end of 2011. The constitution guarantees freedom of opinion and academic research, but scholars often practice self-censorship on politically sensitive topics.
While the constitution grants freedoms of assembly and association, these rights are limited in practice. Protests are rare, with the government restricting the public’s ability to organize demonstrations. In spite of early 2011 Facebook campaign efforts to mobilize protests in Qatar, the country did not experience the “Arab Spring” unrest that took place in other countries in the region during the year. All nongovernmental organizations need state permission to operate, and the government closely monitors the activities of these groups. After hosting the 2007 Conference on Democracy and Reform in Doha, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs established the Arab Foundation for Democracy to monitor progress on reform in the region; Sheikh Hamad has contributed $10 million to the foundation. There are no independent human rights organizations, but a government-appointed National Human Rights Committee, which includes members of civil society and government ministries, investigates alleged abuses.
A 2005 labor law expanded some protections for citizens, but restricts the right to form unions and to strike. The only trade union allowed to operate in the country is the General Union of Workers of Qatar, which prohibits the membership of noncitizens or government sector employees. Foreign nationals comprise most of the workforce, but fear of job loss and deportation often prevents them from exercising their limited rights. Many foreign workers face economic abuses including the withholding of salaries or contract manipulation, while others endure poor living conditions and excessive work hours. Female domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
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, commercial, and civil cases. The Supreme Judiciary Council regulates the judiciary. Although the constitution protects individuals from arbitrary arrest and detention and bans torture, a 2002 law 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.
While the constitution prohibits discrimination based on nationality, the government discriminates against noncitizens in the areas of education, housing, healthcare, and other services that are offered free of charge to citizens.
The constitution treats women as full and equal persons, and discrimination based on gender, country of origin, language, or religion is banned. In March 2010, Qatar swore in Sheikha Maha Mansour Salman Jassim al-Thani as its first woman judge. In 2006, Qatar implemented a codified family law, which regulates issues such as inheritance, child custody, marriage, and divorce. While this law offers more protections for women than they previously enjoyed, they continue to face some disadvantages, including societal discrimination, and few effective legal mechanisms are available for them to contest incidents of bias. Qatar is a destination for the trafficking of men and women, particularly for forced labor and prostitution.