The Political Costs of Qatar’s Western Orientation

By Dr. Justin Gengler

In the span of seven weeks in fall 2011, the government of Qatar twice made international headlines for reasons that were, for the upstart Gulf emirate, highly unusual. Made prominent by its near-ubiquitous involvement in political and humanitarian crises abroad — in Darfur, Libya, Syria and even the U.S. Gulf Coast in the aftermath of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina — one aspect of Qatar that receives far less scrutiny, even on its state-owned Al-Jazeera satellite network, is politics at home. Thus did speculation mount when a September 2011 salary hike of an eye-popping 60 percent for citizens working in the public sector (120 percent for those in the police and military) was followed almost immediately by another out-of-the-blue announcement: the country’s first-ever parliamentary elections would be held in the second half of 2013.

Given the individualistic nature of decision making in this small city-state, observers were left to wonder about the motivations of senior leaders, in particular Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. Did the ruling family perceive a change in popular attitude belied by the placid surface of domestic politics in Qatar, the country outwardly least affected by demands for change witnessed even in neighboring Gulf societies since the beginning of the Arab Spring? Or did the government hope mainly to head off a growing chorus of critics who noted the contrast between Qatar’s ideological and material support for revolutionaries seeking to topple other nondemocratic Arab regimes, and its own lack of accountability?

Whatever the case, few disagreed that the emir was playing with house money. Pressure for political change was emanating neither from citizens nor from Western backers such as the United States, whatever the apparent contradictions. A set of public-opinion surveys by the Social and Economic Survey Research Institute (SESRI) of Qatar University revealed that, even prior to the fall announcements, confidence in government institutions among Qatari citizens had grown considerably in the wake of the Arab uprisings, while popular interest in democracy — and indeed in politics generally — had moved in the opposite direction.1 And, as strategic interests had already outweighed American idealism in the case of a far more advanced reform movement in nearby Bahrain, the chance of a U.S. push to alter the political status quo in Qatar approached zero. To boost salaries and introduce limited citizen participation in governance, then, seemed a prudent, preemptive initiative that at worst rendered Qatar’s gigantic natural-gas-funded budget surplus somewhat less immense.

The question, then, is: What went wrong? Nearly a year later, not only have the government’s blockbuster moves failed to provide a boost in popular approval, but a new poll conducted by SESRI in June 2012 shows that confidence in basic state institutions has receded in many cases below even pre-Arab Spring levels. Since June 2011, the percentage of Qataris who say they are “very confident” in the armed forces has dropped from 87 percent to 78 percent; confidence in the courts has decreased from 72 percent to 62 percent; and, most ironically, confidence in the Shura Council, Qatar’s soon-to-be-elected advisory body, decreased from 65 percent to 54 percent, the largest relative decline for any single institution included in the survey. At the same time, deference to the state has similarly declined. When asked whether they agreed that “citizens should always support the decisions of government even if they disagree with those decisions,” 42 percent strongly agreed, down from 47 percent a year earlier. What is going on?

As elsewhere in the region, a significant number of Qataris are defying the decades-old noble lie of Gulf politics: that citizens of resource-based, distributive regimes are motivated above all by economics. Home to the world’s wealthiest citizens, Qatar is casually cited as the archetypical example of the way that material satisfaction begets political satisfaction and even political apathy. Yet, if the Arab Spring so far has failed to bring fundamental change to the Gulf monarchies, one still hopes it will be credited with hastening a transformation at least in thinking about the region’s politics. For, while economic issues have played a role in generating support for reform across the Arab Gulf, even more important as mobilizing forces have been matters of group identity and conflict — distinctions along the lines of sect, region, tribal versus non-tribal, and Islamist versus secular.

Courtesy: Middle East Policy Council Policy: Journal – Fall 2012