Dhow On the Rise: The Changing Role of Qatar In the Middle East

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 regimes.

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 process.

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 community.

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 writer Anthony Shadid, Qatar supports the Arab Spring protests because Islamic militants are easier to deal with than ageing dictators rapidly losing the support of their people.

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:

1) An informative article by Aryn Baker on Time.com

2) Melissa Rossi offers a quick overview of Qatar in her book, What Every American Should Know About the Middle East

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