The Easy Guide to Politics in Qatar

The Easy Guide to Politics in Qatar

When was Qatar founded?

In his book The Political History of Qatar, Ahmad Zakaria al-Shaleq marks the triumph of the al-Thani tribe over the other tribes in the mid-nineteenth century, as the date when the Emirate of Qatar became an independent sovereign political entity. Later, Sheikh Mohammed bin Thani will sign the first Anglo-Qatari treaty in his capacity as the ruler of the Qatari peninsula. As a result, Britain acknowledged al-Thani as rulers over the region in 1866.

Much like other Gulf states, Qatar was part of the Ottoman Empire since the end of the sixteenth century until the end of the First World War. The decline of the Ottoman Empire was replaced by a rise of British influence over the Arabian Peninsula. In 1916, Sheikh Abdullah al-Thani signed a treaty with Britain. The treaty remained effective until 1971 when Qatar became a fully independent and sovereign state, and joined both the United Nations and the Arab League.

What is the nature of the Qatari regime?

Qataris call their state a “Sheikhdom.” In fact, the title “Sheikh” and not “Emir” precedes the ruler’s name when referring to the “State’s Emir.” But, whether it is a Sheikhdom or an Emirate has little bearing on the absolute nature of the regime. Executive power rests with the ruler despite the existence of a Prime Minister. The ruler nominates the 35 members that make up the Shura council, Qatar’s legislative body. In 2011, the previous Emir, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani had promised more than once to carry out popular elections to choose the Shura Council members, but the process has yet to be implemented.

What is the Qatari social composition?

Qatar’s population is about two million. Mostly composed of foreigners, the nationals only make up about 15% of the population. Natives are spread out between tribes and families with Arabian and non-Arabian roots that inhabited the area decades ago. The emirate ranks first globally in terms of GDP per capita, which exceeds USD 100,000 per citizen. Qataris may be rich, but that does not go to say that all Qataris are fortunate, “Al-Murrah” tribe being the prime example. In 1996, a group of officers and members of the armed forces – mainly from al-Murrah tribe – attempted a failed coup against Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani in response to the latter's own coup to topple his father Sheikh Khalifa in 1995. Members of the tribe were punished and a number of them were jailed in retaliation.

How did Qatar shape its foreign policy?

Al-Jazeera Network was founded in 1996 and is seen as Qatar’s media arm. Branded with the slogan “Every Story, Every Side,” Al-Jazeera hosted Arab and Israeli figures alike, which stirred controversy and an international debate over Qatar’s intentions. Furthermore, the station obtained the exclusive rights to broadcast many European football leagues, banking on the unparalleled popularity of the game. The station rose to fame during its live broadcast of the war on Afghanistan in 2001, and for airing video recordings of Ousama bin Laden. In 2011, Al Jazeera spearheaded the coverage of the Arab spring, showing its viewers what was happening on the ground and giving a space to the voices of the street. This coverage even contributed to the falling of some of the old regimes. However, while this was true of Egypt and Tunisia, it was certainly not in the case of Bahrain, where the channel took a completely different position and role.

If media proved to be an effective tool of Qatari diplomacy, gas was an even more powerful tool for the emirate to gain economic power globally. Qatar has the third largest gas reserves in the world, which facilitated the development and diversification of its economy, and rendered it a primary political player in the region. After the July 2006 war in Lebanon, Qatar spent large amounts of money in the reconstruction of Southern Lebanon. Later, in 2008, it hosted the reconciliation meeting between the different Lebanese factions leading to the “Doha Accord”. A similar initiative was sponsored by Qatar for the Palestinian reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. After the eruption of the Syrian crisis, Hamas relocated its headquarters from Damascus to Doha.

The contradictions of the Qatari-Israeli relations

After his "white coup" that toppled his father, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa worked on changing Qatar’s foreign policy. While his father was content with Saudi patronage, Hamad initially tried to elevate Qatar by drawing foreign relations distinct from the rest of the Gulf countries. Qatar was the first Gulf state to open the “Israeli representative Bureau” in Doha. This step was followed by mutual visits by officials from both countries. Through its pragmatic policy, Qatar also opened up to Israel’s foes, by contributing to the reconstruction of the South of Lebanon following the Israeli war in 2006. The people of South Lebanon hailed the Gulf state and chanted “Thank You, Qatar.” The small emirate later closed the “Israeli representative Bureau” in 2009, in protest against the Israeli assault on Gaza. In 2012, the former Emir became the first Arab leader to visit Gaza.

Furthermore, Qatar houses one of the biggest and most important American military bases in the region, “Al Udeid Air Base” South-West of Doha. The base has a runway, more than 1000 fighter jets, and surveillance planes, as well as tanks, military units, and about 4000 US soldiers.

How are Qatar's relations with it's Gulf neighbors?

Perhaps Qatar’s relations with its neighbors can be summed up as a “love and hate relationship.” The history of the Gulf is ripe with wars and retaliation battles launched by tribes against one another. Historically, Qatar was subject to the rule of Al Saud and to Al Khalifa in Bahrain in the mid-eighteenth century. The conflicts endured between the two states as the Saudis repeatedly attempted to reclaim the “land of fathers and ancestors [Qatar].” However, Britain maintained a certain balance of power in the region, which prevented conflicts from escalating.

The "six brothers in blood" convened in 1981 and founded the “Gulf Cooperation Council.” Their vision was to build something similar to the European Union. Harmony didn’t last long however as the Arab spring stirred up dormant controversies. Qatar is a historical ally of the “Muslim Brotherhood”, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE fear the outlawed organization. The military coup in Egypt against the Muslim Brotherhood, and which brought General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi to power in July 2013 made matters worse. The repercussions later caused a diplomatic crisis between Qatar on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain on the other. The three-state group withdrew their ambassadors from Doha in March 2014, accusing the latter of meddling in the internal affairs of the Gulf.

Is there political opposition in Qatar?

Qatar does not have a political opposition in the same sense as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait do. As a result, the Qatari regime was spared the turmoil brought about by the Arab spring. That, however does not deny the existence of reformist voices and other discreet and elitist opposition.

What are Qatar's most significant challenges?

Geo-politics is the most significant challenge facing Qatar and stems from its position between two regional giants: Iran and Saudi Arabia, both having military and demographic clout as well as geographical advantages. In an effort to immunize itself against its neighbors and the threat of Saudi or Iranian tutelage, Qatar involved itself in many international conflicts, such as the Libyan and Syrian wars as well as the Egyptian crisis.

Another challenge is the World Cup that Qatar is hosting in 2022. The emirate is now trying to solve its weather impediment (temperatures can reach as high as 55 degrees Celsius,) while addressing allegations of buying the World Cup, and claims of “modern-day slavery” against expat workers – as The Guardian reported.

What is "Qatar National Vision 2030?"

“Qatar National Vision 2030” is a roadmap that rests on four pillars of development: Economic, human, social, and environmental. It seeks to achieve an economic balance that would enable Qatar to switch from an oil-reliant to a knowledge-based economy. This includes building the infrastructure for world-class healthcare and education, as well as subsidy programs, women social empowerment programs, equal job opportunities for nationals, modern environmental institutions, environmental awareness initiatives, and a shift to green economy.


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