New Internationalist

Country Profile

Issue 308

Country profile
Qatar

Qatar

Qatar is something of an enigma even by the standards of the Gulf Arab states. A penin-sula some 11,400 square kilometres in area (about half the size of Wales), it has a population of barely half a million, over half of whom live in and around the capital, Doha. Less than half are native Qatari citizens, the remainder being migrant workers from elsewhere in the Arab world, the Indian Subcontinent, the Philippines and Europe. It is a hot, humid place, with little natural vegetation. The interior is largely desert.

Like the other members of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), Qatar is an absolute monarchy. Its present ruler, Shaykh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, overthrew his father, Shaykh Khalifa, in a bloodless palace coup in June 1995. As his ancestors have done since the mid-nineteenth century, Shaykh Hamad rules by decree. Most of his cabinet are members of the ruling Al-Thani family. It came as rather a surprise, therefore, when last year Shaykh Hamad announced that Qataris would soon have the chance to elect a municipal authority. Even more remarkable was his statement that women would be allowed both to vote and stand as candidates.

In compensation for the lack of participation in government, Qatari citizens have enjoyed one of the most comprehensive welfare systems in the world. Education, healthcare and even housing are largely free, and the prices of water, electricity and most basic foodstuffs are heavily subsidized by the State.

The decline in oil prices in recent years has affected the economy, but Qataris still enjoy a per-capita GNP of around $12,000, approaching the levels of Spain and Aotearoa/New Zealand. While oil still dominates the economy – proven reserves are 3,700 million barrels, which should last about 18 years at current rates of production — Qatar is investing heavily in natural-gas production to ensure its future prosperity. It has one of the largest gas fields in the world, which should go on producing for over 100 years. And, unlike oil, natural gas is supplied direct to the end-user by pipeline and is sold en bloc at a set price, so that it is free from the fluctuations of the market.

One country with which Qatar has been negotiating the sale of gas for some time is Israel. So far the political risk of such a deal has held Qatar back, but Israel has a trade office in Doha and Israeli firms are active in the emirate, supplying irrigation expertise and equipment and security apparatus. The relationship with Israel typifies Qatar’s refusal to toe the Gulf states’ line on foreign policy: it has always been something of a maverick in the foreign-policy field. It was the first Gulf emirate to open diplomatic relations with Moscow in 1988. It is on good terms with both Iran and Iraq, much to the displeasure of its neighbours.

Indeed, it seems to derive satisfaction from rocking the regional boat. Qatar has consistently refused GCC mediation in its territorial dispute with neighbouring Bahrain, preferring instead to take the case to the International Court of Justice at The Hague. And in announcing the municipal elections last year Shaykh Hamad could not resist a dig at his GCC neighbours, blaming the absence of democracy there for retarding economic development in the region.

Steve Sherman

 

AT A GLANCE

 

cash.jpg (8040 bytes)
CHRISTINE OSBORNE / CAMERA PRESS

Leader: Shaykh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani.
Economy: GNP per capita: $11,600
Monetary unit: Riyal.
Main exports: crude oil (87%) and natural gas.
Main imports: machinery and transport equipment (42%); manufactured goods (20%).
People: 558,000.
Health: Infant mortality 17 per 1,000 live births (Israel 8 per 1,000).
Culture: Over half the population are expatriate workers, many of them Levantine and Egyptian Arabs.
Native Qataris are descended from Bedouin from Najd with a small contingent of Iranian origin.
Religion: Most Qataris are Sunni Muslims who follow the conservative Wahhabi doctrine.
Language: Arabic.

Sources: Europa Middle East and North Africa Yearbook, 1996; The State of the World’s Children 1998; The Middle East Review 1997.
Last profiled January 1987

 

STAR RATINGS

[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes)
Good among Qatari citizens, but considerable variation among expatriate workers.
1987 star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes)
[image, unknown] LITERACY star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes)
79% (Saudi Arabia 63%, Bahrain 85%). Primary enrolment is also around 80%.
1987 star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes)
[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE star.gif (152 bytes)
No need for aid or debt but virtually everything, except fuel, is imported.
1987 star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes)
[image, unknown] FREEDOM star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes)
   Nowhere near as repressive as many of its neighbours. No significant domestic opposition but no political institutions either.
1987 star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes)
[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes)
Entitled to free education, but far fewer employment opportunities than men. Are soon to be allowed to vote.
1987 star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes)
[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes)
71 years (United Arab Emirates 75 years, US 76 years).
1987 star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes)


POLITICS

[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes)
The Government appears to be committed to opening up the country. After over a century of rule by an absolute monarchy, the municipal elections planned for next year are a welcome development which should set an example for Qatar’s neighbours.


NI star rating

EXCELLENT
GOOD
FAIR
POOR
APPALLING
star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes)
star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes)
star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes)
star.gif (152 bytes) star.gif (152 bytes)
star.gif (152 bytes)

Contents - this Issue     Magazines Home


This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on Country Profile

Leave your comment