Dhow On the Rise: The Changing Role of Qatar In the Middle East
By: Nicholas Sawarna
Qatar is a small nation within the Arabian Peninsula. But,
despite the odds, Qatar has evolved to become the vanguard
of freedom of speech and individual rights in the Middle
East and an occasional thorn in the side of neighboring
Qatar's transformation began in 1995. At the time, due to
the excessive spending of Emir Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al-
Thani and the nation's depleting oil reserves, Qatar was
going bankrupt. In response to this looming crisis, the
monarch's son, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, staged a
coup while his father was vacationing in the Swiss Alps.
Sheikh Hamad left his father a simple telephone message:
"Don't come back."
Upon taking the throne, the new Emir introduced drastic
reforms and things began to change. He flooded money into
education, culture, and the arts (as opposed to the Royal
Family's purse) while simultaneously promoting free speech
for all, including women. Sheikh Hamad also dismissed
Qatar's ageing bureaucratic elite from public offices and
replaced them with young Qataris in their 20s and 30s.
Many of the reforms continue to emphasize women's rights and
education. In fact, it can be said that the women's rights
movement symbolically began in 1995, when Sheikha Mozah,
Sheikh Hamad's second wife, removed her veil in public.
Since then, women have been allowed to drive vehicles,
enroll in higher education, and participate in the political
The traditional aristocracy of Qatar opposed these reforms,
and a countercoup was attempted in the same year that Sheikh
Hamad took the throne. Supporters of the former Emir Khalifa
organized a force consisting of several thousand mercenaries
and Bedouin tribesmen. The coup failed, but several humorous
anecdotes are worth mentioning.
The Bedouin tribesmen arrived in Doha in record time via a
massive convoy of SUV's, only to be foiled by the city's
confusing urban layout. They quickly became lost and their
only reported casualties were caused by traffic accidents.
Author Melissa Grossi describes the scene as: "[a large
group of] bickering Bedouins … asking for directions to the
palace." In the meantime, since they had mysteriously lost
all their landing craft, the trained mercenaries could not
launch their amphibious invasion of Doha's harbor. With the
failed coup, the reforms prevailed.
Some reforms, such as encouraging foreign universities to
open campuses in Qatar, have benefitted citizens and expats
alike. But other reforms are strictly tailored to Qataris.
To help Qatar's citizens maintain control of their nation,
Sheikh Hamad has given Qatar a constitution, a semi-elected
chamber, and several organs through which Qatari citizens
alone may exercise direct influence. In a country where
citizens make up less than a third of the population (and
where citizenship is next to impossible to obtain outside
hereditary means), these forums and organs are crucial to
preserving the Qatari national agenda.
Perhaps the most famous of these organs is the BBC-
originated Al Jazeera news network. Al Jazeera regularly
reports on previously taboo subjects, such as the internal
politics of other royal courts and the 2001 United States
invasion of Afghanistan. There are two reasons why the State
of Qatar allows and supports Al Jazeera: first, Sheikh Hamad
promised to abolish censorship upon taking the throne in
1995; and second, the news network supports the toppling of
oppressive regimes which are seen unfavorably by Qatar's
liberal emir. In essence, through its bold reporting and
annual participation in the BBC Doha Debates, Al Jazeera has
helped unveil Middle Eastern and Qatari issues to the global
On the world stage, Qatar exercises a foreign policy which
aims to indirectly affect the outcomes of Middle Eastern
events. For example, Qataris were not on the front lines in
Libya in late-2011, but it armed the Libyan rebels who
overthrew Muammar Gadaffi. According to New York Times
Shadid, Qatar supports the Arab
Spring protests because Islamic militants are easier to deal
with than ageing dictators rapidly losing the support of
Qatar is a nation which is quickly, as put by Shadid,
becoming a major pivot in the Middle East. Sheikh Hamad has
recognized this transition and has transformed his nation
overnight from the sleepy backwater it once was to the
economic power it has become. And through its foreign
policy, Qatar is able to promote goodwill while
simultaneously preserving its own interests.
For more information, consult the following sources: