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The People Want Reform… In Qatar, Too.

[Image from Flickr/Doha Sam] [Image from Flickr/Doha Sam]

[Perspectives Editors’ note: Over the last two years of revolt in the Middle East and North Africa, the Arab Gulf has often been portrayed in the regional and international media as an exception, standing in relative stability outside an “arc of history” struggling towards freedom and democracy. Within this discourse, whatever its merits, Qatar has come to occupy a place even further along the axis of exceptionalism, all the more so as nearly all of its neighbors – Kuwait, Eastern Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Oman – are now experiencing repeated, public signs of deep discontentment, social unrest, and various forms of state and popular-led violence.

Although these aspects are still absent in Qatar as of this writing, the desire for reform is not. One effort by Qataris in this regard is illustrated below in an excerpt from the Introduction to the recently published book, The People Want Reform In Qatar…Too. Written by the editor of the Arabic-language volume, Dr. Ali Khalifa al-Kuwari, the piece represents a kind of opening salvo for much of the criticism, methodology, and aspirations that Dr. Kuwari and the Qatari writers he assembled in weekly meetings over the past year have long directed toward the current system of state-society relations. As he describes it:

Some sixty Qatari citizens with a special interest in the country’s public affairs participated…united by their belief in the need to generate a call for reform in Qatar, which the narrow margin for free expression and debate permitted by the authorities did nothing to facilitate. Perhaps this faint call might reach the ears of the country’s public officials and find a positive response from its decision makers.

Qatar may not be facing the same kind of extreme trends and daunting choices that so many other Arab countries are struggling with here and now, but some of its citizens, at least, firmly believe that their country’s contradictions are growing fast, threatening the very existence of Qatari society. For Dr. Kuwari, as the excerpt below suggests, this challenge must not only be met by the government and the Emir, but also by engaged Qatari citizens – for which the book represents a first step. Indeed, without both legs, Qatar may well find itself divided and effectively hobbled sooner rather than later, no matter its extraordinary rise to prominence.] 

[…]There is no chance of reform if the current state of general freedoms continues as it is, if transparency remains absent and if public and private finance affairs remain intertwined. The obstacles include the following:

Concealing and preventing the publication of information related to public affairs

The principal observation agreed on by all those present at the Monday meetings (though known about and commented on prior to this initiative) is the concealment of information connected to public affairs in Qatar and the inability to publish anything related to the decision-making process that lies behind official pronouncements. Indeed, the majority of our speakers and commentators lacked precise information and are unaware of the reasons behind public policy choices and the incentives and justifications for the ruler’s commands. This ensures the Qatari people exist in a constant state of surprise at the options taken and the decisions made, as though the public policies and life-changing decisions enacted by the government were a private affair that regular citizens had no right to know about, let alone participate in.

To start with, we find that the government of Qatar does not explain the overall purpose of its population policy, nor does it publish statistics about the number of citizens, their social makeup, or projections of how their proportion of the overall population will change. The same approach is found in finance. The estimated national budget is never published in full. Even the current Advisory Council only has the right to examine estimated capital expenditure. The budget’s final account is top secret. No one may look at it. The same applies to the report of the state’s Audit Bureau (itself answerable to the executive), whose powers do not include examining certain incomes and expenditures of public monies because such data does not come under the authority of the Council of Ministers: it is excepted from their authority and any other form of public oversight.

The same is true of the state’s public reserves, investments made with this money, and the results of these operations. Citizens hear about Qatar’s massive international deals but have no idea if these benefit public finances or private interests. The size of the national debt is neither known nor published, nor are the scale and composition of debts guaranteed by the state, which are estimated in the tens of billions of dollars. Reports from the International Monetary Fund’s International Institute of Finance indicate that a large part of the income from oil and gas does not appear in the relevant section of the national budget.

Alongside the mystery surrounding the income, expenditure, and investment of public wealth, there is the matter of publicly owned assets, particularly land that has been developed or property confiscated under the Public Interest Law. Many of these lands and properties have passed into private hands either for token, non-competitive prices, or as gifts and bequests. Privately owned hotels, commercial and residential projects and towns are built. The upshot is projects like Souk Waqif, Al-Jasra, Mushairib, Kahraba Street, the fifteen million square meter Education City, the Katara cultural village, and the various institutes and projects of the Aspire Zone. The market value of these public properties is in the hundreds of billions.

What of the transparency regarding major public policy decisions, the documents and plans that that will determine the country’s present, the fate of society, and the future that awaits generations to come?

No public debate on and participation in important socio-political decisions

We find the public and higher education systems altered on the advice of a study by the Rand Corporation (which also supervises them), in which English is the chief language of instruction and in which society and national studies have been removed from the curriculum. All this has been implemented without any public debate and without the participation of education specialists or the faculty of the University of Qatar. Now we hear of two more projects being put in place: a voucher scheme to replace the provision of free education in government schools and a health insurance scheme for citizens, which replaces the government’s provision of health services. Education and health have been left to the private sector: a discriminatory private sector into whose maw the government shovels its citizens’ social services, absolving itself of responsibility for providing public services through agencies and channels that once served citizens with exemplary levels of care.

The same is true of the rationale behind infrastructure and construction projects and the property sequestration, which has grown into a phenomenon that poses a threat to citizens’ sense of stability and their jobs. We have the Human Resources Law and the decision to convert cooperative associations into commercial companies without any clarification as to why this has been done much less any thought given to its legality […]

We look on as the railway and metro project is implemented at a cost of forty billion dollars with no public debate, despite the project’s vast scale and the statistical errors on which it is based. It estimates, for instance, that in ten years Qatar’s population will number five million, a growth of two hundred percent in a decade. That Qatar’s population strategy rests on such improbabilities is positively sinister.

Politically, Qatar’s constitution was drawn up by government committee without any public debate or discussion: merely a yes-or-no referendum overseen by the Ministry of the Interior, promoted by the media and meddled with by the executive branch. Qatar’s National Vision for 2030, and the National Development Strategy of 2011-2016 were both created without any discussion outside government circles. Even the Advisory Council was denied an opportunity to pass judgment on the two documents.

The list goes on, and includes many more decisions and public policy choices, such as security treaties, military bases and laws that grant residential property purchasers and beneficiaries the right to permanent residence. It is worth pointing out that this last policy, which has no counterpart outside the smaller Gulf states, has led in Qatar to the construction of residences for around two hundred and ten thousand permanent residents, not counting those who have travelled to Qatar for work or possess temporary work visas. This, at a time when the number of Qatari citizens is estimated at no more than two hundred and fifty thousand.

Freedom of opinion and expression

The lack of transparency and the concealment of information are linked to a tightening along the margin for free expression and an absence of independent civil society organizations concerned with public affairs, citizens’ rights, professional syndicates and workers’ unions. These are things the law does not allow. The Associations and Foundations Law will only grant licenses to government officials or those who have received prior approval from the authorities. Indeed, there is a failure to consider requests for setting up associations and foundations that have not received prior approval and in these cases – either because of a failure to consider the request or an outright refusal – there is no recourse to the courts: only the fruitless option of making a complaint to the Council of Ministers.

It is worth highlighting here that Qatari law does not permit the establishment of political bodies, forums for debate, professional syndicates or trade unions. There are no civil society organizations for human or citizens’ rights, nor any association or institution with a focus on public affairs. It is therefore inaccurate to talk about civil society in Qatar: it is those who hold power who set up private bodies to work in the public interest, lavishing public money on them without any oversight. There are many such examples and anyone who has attempted establishing a non-governmental organization will know them.

Freedom of expression is curtailed by a Press Law with excessively severe penalties for journalists, not to mention direct intervention by the executive in installing newspaper editors and appointing individuals in the public and private media sectors without the slightest qualification for their positions.[1]

The lack of freedom of opinion and expression, in addition to the freedom to organize, may be the chief factor in entrenching the lack of transparency, allowing the terrifying official media machine to frame the situation in Qatar until reality is essentially effaced, then to transmit this propaganda abroad, leaving the naïve dazzled, while those in the know chuckle at the passivity of the Qatari people who are deprived of their right to voice an opinion through a strategy of carrots and sticks.

All of this exists at a time when Qataris are unable to express themselves and forbidden from influencing current events, participating in building their own future, safeguarding the fate of their society, their identity and their wealth and securing it for future generations […] 

Issues in need of reform

These are the principle and most serious imbalances in the current system and the resulting flaws that manifest themselves in all areas of cultural, social, economic and political life. The imbalances that require a process of root-and-branch reform before they can be properly addressed can be summarized as follows:

Population imbalance

The first issue in need of reform is the terminal and mounting population crisis in Qatar, which has led to a drop in the proportion of Qatari citizens from forty percent in 1970 to just twelve percent by 2010. At the same time, the workforce rose from 323,000 in 2001 to 1.265 million in 2009, while over the same period the proportion of Qatari citizens in the workforce dropped from fourteen percent to six percent. This makes it the most serious and pressing challenge in need of radical reform, and the most deserving. If Qataris are unable to apply pressure to halt this growing imbalance and begin gradual reform, their natural position at the head of society will fall away and they will be rendered incapable of reforming the other and newer problems. Indeed, they will be transformed into a deprived and marginalized minority in their own land.

The perpetuation of this growing imbalance threatens to uproot Qatari society, to erase its identity and culture, to take its mother tongue, Arabic, out of circulation, and erode the role of its citizens in owning and running their own country. Local citizens constitute the leaders and administrators in every other country in the world, particularly in public administration.

It is worth noting here that the issue of population imbalance has long been recognized by both civil society and the authorities. Its reform has been a constant refrain for the last fifty years, culminating in the National Development Strategy of 2011-2016, which signaled a radical change in the official attitude towards the problem. The population imbalance was now an issue not to be spoken of, if not positively abjured. Everything is now discussed in terms of “population” and citizens and the proportion of that overall population that they represent is not mentioned.

This change in tack transforms Qataris from citizens, with corresponding rights, to a dwindling class of the population, forced to compete with immigrants for job opportunities, education, and social services, all in a language not their own, even as they remain deprived for one reason or another of their political rights.

The new Nationality Law from 2005, of dubious constitutionality, paves the way for this transformation of citizens into inhabitants who enjoy none of their rights of citizenship. It does this by permanently depriving citizens who have acquired Qatari citizenship (about one third of all citizens) and their descendants of all political rights. At the same time, the current constitution fails to guarantee effective political rights to the remaining two-thirds of Qataris who are citizens by birth: such scant political rights as there are currently in abeyance, courtesy of Article 150.

We call for urgent reform of this deplorable situation. The above-mentioned demographic change makes it necessary to rethink policies and adapt strategies. The principle factor behind this worsening imbalance is an official policy brought into operation in 2004 which aimed to expand the property market and institute vast new developments (along with the infrastructure required to support them) by means of marketing property investments by granting buyers permanent residence in Qatar, regardless whether their skills were required by the workforce or the country’s ability to absorb them. The perpetuation of this imbalance is thus not only caused by the traditional demand for immigrant workers but also an indefensible official policy. New towns and residential zones were constructed, not for citizens or immigrant workers, but for an entirely new population encouraged to invest in property in return for residence for themselves and their families, without the need to possess work visas like other incomers. Nor is this imbalance acceptable from a patriotic perspective. Nothing comparable can be found in other another country in the world, great or small, with the exception of our neighbors, the United Arab Emirates, and may God forgive their rulers and ours.

There is no people or society on earth capable of absorbing more immigrants than they have citizens, so what to make of Qatar where the figure is eight times higher? Even so, activities on the international property market continue, as does expenditure on infrastructure and educational services that Qataris not only do not need, but which are not intended for them in the first place, all of which leads to a greater influx of immigrants that further erodes the status of citizens, erasing their identity and extirpating their language.

Economic imbalance

The economic imbalance results from an almost absolute – and growing – reliance on income derived from exporting Qatar’s abundant natural resources of raw petroleum (oil and natural gas). The country’s main source of income is the profit resulting from an oil price ten times higher than the cost of production. It is most evident in any breakdown of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP): The source of all income is the profit made on exporting a natural resource and not the productivity of individuals and institutions, as is the case in a production economy.

To appreciate the extent of this imbalance, we must imagine the state of Qatar’s income and standard of living if oil yields were removed. We would not find the revenue sources to supply even a small part of our daily needs. Indeed, all our oil and gas funded activities would grind to a halt and our cities would become ghost cities. Because of the lack of desire (or, perhaps, inability) of individual oil-producing nations such as Qatar to adopt national policies in which oil exports are subordinate to development goals, they have responded to world demand for oil in a random and unpredictable fashion. The state rushes to increase production without any serious economic or social research or the slightest regard for their capacity or the available oil reserves.

Qatar has raised its production of liquid natural gas (LNG) to seventy-seven million tons per year, making it one of the top two suppliers in the world, without looking at alternative economic approaches or alternative uses for LNG, nor taking into consideration consequences and responsibilities. This has only increased reliance on oil and gas revenue, which has become the sole source of GDP, the only source of revenue in the national budget, and thus of public expenditure and development and other national projects. Furthermore, it has encouraged risk and wastefulness in addition to promoting foreign and local investments whose impact on the national interest and economy has not been properly researched.

This ongoing imbalance has been accompanied by an interpenetration of public and private wealth and lack of transparency, which treats oil and gas yields, the budget, and public reserves as a state secret not to be divulged to Qatari citizens. This has led to a great deal of waste and misappropriation of oil revenue for purposes of short-term expenditure instead of long-term investment. Policies for the investment of oil revenue remain backward due to the failure to link the expenditure of public funds with an understanding of the economic and national benefits they might bring […]

Political imbalance

Qatar’s political imbalance in the relationship between the government and its people is best expressed in the phrase, “a more than absolute authority and a less than powerless people.” The authorities in Qatar monopolize the decision-making process with no effective political participation on the part of citizens […] It was hoped that the National Vision and National Strategy would make priorities of both political development and the necessity of transitioning to a constitutionally supported democracy. Perhaps they would offer a vision and plan for this long-awaited political reform.

Reading the National Vision for Qatar 2030, we find that it does not mention political reform and political and cultural development in its discussion of the vision’s cornerstones. Neither do we find any discussion of these issues in the National Development Strategy of 2011-2016.

Correcting this imbalance requires a transition to a democratic political system governed by a constitution drafted by committee. Only then will Qatar have a contractual constitution. Only then will the people assume their proper place as the ultimate source of authority, guided by the generous principles of Islamic Law, the human rights treaties to which Qatar is a signatory, and the values of the political system shared by all democratic countries […]

* Translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger.

[This article was first published by Heinrich Böll Stiftung Tunis, Beirut and Ramallah in: Perspectives MENA No4: Aspirations & Realities.]

[1] Editor’s Note: In late October 2012, Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged the Emir of Qatar not to approve a draft media law “unless loosely worded provisions penalizing criticism of Qatar or neighboring governments are removed… The draft law builds in a double standard on free expression that is inconsistent with Qatar’s claims to be a center for media freedom in the region.” HRW, as well as a number of press freedom organizations, also pointed to the imprisonment of Qatari poet Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami since November 2011 as evidence of “Qatar’s double standard on freedom of expression.” On 22 October, a judge postponed al-Dheeb’s trial for the fifth time. He faces charges of “inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime,” which carries the death penalty under Article 130 of the penal code in Qatar.

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