THE DAY AFTER the small Gulf state of Qatar promulgated a new constitution in late September, its ruler addressed the United Nations General Assembly. The emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, made a forceful case for political liberalization in the Middle East, even challenging fellow Arab leaders to refrain from using the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a pretext for postponing reform. No wonder Sheikh al-Thani is the darling of the Bush administration.
Unfortunately, rather than a bastion of liberal reform, Qatar is actually a bundle of contradictions. While in practice its citizens enjoy greater personal and political freedom than ever before, the regime is nowhere near a democratic breakthrough. Rather, it remains the personal fiefdom of the al-Thani family, and their rule is absolute.
The present emir, who seized power from his father in 1995, has transformed his desert backwater into a gleaming city-state. Unlike Cairo with its 7,000 years of dust and charm, the Qatari capital, Doha, is antiseptic— clean, orderly, over air-conditioned, and altogether reminiscent of a well-to-do enclave in South Florida. "Well-to-do," however, hardly does it justice. Qatar is a gold-plated plastic country sitting on the world's third-largest deposit of natural gas.
With the help of some great press, Qatar has become the "little Gulf state that could," outpacing its Arab brethren in political, economic, and technological development. The emir likes to be seen as a man of the people. For a 60 Minutes piece in August 2003, he drove himself along Doha's corniche waving to the locals with Ed Bradley riding shotgun. For all its Wahhabi tradition, Qatar cultivates the image of a friendly, liberalizing Arab state whose benevolent leadership is standing publicly with the United States— in stark contrast to its seemingly feckless and mercurial neighbor, Saudi Arabia.
If Qatar's gas deposits are the source of its wealth, Al Jazeera is the principal source of its current renown. Launched in 1996, this pioneering Arabic television network has become a phenomenon, breaking down barriers in the Middle East and spawning copycats such as Dubai's Al Arabia. Yet what the innumerable and breathless books and articles about it tend to overlook is that Al Jazeera is not independent. Qataris like to boast that theirs is the only Arab country to have abolished its Ministry of Information— but their last minister of information, Sheikh Hamid bin Tamir, is chairman of the board of Al Jazeera, Qatar-TV, and Qatar radio. Al Jazeera is not even financially independent. It relies overwhelmingly on government largesse, and only marginally on advertising. "Whoever said we were independent?" asks one Al Jazeera producer. "People just assumed this."
Like other Arab media, too, Al Jazeera lives within clear red lines: The emir, his family, and events in Qatar are off-limits. Officials in Doha, average Qataris, and Al Jazeera employees all explain away the news blackout. "Qatar is so small," they say, "nothing of interest to the rest of the Arab world goes on here." This sounds disingenuous, given the Qataris' diligent efforts to project a progressive image. In the last few years, Qatar has hosted and funded several high-profile international conferences on democratization, economic reform, and investment opportunities in the region, all intended to spotlight Qatar's ostensible progress in these areas.
And, indeed, there has been positive change. A Central Municipal Council was elected in March 1999. And the new constitution— approved overwhelmingly in a referendum in April 2003— provides for a 45-seat Shura council, two-thirds of whose members are to be elected. The constitution also promises individual freedoms and an independent judiciary. Nevertheless, under Article 64 of the constitution, the emir is "inviolable and . . . must be respected by all." He has the power to appoint one-third of the Shura council, dissolve that body, issue decrees with the force of law, and determine the state budget with only limited input from the legislature. And these provisions of the constitution are not subject to amendment.
Then again, how much does institutional liberalization really matter in a country with no politics? Competition over the control and distribution of resources is nonexistent. Qatar's wealth is spread liberally among the approximately 150,000 Qatari citizens, giving them the highest per capita income in the world, estimated between $20,000 and $30,000. (The 400,000 or so foreign workers who do almost all the work in Qatar are excluded.) As a result, most Qatari citizens are content.
The highest elected official in the country confirms this. He insists there are no political issues of burning interest to his constituents. Ibrahim Haydous, president of the Central Municipal Council, says the establishment of the council was a "landmark event intended to give Qataris a voice" on matters like infrastructure, agriculture, and health care. But the council has little authority. It can invite ministers to answer questions, but cannot compel the government to act. According to Haydous, there has been no conflict between the council and the government.
A diligent search does turn up at least one Qatari willing to criticize the government. Hassan Mullah al-Jefeiri, a businessman with interests in jewelry, tourism, and automobiles, is upset about the misuse of state revenues. Qatar, he says, is "living off high oil prices, which are connected to gas. But oil prices also go down— many Qataris do not understand this. It is like your Internet bubble."
Al-Jefeiri accuses the government of squandering resources on politics— that is, on Al Jazeera— at the expense of education, health care, and infrastructure (among the best in the Arab world). "Do you know of any Qatari doctors or engineers?" he asks. When reminded of the "Education City" the government has built in Doha, al-Jefeiri concedes it is a start, but remains skeptical that the outposts of Cornell University Medical Center, Virginia Commonwealth University, Carnegie Mellon, and Texas A-M clustered there will actually benefit Qataris.
Yet even al-Jefeiri is wary of anything resembling political parties or a real parliament. Nor does he consider himself a dissident. "I am happy, but I could be happier," he says. "I could not say the things I am saying five years ago, but I am concerned about Qatar's future."
Qatar is clearly not Syria, or even the Qatar of a decade ago, but it is no model of reform for Arab countries. Its wealth, spread liberally among its small population, tends to defuse political dissent. This is simply not possible for a country like Egypt or even Saudi Arabia. In addition, although Qatar has made progress, the substance of its political reforms has been limited. Perhaps in time the gap between image and reality will narrow. But even with its new constitution, Qatar remains a far cry from a democratic beacon.
Steven A. Cook is a Next Generation Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.