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Pressures for change
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Issues of note in the region

Men relaxing at a café

A number of factors contribute to the pressures for change within Qatari society. They reflect, in the main, emerging difficulties common to many of the Arab States as well as developing socio-psychological issues. Most of the pressures are seen by Arab commentators to stem from interference by the West in Arab affairs, a misunderstanding in the West of Islam, and by an endemic conflict between modern Arab moraes – usually developed through contact with the West – and the life thought to be prescribed by the Quran. Within the Arab world there has always been a lively social debate carried out through the medium of the written and spoken word, a tradition which, during the Arab renaissance, produced many works of beauty and relevance in parallel with the advances in the sciences. Nowadays this debate is being seriously constrained by a number of individuals and organisations who are perceived to be repressing the free expression of social debate – particularly that of the printed word. Some writers now claim that the issues of religion, sex and politics are dangerous areas in which to express opinions.

Although it is generally argued that the West is responsible for a variety of problems, where this blame rests is difficult to pinpoint. There is the difficulty of comprehending the cultural background of the region both in the West as well as in the Gulf. It is a platitude that, at a general level, modernity appears to be equated with the close resemblance of habits, practices and institutions similar to those of the West: in other words, modernisation is synonymous with Westernisation. Observation suggests that younger generations do not have the same attitude to traditional values as their parents; and even the parents share the dilemma of how to benefit without losing their cultural values or, more important, how to deal with change while retaining those values. It is not clear how far this is generally understood, nor how those that govern the States understand the difficulties intrinsic in replicating Western institutions; though they are certainly aware of it. Many Muslims are aware of the dichotomy produced by development even if only from a reactive point of view; hence the rise of fundamentalism. In this reactive development lies the seeds of global conflict, this time a probable conflict between civilisations.

It is commonly thought by Western as well as Muslim architects – and others – trained in the West that new development is an improvement on old development. The theory seems to be that change is associated mainly with two factors: movement to towns and the introduction of air-conditioning. For instance Geoffrey King, an architectural commentator who I’ve quoted here, believes that:

…the adaptation is by no means perfect aesthetically – in that respect, traditional architecture was far more pleasing. Yet in the modern concrete building people are comfortably housed in terms that meet Saudi Arabia’s social and religious traditions and in accord with perceptions of an Islamic lifestyle. Women still retain privacy and houses are designed to achieve this: there is often a separate entrance for women and the men’s majlis is organised so that it gives no views into other parts of the house to the male visitor’.

Even though this quote relates to Saudi Arabia, the State’s traditional connections to its adjacent, littoral Gulf States suggests that the argument might apply similarly to Qatar. Yet new development in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States – contrary to King’s assertion – does not fulfil, in anything like a similar manner, the precepts of the older developments, nor are the buildings more effective in successfully containing the new social operations.

Change in this context is difficult to define as it means different things to different groups. Here it is taken to be a conscious desire to change from the old values to something else. From a Western perspective we tend to see change in the Gulf as a movement towards Western values and, perhaps a benefit to the peoples of the region. To some Arabs this is undoubtedly the case. Though to a majority change is certainly seen to be happening, but the influence of the West is heavily resented, representing as it does all that is seen to be harmful to a search for pan-arabism and, particularly, for a post-colonial identity free of the colonisers – the West in general, and the United States in particular.

Certainly many Arabs have taken an interest in the West and the tools by which the West has achieved its present status, but they are more than matched by those who believe there should be a return to the original Islamic values. The former were epitomised by the Egyptian writer and thinker Taha Hussein who believed that the Arabs should master European culture in order to progress themselves. The majority, epitomised by his contemporary, Hasan Al Banna – founder in 1926 of the militant Muslim Brotherhood – argued that, on the contrary, Arabs should reject such contacts and return to the pristine Islam that was the setting from which sprang their great and heroic past.

The interests of the West in the area involved measures that were unpopular both within the West and in the Arab countries affected by colonial interests. As is described elsewhere, many of the countries of the region in fact owe their present boundaries to the involvement and requirements of the West – particularly of Britain and France, and this basic focus for resentment has enabled many Arabs to concentrate their disquiet against the West. However, the West not only established the boundaries of the countries of the region, but they were also responsible for setting the tone of the administrations that would run the newly defined countries. To some extent they had a choice, but it was realised that there would be considerable difficulties if a radical approach was taken and an effort made to introduce democratic institutions and administrations together with the outlooks that would make them realistic and workable. Rather than set about this impossible task the West established boundaries and attempted to reinforce the existing system of tribal government setting the seeds for many of the problems that have emerged in the region today. The system whereby the strong take charge and hold power by force does not produce the democracies that the West would like to see in place.

The overriding problem here is the inability of the West to understand the basic concept of Islam and the way in which Muslims differ from – for the most part – Christians in the West in many of their conceptual and behavioural attitudes.

Essentially, it is imperative for the West to understand that Islam subjugates the person to the community – not in a pejorative sense, but as an essential characteristic of the religion – and it has to be borne in mind that Islam is a social code in complete contradistinction to Christianity. In Islam, the concepts ‘self’, ‘community,’ ‘brotherhood’ and ‘nation’ have very different meanings from our understanding of those words in the West. Jonathon Raban points out that the subjective self found in the West is conceptually alien to the manner in which individuals in Islam see themselves. He points out that Muslims define themselves not by the understanding of their inner thoughts and conceptualisations, but in their interaction with others in their society. He quotes Rosen, noting that:

the configuration of one’s bonds of obligation define who a person is… the self is not an artefact of interior construction but an unavoidably public act’.

To understand the manner in which Muslims behave in both their public and private physical realms, this relationship of the person to the society has to be understood in its complexity – and in its simplicity. Raban has a very strong metaphor of its strength:

The idea of the body is central here. On the website of, a London-based magazine, Yusuf Patel writes: ‘The Islamic ummah is manifesting her deep feeling for a part of her body, which is in the process of being severed.’ It would be a great mistake to read this as mere metaphor or rhetorical flourish. Ummah is sometimes defined as the community, sometimes the nation, sometimes the body of Muslim believers around the globe, and it has a physical reality, without parallel in any other religion, that is nowhere better expressed than in the five daily times of prayer.
The observant believer turns to the Ka’aba in Mecca, which houses the great black meteorite said to be the remnant of the shrine given to Abraham by the angel Gabreel, and prostrates himself before Allah at fajr (sunrise), dthuhr (noon), asr (mid-afternoon), maghrab (sunset) and isha (night). These times are calculated to the nearest minute, according to the believer’s longitude and latitude, with the same astronomical precision required for sextant-navigation. Note that the crescent moon is the symbol of Islam for good reason: the Islamic calendar, with its dates for events like the hajj and ramadhan, is lunar, not solar. Prayer times are published in local newspapers and can be found online, and for believers far from the nearest masjid, an inexpensive adhaan clock can be programmed to do the job of the muwadhin. So, as the world turns, the entire ummah goes down on its knees in a never-ending wave of synchronised prayer, and the believers can be seen as the moving parts of a universal Islamic chronometer.

Muslims are very conscious of this continuum and of their relationship with other Muslims, not only those they know but also those at the other side of the world; they have an innate awareness of ummah. Although Jews and Christians are considered to be ‘people of the Book’ – a reference to their appearance in the Bible – Muslims know, absolutely, the primacy of their true religion and its governance over their lives.

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Decisions, decisions…

Clock tower and Diwan al Amiri

One social factor stands out from the rest, and that is the manner in which the society is responding to change. Traditional Gulf societies are formed on a feudal principle of primus inter pares – first among equals. Families assume an order of precedence, and those within a family are similarly ordered. Decisions are based on shared values, traditional allegiances, religious requirements or guidance, and political judgement. The society is not pluralist and depends to a large extent upon its received history – usually a function of the older members of the families to record, process and pass on when and as needed.

Today the structures of government which have been adopted from the West conflict with the traditional ways of making decisions. The majlis system is conceptually different from Western systems which bring together, for example, ministers to decide on their requirements. In particular government establishes another power base – differently structured from the majlis system – which an individual would normally be anticipated to organise to his own advantage. Although this follows the established system rewarding faithful and successful supporters of a leader, there is considerable room for misunderstanding. In the past those who had been rewarded were permitted to operate with some degree of impunity, provided that the leader was not embarrassed and continued to receive what was required. The new systems of government require more openness, inspection and, particularly, integration. In many ways these are inimical to the traditional system of government and are the cause of much misunderstanding and resentment.

The fact that these systems are supposed to be similar to the democratic models of the West reflects both the West’s requirements that others organise themselves as they do, as well as the desire by some elements of Arab society to take Western models as a way of developing their own interests, a trend which suggests an interest in control and management as a normal political function.

This system has been buttressed by the considerable natural resources available to the State, resources which set Qatar apart from its fellow emirates. But pressures are being brought to bear on all the region, particularly by the International Monetary Fund who wish to see increased financial restraint within the area generally, married to considerable political reform in order to safeguard the future stability of the region.

In order to respond to this, Qatar is attempting to develop the private sector and reduce the dependence of its national population on the State. But it is difficult. Saudi Arabia has been accused of buying off its young nationals in the wake of the Arab Spring developments, and this route has been seen by the State as being problematic. Instead, Qatar is focussing on its Qatar National Vision 2030 which is intended to reflect the aspirations of all Qataris, not just Qatar’s leadership. This initiative aims to create a State capable of sustaining its own development while retaining its traditional culture. This is a difficult strategy to follow as the cultural base is being swamped with Western influence. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa has been quoted as saying:

A new era begins in the Arab world from the ocean to the Gulf. Qatar, which looks forward to the future and which is always developing, is reconciled with itself and with its values and is in harmony in its march with the movement of history towards a better future and the interests of the community and the Qatari citizen remain at the top of our priorities and concerns.

It is intended that the State will ensure that Qataris will not develop a sense of entitlement but of inclusion, playing their part in decision making through a variety of methods including universal suffrage. This is similar in some respects to the traditional majlis system, but is considerably different.

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Statistics and external pressures

A Qatari doing business with his tailor

The pressures acting on and within the society are now immense. Increasingly references are being made to unfortunate results of the intensive development with external commentators finding little being done to ameliorate the problems they note. The rising number of divorces, diabetes and related health problems, kafaala and the workforce, the unsettled feelings of Qataris – all these and more are being aired publicly with a variety of reasons suggested for their incidence and character. But many of these views or criticism are very commonly formed from Western perspectives and may not tell the full story of how change is affecting Qataris. Even work in the Ministries and University may similarly not focus on the areas which will identify the problems and, through that, develop means for correcting or at least ameliorating their impact.

Government organisation within Qatar have long had a propensity to collect statistics to an unusual degree of detail. The intention is good and it is believed that their study will enable policies to be adopted that will benefit Qatari society:

Indicators derived out of these data reveal all aspects surrounding the marriage and divorce phenomena, which gain great interest in the field of population and social studies.

The demographic behaviour of the society, in general, can be identified through analysis of marriage and divorce statistics. The indicators provided by the statistics of marriage and divorce can be used as a benchmark for achieving short and long term goals to improve social conditions for all members of the Qatari society.

At its simplest, concern is being expressed for statistics illustrating that, inter alia, fewer Qataris are marrying, a fifth of marriages are over before consummation – though there is ambiguity in the manner in which divorce statistics are recorded – the conflicting expectations and behaviour of couples, a significant disparity in education attainment, the rising costs of marriage…

While the collection of data can be of great value, it places considerable onus on how that data is then interrogated, goals, objectives and policies developed, and actions formulated and executed. Of particular concern should be the avoidance of pre-judging what the data might be thought to illustrate, yet this seems to be an area where Western intervention creates misinterpretation and where the publication of random statistics can mislead.

Reading the questions set out in questionnaires and reports dealing with Qataris in employment, it is noticeable that they tend to follow international views relating to work and behaviour suggesting a desire for Qatar to simulate Western countries. The studies appear to have little insight from a Qatari socio-cultural viewpoint. Whether this is because they do not understand the issues, or whether they have chosen to ignore behavioural patterns is not clear, but whatever the reason might be, it must put their conclusions in doubt.

For instance, the latter report states that ‘in most countries, around 8% of the working population have to be executive and senior leaders’ and that, by extension, 120,000 Qataris will be needed to fulfil leadership roles – this figure being 8% of the 1.5 million working population, then noting that there are around 150,000 employable Qataris, reasoning that up to 80% of this number will need to be leaders.

The Government statistics of the last quarter of 2013 state that the working age population of Qataris was around 181,000, while conceding that the active labour force was 96,000 of whom male Qataris accounted for 67% of this figure.

It seems unclear as to where the figure of 150,000 employable Qataris comes from as, in 2009, there were 96,224 Qatari men and women actively employed in the workforce with another 84,387 inactive – the latter being mainly homemakers and students. This appears to show a drop in the numbers of actively employed Qataris between 2009 and 2013.

But there is no reason to believe that Qatar should have a leadership cadre of 8% particularly bearing in mind a number of aspects which suggest it is not like many other countries. Its extraordinarily rapid pace of development, the character of its administrative structures, the regional and international political relationships, educational issues, socio-cultural traditions and religious pressures are some of the areas which seem to have been ignored in suggesting this similarity.

If it is to mimic other countries in the distribution and character of its leadership organisation, then this is likely to come about with the dislocation of its socio-cultural structures with their significant tribal and religious components. There are already worries noted for the difficulties Qataris face with the development of their country, and these may well herald greater concerns for a loss of identity.

The Sheraton hotel, 2008

In physical terms there is little left in Doha that those living there a generation ago would recognise. The Diwan al-Amiri and Sheraton would be two prominent structures with, perhaps suq Waqf – though this has been re-built – but nearly everything else is new. In this reconstruction, the physical and social linkages that families enjoyed have been arbitrarily redistributed with Qataris now a significant minority in their own country. With the best will in the world, it is not easy for them.

Suq Waqf at night

Efforts are now being made to find and encapsulate in a variety of forms, something of the past. The collection of these resources appear to have been formulated both to record and remember the past as well as encourage tourism. A number of institutions have been established and generally tasked with finding and preserving what remains of the heritage within the peninsula. This applies not only to archaeological work such as that which is uncovering the history of the north-west of the peninsula, but also to the recording of socio-cultural aspects of Qatar. In addition to this buildings are being refurbished and, in the case of suq Waqf, reconstructed, a subject which has been noted on other pages of these notes with regard to its design and its operation as a touristic feature.

more to be written…

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The main mosque in Doha

There are strong populist demands for change within the region. Bahrain, for instance, is under pressure from within its strong shi’ite community, and this has been reflected in the closing of the National Assembly, continuing unrest on the streets, the arrest of many considered to be potential trouble to the State and the expulsion of others in defiance of United Nations policies. Recent voting – late 2006 – has seen a radical shi’ite group gaining sixteen of the forty seats in parliament with the concomitant expressions of concern for what might now happen in Bahrain. However, power resides with the ruling family and the appointed Shura Council, and it is these bodies which must agree any legislation promulgated by the elected parliament. While there are strong arguments for drawing the different religious factions together under a national initiative, the history of the region – as well as of the religious groups, of course – does not appear to hold out much hope for this. And this will affect the attitudes of the neighbouring States that have sunni majorities.

The United Arab Emirates, who also have strong commercial links between their shi’ite nationals and Iran, have similar problems. Kuwait has been pressured not only from the same source – shi’ite have generally been assimilated into the Kuwait society in contradistinction to northern Arabs such as Palestinians and Iraqis – but also by issues relating to the role of women and non-Kuwaitis. Since the invasion there is some degree of normalcy returning to Kuwait – to the extent that an evening programme in English has been started, catering for lovesick Kuwaiti youth. It is noteworthy that the station manager told Reuters ‘We forget we’re in Kuwait. We think we’re in the US or Europe. The station has opened the door and taken people outside.’

Qatar appears to be holding its own mainly sunni population together but complaints caused by reduced income and constraints on liquidity are likely to increase the interests of some in moving the country towards fundamentalism, and this traditionally results in attempts to constrain the more visible aspects of non-Islamic religions and women.

Since the assumption of power by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa from his father in 1995 there has been concern expressed by neighbouring States – particularly Saudi Arabia – for his radical policies which are making them increasingly worried. Not only has he stopped media censorship, but he talks to the press, has spoken positively of democratisation, an idea that has traditionally caused problems for both Bahrain and Kuwait, has held municipal elections and appointed a woman to a ministerial role. In addition he has sought better relations with both Iran and Iraq and, even with Israel in regard to an important gas deal.

At the end of the twentieth century there was particular concern being discussed in the majalis of the Gulf that the West would introduce another shi’ite state at the head of the Gulf. Protection below the thirty-second parallel was thought to be a prelude to an attempt to split Iraq into three parts – crudely this would see Kurds who hold the majority in the north, sunni in the centre, and the shi’ite in the south of the country. There is a considerable history of mistrust and worse in the Gulf between sunni and shi’ite and any consideration of the latter being assisted to establish themselves more formally on the Gulf is resented because of the perceived links they have with Iran.

It will take a considerable time for the problems associated with the West’s initiative to depose Sadam Hussein to work themselves out. Some believe the whole area to be now far more unstable than it was and, mirroring the difficulties to be seen in Afghanistan, there will be extensive manoeuvrings as tribal leaders, powerful individuals and those who wish to become more powerful and, particularly, religious leaders struggle to sort out national and religious boundaries, most of them legacies of the West’s involvement in ‘settling’ the area at the beginning of the twentieth century. The extent of demands for the creation of Islamic States should not be underestimated because such States incorporate the power of Islam in its insistence upon a just society based on the Holy Quran.

Fundamentalism – a movement to return to the fundamental values embodied in the Holy Quran – is found throughout the Muslim world and is one of the strongest factors now perceived by the Arabs to affect them. Fundamentalism appears to some in the Arab world not to be a desire to return to the purity of religion as a means of benefiting the society, but as an end in itself. Prominent speakers have equated it with fascism and claim it can only be stopped by the same methods it uses: violence.

It is not my intention to discuss fundamentalism here but, for those who have not thought about it and its effect on the Gulf and Arab world – if not the West – it might be useful to note some of the simplistic and common arguments given for its rise. These perceptions include, but may not be limited to, and in no particular order:

  • the repression of traditional tribal leadership systems and structures,
  • discrimination against traditional life styles,
  • the accumulation of wealth by a limited number of individuals, and
  • the interference by the West with the intent to support Western-inclined leaders and maintain poverty and dependency.

In the area around the Gulf this latter is seen very much as the West interfering solely due to its need for oil and gas.

Fundamentalists see the resolution of these issues as being resolved in the creation of an Islamic state, one where shari’a law governs the state and religious leaders, in their interpretation of shari’a, essentially govern the state.

From time to time fundamentalists make themselves known through their public activities. There have been reports not just of activities being disrupted but of more violent attacks in Saudi Arabia and, even, Qatar.

The home of the Holy Quran and the backbone of the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, continues to be pressured by fundamentalism. In February 1992 the King announced constitutional reforms designed to go some way to warding off criticism over secular excesses. A consultative council of sixty citizens – majlis al shura – will be able to initiate legislation and review foreign and domestic policies. However, it took until August 1993 for the members of the majlis to be named. Prior to this the King generally acted in close co-operation with the ulema, the country’s supreme religious authority. Concern for the zeal of their police, the mutawain, has led to the introduction of new laws giving the individual more rights at the expense of the mutawain. It is likely that the changes in Saudi Arabia will be mirrored both by pressures within the Gulf as well as by similar responses.

Saudi Arabia and other Muslim States are unsure how they should deal with fundamentalism which attacks them at their most weakest point: their alliance with the West. In addition King Abdullah, as King Fahd before him, continues to resist pressures from the West for democratisation. It is apparent that, in stating that his society – and those of the Gulf – are not and can not be based on western-style democratic model he is attempting to resist the arguments not only of the West but of the religious fundamentalists and their requirement of a closer reading and interpretation of the Holy Quran.

The Saudi Arabian royal family continue to have difficulties with their right to rule the people of Saudi Arabia founded as it is in their claim to be the proper leaders of an Islamic society. Difficulties with the delicate balance between the family and the Council of Senior Ulema – the highest religious body – serve to further antagonise the fundamentalists who increasingly attack the government and royal family for profligacy and corruption. More than this there is now serious anxiety in the West for their alliance with the King. There is a concern within Saudi Arabia that the royal family are out of touch with their support and the consequent move towards fundamentalism can be construed as a move towards the strict wahhabi roots of the Kingdom. Perhaps, more importantly, there is considerable concern within and outside Saudi that the public finances are seriously depleted. To a large extent the State depends upon the people for support and, in this regard, the degree to which the State benefits its people is a factor in their continuing support. If this benefit falters or is perceived to be no longer generous, and if this position is seen to be due to a fault in the leadership, then there is likely to be immediate and evident grounds for dissent. Failing the ability of the traditional society to deal with this – as in the past, perhaps by the use of loyal badu troops – there is likely to be dramatic change. Leading intellectual and religious wahhabi have formed a focus for disagreement, and the formation of a Human Rights group and the immediate arrest of its leaders is seen by the West as the most serious demonstration of a lack of clarity of vision for the future of the Kingdom.

Kuwait suffered from the invasion by her neighbour, having her national aspirations for Arab nationalism and Islamic identity thwarted and the conditions for Westernisation seeded. The elections held in Kuwait caused alarm throughout the Gulf as many see the dangers they foresaw now made apparent. The previous twenty-one member Cabinet was replaced by sixteen ministers appointed by the Emir, including three Islamists, and the parliament has the power to force ministers to resign. Bearing in mind the Government were roundly defeated in the elections – Government having thirteen seats in the fifty man parliament – this is likely to exacerbate friction between the Royal Family and the merchant families who are heavily represented in the parliament. It is of note that the Kuwait Islamic Movement has eighteen deputies affiliated to it. More recently women have been voting in, and voted for, in the Kuwait parliament. This has sent tremors not just through Kuwait, but through the Gulf.

Of greater note, the autumn of 2011 saw a dramatic change in the conservative Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Women are to be allowed, not just to stand as candidates in Municipal elections, but also to vote in them though they will be unable to take up their suffrage until 2015. It is an interesting development in the region and follows considerable debate within the country on the rôle of women within the framework of the strict variety of Islam practised there. Three issues have dominated that debate – women not being permitted to drive; their need to be accompanied by a male relative when outside their house, particularly outside the country and permission being needed for them to undergo operations; and their inability to vote. Now they can both vote and stand as candidates, though this in itself may create additional problems by a more articulate and representative majlis al-shura.

Already within the Kingdom there are those who believe the Municipal councils have little power incorporated within them. Only half the seats are open to the male electorate, the other half being government appointed. How the new councils will be structured is not yet understood, but opening the issue of the councils’ effectiveness to a wider electorate may well increase the criticism they face. Commentators believe that women’s suffrage has been forced against the interests of both a number of clerics and members of the ruling family, and in the hope that this will reduce some of the internal tensions within the country, a number of concessions having been made earlier in the year.

The point is that these issues, in varying degrees, are common through the Gulf and changes in the status quoin any country are viewed and aired in the majaalis in their wider and narrower contexts. Emancipation can bring both enlightenment and conflict, particularly at a time when there is thought to be considerable turmoil in the Arab world.

The pressures for change in the Gulf are, from the Western point of view, conservative and appear to require the society to return to a more traditional status. At the same time Western observers note that there is a strong argument that those who direct opinion towards a conservative society, do not themselves have the experience of the West and its beneficial aspects, and are inclined to a prejudiced view of the West and its impact upon the Arabs. With an implicit belief in the quran, of course, there is no need to have experience of the West.

It is imperative to bear in mind at all times that Arabs generally, and Gulf Arabs in particular, are as conscious of their Arabism as they are of their religion, and that this affects their attitudes to everything they do or think about – particularly their view of themselves within the ulema. It is not a question of choice; they have been brought up to follow the directives and traditions of the quran.

Moving a country forward in the Gulf is not easy. Commentators have pointed out that Sheikh Hamad is having to move carefully, particularly as he is at the forefront within the region in seeing through changes that will align it more with the democratic West. Because Qatar is conservative and tribal by nature, the argument is that changes are more likely to succeed when institutions have been introduced and a more liberal political and social environment exists. To this end 2004 saw a law to enable professional societies, a human rights group now exists, women are also now allowed to organise themselves and, as I have noted in number of places, the opportunities for education have dramatically improved for all. As you might expect, there is a rearguard action being fought against what is seen to be liberal or, even, irreligious changes to the status quo. In 1997, a University professor was jailed for three months for opposing the franchise of women and, in 1998 a petition was presented to the Advisory Council complaining about the reforms, particularly those that might see women gaining some dominance over men. The problem of changes also saw a number of bedu tribesmen expelled in 2005. The significance of the latter is that this particular tribe has links throughout the region.

In 1999 Sheikh Hamad presided over the first elections in Qatar’s history for the twenty-nine seats of the people’s Municipal Council. Although a larger number initially registered, two hundred and forty-eight candidates, including six women, eventually stood for the seats. 21,995 voters registered to vote, this being considered relatively low for a number of reasons. None of the women won a seat.

I should point out that there are a number of different, and apparently official, figures that conflict. The figures in these few paragraphs are my best interpretation. It is important to note that the numbers of people who register to vote appear to be significantly higher than those who actually vote, and that the numbers who register to vote are not a large proportion of the Qatari population.

In 2003 the second elections for the Municipal Council saw twenty-five members elected from eighty-eight candidates, and and additional four, including a woman, elected unopposed. ‘Nearly 40% of the total voters of 21,024 exercised their franchise,’ this being down from 55% in 1999.

As is true in most countries, not everybody can vote. The conditions for voting, and for standing in elections, are that a voter must:

  • be Qatari or, if granted Qatari citizenship, this must have been given at least fifteen years previously,
  • he or she must be at least eighteen years old,
  • not have been convicted of a dishonorable crime or a crime of dishonesty, unless he or she has been rehabilitated,
  • should be a resident of the electoral constituency in which he or she will exercise their electoral rights, and
  • should not be employed in the armed forces or police or, I believe, the Ministry of the Interior.

The next election year, 2007, saw the number of eligible Qataris registering to vote rising to 28,153, but only 51% actually voting. There were 116 candidates running for a seat on the Council, of whom three were women. Again, one woman was elected, Shaikha Yusef Hassan Al Jufairi defeating two male opponents and winning 90% of the vote in the Old Airport district. It was she who, in 2003, became the first woman to be elected, unopposed, to the Municipal Council.

This body, together with the Advisory Council – the thirty-five members of which are appointed by Sheikh Hamad on a four-year basis – serve to advise him. The latter body is made up of prominent landowners, farmers and businessmen and, although they have no legislative powers, are influential. These two bodies are, in effect, a formalising of the majlis system, the traditional mechanism for dissemination, discussion, direction and decision-making.

Generally, trends of change illustrate a conservative bias with a number of voters stating that they would vote in line with tribal connections, and preferring men to women. However, the wife of Sheikh Hamad, Sheikha Mosa, enjoys a high profile and has advanced both education and the rights of women in Qatar. While this might not be popular with traditional society it is, nevertheless, an extremely important initiative bearing in mind that Sheikha Mosa is not a member of the Ruling Family by birth.

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Some other issues

While there are a large number of issues that should be understood in considering the population of the country, a specific one to note is the preponderance of non-Qataris in Qatar. Around an eighth of the population is Qatari. A large proportion of these Qataris are young, and even though Qatari women are increasingly seen outside their homes, male Qataris carry out their private and public duties in relative privacy. These are, perhaps, some of the reasons why foreigners believe that the proportion of Qataris to non-Qataris is even lower than it is.

Issues such as this are now relatively freely discussed as the present Ruler and his wife have introduced the beginnings of many democratic principles, doing away with the Ministry of Information, abolishing censorship and introducing Al Jazeera, the television station that has changed the perceptions of many round the world by their broadcasting news and issues that were not previously seen in the West. While these may seem to be positive introductions, they have created unease in some parts of the Arab world, if not elsewhere.

With a significant minority of nationals, expatriates are drawn to Qatar in order to work and receive benefits they would not be able to obtain in their home countries in a reasonable time frame, or at all. Generally they stay in the country only a few years before returning home with their savings. Because of the need to save, expatriates are relatively well-behaved and take no part in the political operation of the country.

However, the changes that are taking place in the peninsula reflect a pattern operating through the Gulf and the Arabian peninsula. Two of the factors to be borne in mind are the large financial resources underlying the different states, together with their uneven distribution. At its simplest, Bahrein, Dubai and Oman have the least of these resources and are not able make provision for their futures in the same ways in which Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia can, particularly with their foreign investments.

The manner in which the wealth of these countries is being disbursed also affects the way in which their societies develop. These states can be described as rentier states, ones where their citizens derive wealth from the largesse of government, not by their own productive efforts. It follows that citizenship is a source of economic benefit. Certainly, effort is required to create personal wealth, but it is facilitated by the state supplying resources. For instance, land is made available to Qataris, together with interest-free loans for development. Education and health care are free. Public sector employment is available with good salaries, pensions and amenable conditions. Above all, there is no personal income tax applied. It is argued that these and other provisions and benefits create a situation where political participation by citizens is diminished and where nationals come to represent a social elite.

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The legal framework in Qatar

As has been described in more detail on the history page, on the 3rd September 1971 Qatar declared itself independent from British protection. Prior to this date the British had administered justice over the non-Muslim population of the peninsula, the Muslim population being subject to Islamic law applied by the shar’ia court. With independence a new court structure was introduced, the ’adliya or Civil court, in effect establishing a dual system of law which differs from the other Gulf States as well as Saudi Arabia.

While Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrein also have dynastic Rulers, they differ from Qatar in that the affairs of non-Muslims are regulated there by courts or committees whose jurisdictions are governed by their respective Rulers and Councils of Ministers. In Qatar, by contrast the ’adliya court is independent, enacting its own legislation, this being supervised but not effected by the Minister of Justice, as in the other States.

Traditionally justice in the peninsula was administered by the heads of the tribes that made up the badu populations that ranged in and out of the peninsula, though with some degree of settlement. This followed a strict code of application based on tradition and precedent known, unofficially, as ‘tribal’ or ‘desert law’.

The nineteenth century saw the developing importance of shar’ia based on the Holy quran for both its sources and rules. The important distinction to note is that there is no difference between civil and religious obligations which are emphasised in preference to any personal rights a person might be thought to enjoy. This development was carried from Saudi Arabia into Qatar with the growing influence of wahhabism and its adherence by the main tribes there. The Ottoman empire had been actively establishing itself in the region for centuries and, during the nineteenth century witnessed a degree of settlement in the peninsula that was buttressed by shar’ia law. Disputes were settled now under the shar’ia, but with the right of appeal to the Ruler. The importance of this was that many of the traditional ‘desert laws’ were now either subsumed within the shar’ia or were outlawed by it.

The treaty with the British of the 3rd November 1916 saw the introduction of British legal institutions governing British and non-Muslim residents of Qatar, while shar’ia continued to be the law governing Muslims. The British legal system had its principles based on Common Law, legal representatives were permitted in court and appeal was to the Privy Court in London.

The structure of the legal system in Qatar

But, as mentioned in the first paragraph, the changes being brought about by the increasing contacts with the West, due to the rapidly expanding development of the peninsula’s oil resources, saw the introduction of ’adliya courts in 1971. These were intended to run in parallel with the shar’ia law and courts which were now finding it increasingly difficult to deal with many of the issues arising from the modernisation of the State. This diagram, illustrating the dual system, has been developed from that given in the article used to write much of this background note.

In order to practise, judges in the shar’ia courts are required to have a degree in shar’ia studies from an Islamic school, usually from Saudi Arabia or the al-Azhar university in Cairo. By contrast, judges in the ’adliya courts must have degrees from the law school of an accredited university and have practised for a prescribed number of years. In this they represent the two different characters of shar’ia and ’adliya: essentially the application of the word of God, and the rules of conduct based on a developed notion of justice, respectively.

The development of legal systems designed to respond to modernisation is argued to be marginalising the shar’ia law and its courts, perhaps even to restricting its role to family law. The most notable ramification of this trend is the increasing separation between religious duties and civil obligations which, according to shar’ia law, are indivisible.

This trend has seen ramifications in two areas which might be thought to create pressures within the country. The first is in the rise in the number of judges, lawyers and trained personnel operating within the ’adliya system. They outnumber those operating in the traditional, shar’ia system, but also operate increasingly through moraes developed from the West which are naturally in conflict with traditional values. They represent the basis for a different character and, perhaps, socio-cultural grouping from their counterparts brought up and working in the traditional, shar’ia systems.

The second area is that related to Islamic fundamentalism. As the judges of the shar’ia court are government appointees it is considered that they are more likely to support the conservative establishment while being more resistant to the character and ramifications of modern law. By extension it can be argued that modern legal systems are inimical to fundamentalism and that this will be witnessed, in their thinking and behaviour, by those most distanced by modern development, the badu and those households in the least urban settlements.

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Family relationships

With the increase in wealth, the purchase of land by the Government to benefit the Qataris, and their re-housing in estates, the close physical links between family members have become stretched. Upward mobility, education and the dramatic changes of the last twenty years have resulted in life styles that have stressed the strong, traditional family links, creating a range of problems, many of a character than have not been previously experienced and some that are not widely recognised. Material benefit is not a problem in itself, but the manner in which it is handled in a Muslim society can be problematic.

The hands of a young woman with jewelled rings and dyed with henna

Perhaps education is the area in which this is readily seen. It is not at all suggested that education, discussed below is wrong, but it is the factor which may have created the most dramatic change. Many men now have work outside the house and children are schooled from an early age through tertiary education, both boys and girls. The hours of work and education do not coincide, creating organisational difficulties within households and, with children receiving an education which was not available for many of their parents, it is not surprising that there are the possibilities for conflict and alienation within families. This is reinforced by the opportunities for consumption, particularly those associated with recreation outside the house. However, Islam is a strong binding force and, although many of the pressures run against its general and specific premises, the socio-cultural history of the State is considered by Qataris to be strong enough to resist the worst excesses of change.

One of the most serious causes of alienation is likely to be the movement of families away from the traditional extended pattern towards nuclear families. As young men and women move through higher education and marry, the State will provide them with land and a house, a serious inducement to establishing a nuclear family compared with continuing to live with parents and relations within the traditional, extended family pattern on a single or adjacent residential sites.

But this is not always the case. It is possible that nuclear and extended families might live together, either the new, nuclear family living within the nuclear family or, with the advantage of new housing, the extended family living with the nuclear family.

The nuclear family is characterised by increased economic or financial independence and, as such, has a different relationship with those in the extended family. The latter, with its integration of three or even four generations has inbuilt within it a series of values that are passed on and shared with regard to education, behaviour, religion and society. The introduction of a nuclear family with its altered values tends to break the internal ties of the extended family’s values introducing altered behavioural patterns and values with their potential for conflict.

Part of this is caused by the shifting of economic responsibility from a collective to one more dependent on the new economic circumstances of the nuclear parents, particularly if both are earning. There is also evidence in related studies that there may be an effort to inhibit contact between the oldest and youngest members of the family in order to prevent what is perceived to be restrictive or old-fashioned ideas and concepts being passed on – one of the strengths of the extended family.

A complicating factor, and one I have written about in different places, is the influence of servants on children. Increased wealth, lifestyle choice and father and wife working or studying outside the house has enabled or required servants to be brought into the household. This introduces a novel relationship, that between servants and children. It is now common for children to spend more time with servants than with their parents, an insidious influence in the development of traditional familial and social values.

There are a number of factors that govern this. The first is that servants invariably come from abroad, bringing with them their own behavioural patterns, language and a religion which is not always Islam. Their lingua francais often English, and of a standard that is heavily accented and grammatically unsound, a characteristic that leaves children with the advantage of contact with a foreign language at an early age, but the disadvantage of learning it to a poor standard, one that is difficult to change in later life. Their closeness to the children in their charge is reinforced by a natural desire to make themselves indispensable, a behaviour that leads them into spoiling the children in their charge and one that the children learn to manipulate to their own advantage. The introduction of servants and the resulting altered relationship between parents and their children, is a dramatic break with tradition that theoretically weakens the bonds between family members as well as enabling the children of the family to enjoy a more Western lifestyle.

The influence of the differing family relationships is reinforced by the access to Western media and moraes through the media of television, film, music, advertising, travel and the other attractions brought about by wealth and education.

more to be written…

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Role of women

Detail from a rug illustrating the work of Omar Khayyam

The role of women in Islam is being continually discussed and debated within the society, much as it is in the West where, with the increasing numbers and influence of Muslims, the issues relating to Muslim women’s role in both Islam and Western societies form an increasingly open debate. Incidentally, it is interesting to note that, in the West, conversion to Islam is seen by women as being a means of redefining sexuality and enhancing their position within society. I should also add that most debate and criticism in the West is premised on a Western education and received standards that have neither understanding nor tolerance of Islam. While universal suffrage might be a goal for many, the speed at which it is brought about and the damage to established socio-religious beliefs cause significant distress to many.

In the Middle East the consensus of opinion seems to favour the more conservative interpretations of the woman’s role in placing her at the focus of the household, in the pivotal role of wife and mother. This is considered in no way to demean her worth but specifically gives her the critical duty of raising the children and safeguarding the family. In recent years the increasing influences of the West have caused women to look more critically at their position in society and at the influences that have created this situation. Some critics are able to see the root cause of the uncertainties and concerns of Muslim women as specifically emanating from the post-Christian West where women’s changing role is perceived to undermine her focal position in the family. Because of this, and as well as movements within the Islamic society itself, there are a number of countries within which a more public role for women has been actively pursued.

Women in the Islamic world occupy differing positions of achievement in equality with men, much as they do elsewhere but, in general, the West perceives arab women to be in a state of eternal submission. There has been a constant struggle within the various Islamic States to achieve greater parity and, in some cases there has been perceived a real, if slight, improvement in their lot. At the end of the United Nations’ ‘Decade of Women’ in 1985 there was a general feeling that there had been a small amount of progress, but a number of delegates felt that there had, in fact, been regression. Some of the more progressive Islamic States have been able to legislate for, and achieve modest changes in outlook. Egypt, under Nasser, introduced real changes in the early sixties. Challenges from the right wing clergy were fought off but succeeded under Sadat, though today, women in Egypt still enjoy a freedom that is not found in many other States, including the Gulf.

The areas that are considered to be pivotal in determining the role of women in society have been focused on three issues: the

  • veiling of the face;
  • the public social role of women and their participation in social activities; and the
  • activities and social roles of women in the life of Muhammad.

The reasons for focusing on these three issues are essentially that the views of the different schools of thought tend to be reflected in these issues.

Feminist groups have tried to make an impact within a number of States but have really only been successful in struggles where they carried out a supporting role in liberation movements and where, once nationalistic governments were established, their support was not recognised in any real form. Instead feminist groups tend to have been absorbed by various fundamentalist movements and their general thrust dissipated. In the Gulf it was anticipated by many that the massive influx of wealth would enable women to progress at the same time that the States developed their infrastructures. What in fact happened was that a market for Western consumer products was identified and the media – led by Egypt – targeted the Gulf for articles and products that reinforced the role of women as the providers of the home, an idea that brought together issues such as children, food, religious instruction and the upwardly mobile good life. These media have not dealt with issues such as feminism, nor asked unsettling questions about women and their place in the general scheme of things and, apart from a few well-quoted exceptions, women have progressed little towards the Western view of a more equitable partnership with men in the Gulf.

Nevertheless, there has been change and, with increasing education and access to the West both through the media and through travel, it is only the more fundamentalist policies that may be holding back the progress that women’s groups are demanding in the northern Arab States and which, if they were to take hold, would support change in the Gulf. Conflicting with this view it seems that, provided that the men and women of the Gulf can lead a life of increasing comfort, and provided that the opportunities for women to take a more equal role continue to be limited, then it is unlikely that women will fight to obtain the formal settings and necessary legislation they will need to be able to obtain this equality.

Perversely, the position that women have within their households, positions enhanced by the authority of the Holy Quran, gives them considerable strength. It places them where they are able to alter socio-cultural progress by the manner in which they bring up their families, choose wives for their sons, husbands for their daughters and control – to the extent to which they are individually able to do so – their husbands. All this is supported by the increasing education of women with the clear intent of improving their opportunities and bringing more of them into the workforce.

However, they face in fundamentalism, a strong bar to progress. It appears to be a characteristic of women’s position in Muslim society that it is mirrored by the security of Islam. When Islam is secure, then women can be secure and confident within it; when it is threatened, then so are they. It certainly appears to be a characteristic of fundamentalism that one of the external aspects of the society, the appearance of women, is one of the first aspects to be constrained by decree, often in ways that seem harsh to the Western world. Certainly women have attained a different standing in society in different States, but this appears to be threatened when traditional aspects of Islam become an element of religio-political pressure in the society. It is argued that the control of women is a symbol of the power of men and their honour.

A characteristic of this rise is that it is funding, to a large extent, from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait that is responsible for the development of traditionalism or fundamentalism, the sadder aspect of this development being that few Islamic States have given women their full rights, and both Islamic law and the message of Islam are being violated.

Finally it is worth noting that there is not likely to be overall acceptance of an increased women’s role in society other than may be possible in one or two Islamic States. These are unlikely to include any Gulf States though, with the pressures building up since the Gulf War and Iraq intercession within both the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia, this may well change. Qatar, particularly, under the guidance of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, seems intent on altering attitudes.

Ibn Khaldun (732/1332-808/1406), an intellectual whose teachings are said to be as valid today as they were in his time, said in his Muqaddima, an early Muslim view of a universal history, that

‘Allah does not give orders directly to a person unless he knows the person is capable of carrying them out. Most religious laws apply to women just as they apply to men. Nevertheless, the message is not directly addressed to them; one resorts to analogy in their case, because they have no power and are under the control of men.’

That women appear to have no power goes to the heart of the Islamic principle that women do not have the same rights as men. In discussing the conditions necessary for being a caliph – the authority who obeys shari’a, divine law – Ibn Khaldun set out four principles that govern the requirements for the role:

  • knowledge,
  • equity,
  • competence, and
  • general fitness.

It is particularly in the fulfilling of the third of these that Ibn Khaldun considered that no divine mission could be ascribed to women. In consequence it is only in the fields of intellectual attainment and politics that women have been able to make any impact on an increased role for themselves in an Islamic society. It is unlikely that those who control religious law will be too concerned by intellectual developments – normally the province of individuals in universities – but they are likely to worry about political, popularist initiatives. There is considerable room for debate.

bay’ah is the solemn commitment Muslims make to obey, and it can be argued that it conflicts with universal suffrage. It follows that a Muslim should not participate in elections as, firstly, bay’ah is final and not, like elections, renewable at regular intervals. Secondly, bay’ah is the priviledge of notables; those who have a part in decision making and not the ’ummah – the common people. Conversely, it can also be argued that the fairest way of making bay’ah is for it to be operated through a full and free election.

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Health care in Qatar – courtesy of the Qatar Embassy in Washington site

The subject of health in Qatar is one that could be located on many of these pages, but I have placed it here as it is undoubtedly one of the pressures that must be faced by the population of the peninsula generally, and Qataris in particular. There are health problems to be found in all societies, but those developing in societies that have grown quickly, are subjected to significant internal and external socio-cultural pressures, and where there is high personal income, are difficult to approach and counter with effective treatments.

Drugs and sexually transmitted diseases are common problems for which policing and treatment are available for the former, and identification and treatment for the latter; but it is obesity, so common in many parts of the world that is having a dramatic effect on those living in Qatar, particularly upon Qataris.

The causes of the problem are relatively easy to identify, and relate to a number of factors, among them being the

  • considerable wealth of Qataris,
  • commercial pressures to change life styles,
  • availability of fast foods,
  • poor dietary education,
  • more complex family timetables,
  • the prevalence of expatriate maids and carers,
  • competing requirements for time which encourages poor habits, and
  • concomitant stress.

One of the benefits of increased economic activity in Qatar has been the greater levels of disposable income enjoyed by Qataris. This has been matched by a variety of socio-cultural and economic pressures that have encouraged local habits to change. A generation ago the local diet was relatively simple and relied to a great extent upon the consumption of rice, fish and dates, particularly by those of the population of badu stock. Meat, because of its value was rarely eaten, except when served to guests and dignitaries.

Nowadays, purchasing power enables locals to buy a wide range of foods both to be cooked in the house as well as being bought from fast food outlets and restaurants for consumption there, in the house or on the move. While this has brought a considerable amount of meats and sugars into the diets that were not there previously, it is a diet that tends to omit fruit and, particularly, vegetables.

Families find themselves more busy, needing to allocate time for schooling and work as well as for the greater range of passive and active recreations available to them and their friends. This requires them to arrange their days around timetables that vary considerably, reducing the ability of families to meet and eat together and encouraging snack eating.

Poor dietary education may be one of the factors relating to healthy eating, but even where there is education, many find the ability to work to a steady programme hard to manage. Traditionally meals tend to be larger than is needed for immediate consumption and, with the pressures created by work and relationships, there is a tendency to crave the immediate apparent benefits of fats and sugars.

In addition to this, the ability to afford expatriate labour has meant that at lot of families employ women from the Indian sub-continent and the Philippines to act as maids and carers for their children. These women rarely have dietary education themselves and may even be unfamiliar with the new cultures in which they now find themselves. This, combined with poor language skills and a desire to keep the children in their care happy and, by extension, their parents, suggests that there is a tendency to cater for children’s whims rather than insist on a considered diet. It is notable that many of the children under ten seen around the shopping malls tend to be in the care of expatriate nannies.

The result of all this is that obesity has increased dramatically in Qatar. A 1989 study concluded that 63.7% of adult females of the age eighteen and above were obese, that is they had a Body Mass Index equal to or over twenty-five, and that percentage is higher than any of the other countries in the Gulf states. While it may be thought that obesity is due to genetic disorders such as Cushing’s syndrome and hypothyroidism, there is a low incidence of these in the region, thus supporting the dietary argument.

An aggravating factor is likely to be the sedentary lifestyles that are rapidly being adopted. Whereas there was considerable hard work and pedestrian movement, modern work and patterns of behaviour around the house have created more sitting and less physical activity. Two other factors are considered important. Firstly, the clothes worn by women tends to mask their own view of their shape, making monitoring difficult and, secondly, not many women actively exercise. A study in 1994 discovered that 56.5% of the women in Qatar did not exercise, 27.5% exercised infrequently, and only 16.5% exercised regularly, but that the majority of these were not Qatari women.

With increasing obesity has come a range of medical problems such as serious chronic diseases including diabetes mellitus and cardiovascular diseases. There is also an increase in dental problems created by the intake of sweet food and drink.

What is particularly surprising is that obesity has been found to be more prevalent in highly educated females at 60.5%, than in those with low education levels. It is suggested that this is likely to be because the former have little time to prepare food and that their work patterns and resulting stress levels encourage them to eat foods high in fats and sugars in order to provide them with the energy they require.

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A corner of the Qatar National Museum

Elsewhere in these pages there are notes relating to the loss of buildings and street patterns to the new developments required to bring higher standards for those living in the peninsula. With their loss there has been not only the disappearance of the traditional urban environment but the concomitant socio-cultural living patterns which created them. Now, living in completely changed physical, environmental and socio-cultural patterns, many feel a palpable sense of loss for the traditions and history which that environment represented. Those too young to know those times also feel a sense of historical deprivation when they compare their country with those they visit abroad.

In order to deal with this there have been a number of initiatives designed to encapsulate something of the past. The first of these was the creation of the Qatar National Museum based on the old palace of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim at feriq al-Salata. Other initiatives have been started, both public and private, relating to music, dance, falconry, boat-building, family life, play and pearling. While this has not yet been fully integrated, the Qatar Museums Authority has an interest in coordinating and directing much of it.

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Population balance

Work force resting on a Friday

The lack of a permanent home for expatriates has given each of the expatriate national groups a high degree of nervousness about their several futures, and encourages greed over commitment. Although it has been intended that Qataris will continue to increase as a proportion of the overall population this is not working out in practice. There is likely to be a continuing need to import labourers as well as some middle management for necessary work, and it will be necessary for the State to deal with the issues of dependency this produces both personally and institutionally. In addition there is the continuing need to find responsible roles in the world – Arab, Muslim and international – as well assist in settling the problems relating to Palestinians within the overall Arab and Muslim world.

So, on the one hand there is a national population that has political and administration systems and Western moraes in conflict with its traditional Islamic values and, on the other hand, a massive transient population upon whom Qataris are increasingly dependent and who, by their nature are a highly visible reminder of the way in which Qatar operates.

The same problem exists, to a greater extent, in Dubai where it is becoming increasingly criticised from both within and outside the country. The counter argument that is made there is that this is a very valuable resource, enabling on a micro-economic scale, benefits to be made to the countries from which the expatriates come.

There is more written about these and related issues on the population page.

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Detail of a newspaper front cover

Arabic is not an easy language to learn or master, particularly for a European as its script and grammatical structure are radically different from European language forms and, most importantly, it is intrinsically bound up with the Holy Quran. Many of the foreigners who come to Qatar do not speak Arabic and, because of this, English has developed as a second common language due to its prevalence among the nationalities who come to the country.

To some extent this has stopped foreigners learning Arabic although many learn enough as is necessary for their work or for living in Qatar. It is understandable that the Arabic language they learn to speak is simpler than Gulf Arabic, and that the Qataris speak a simplified version of Gulf Arabic to those foreigners who converse with them. Despite this it is possible to carry out work in Qatar without having to know Arabic, particularly in technical areas where English generally is the medium of communication because of the extent to which technical terms are used.

But there is the beginning of resentment against those who do not know or, particularly, do not wish to learn the language. Qataris are right to feel that foreigners should make an attempt to speak their language and that business should generally be carried out in the medium of Arabic, but the reasons given by critics are interesting in that they generally include the argument that it will encourage foreigners to mix with Qatari society. Here there is a distinct contradiction between a stated desire to soften the barriers between national and expatriate societies, and the State’s general policies – such as short term residency, no ownership of land by foreigners, housing and rental policies and, of course, the cultural and religious backgrounds – that do little to assist this.

There is also the conflict I have heard stated between admiration for those with a good command of Arabic and the concern that much may be learned by such foreigners of the private operation of society.

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University entrance gate building

It is evident that education is going to be a major area of focus for the State. The rapid development which has been embarked upon is drawing attention to Qatar’s changing and developing relationships in the Gulf, the Arab region and the wider world. This is creating pressures on both the nationals and expatriates living within it as well as those having interests there. The wider Arab world will also be affected by educational development in Qatar, directly and indirectly.

Sheikha Mosa, the mother of the Ruler, has been influential in bringing forward not only the education of women but the profile of education within the Gulf, and this in itself is having an effect on the traditional socio-cultural moraes of the society. In particular, the introduction of Western educational establishments and their academic staff and students will have a profound effect on the process, regardless of the pedagogical and educational processes involved. While there is an irony in introducing foreign universities and their staff to develop and improve national educational performance, it is also the physical introduction of these institutions and staff which is likely to have effects that will be difficult to control both within the country as well as in the wider Arab region, particularly the poorer Arab States.

The educational system is directed by the Supreme Education Council. The system employs a large number of Arabs from other countries, giving free education to all who wish. For those who want it there is also adult education. The education of the two sexes is strictly segregated at all levels of schooling, and all education is free to nationals, including the children of expatriates who work in the public sector.

Primary schooling is broken into two stages:

  • preparatory – 6 years, and
  • elementary – 3 years;

This is followed by:

  • secondary – 3 years.

The six years preparatory schooling is compulsory.

There are also a range of facilities dealing with special subjects. This includes:

  • private education,
  • literacy and adult education,
  • special needs,
  • scientific secondary schools,
  • a language institute, and a
  • department of training and vocational development.

In addition there are educational facilities for expatriates at a range of:

  • private schools at both primary and secondary levels, and
  • a number of kindergartens for both national and expatriate children.

The Supreme Education Council directs three institutes designed to carry forward education initiatives in the State:

  • the Education Institute which oversees and supports independent schools,
  • the Evaluation Institute that monitors and evaluates both schools and students, and the
  • Higher Education Institute which advises students on higher education both in Qatar and abroad, and administers grants and scholarships.

At tertiary level there is some technical training available, but the emphasis is on taking students through a university education. In the early seventies, and with the rapidly increasing oil prices, the State began to investigate the possibility of establishing a University. There were arguments that this might be better dealt with

  • by training the students at existing Universities elsewhere as this would be more cost effective for the relatively small numbers of students requiring it;
  • it would give Qatari students the ability to learn at well established Colleges selected throughout the world for their ability to match teaching to need; and
  • that Qatar should concentrate on technological education that was obviously more needed by the evolving requirements of the State.

Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development was established in 1996 and has grown to encompass a number of facilities for students from the age of three upwards. Its aim is to benefit and and develop the state through initiatives in education, science and research. Under its aegis Education City has been established to the west of Doha comprising a number of foreign branch university campuses, listed below. The intent is to provide an integrated educational environment to encourage synergy and interaction between existing educational and recreational facilities on the site and those envisaged within the new academic and medical areas of the University.

Perhaps more importantly, there is a significant attempt to broaden the base upon which education in the peninsula has been established. In this Qatar has established links with a number of external universities. These now number some eighty educational, research, science and community development organisations.

The reason behind the establishing of Education City is interesting and illustrates the thinking driving much of the initiatives under way in the peninsula. There is an understanding that change is rapid and that, for Qataris to benefit both within the peninsula as well as abroad, there must be a cross-fertilisation of ideas. The establishing of foreign campuses on the Education City site anticipates the benefits this might bring to their students, benefits that are reinforced by the student population being relatively small by international standards. The campuses now comprise:

  • Texas A & M – TAMUQ,
  • Virginia Commonwealth – VCUQ
  • Georgetown – SFS-Qatar,
  • Carnegie Mellon – CMU-Q
  • Weill Cornell Medical College – WCMC-Q,
  • Northwestern University in Qatar – NU-Q,
  • CHN – now known as Stenden after its merger with Drenthe University,
  • École des Hautes Études Commerciales de Paris – HEC Paris, and
  • University College London.

All of the above are from the United States except Stenden which is from the Netherlands, HEC, the French business school, and UCL from the United Kingdom which will focus on conservation, museum studies and archaeology.

In addition to the above there is also a Qatar University based in Education City:

  • Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies – QFIS,

as well as three educational centres based in Education City:

  • Qatar Academy, the
  • Learning Centre, and the
  • Academic Bridge Programme.

In addition to the above educational campuses, there are a number of other centres based in Education City. Three of them are based on research and industry:

  • Rand-Qatar Policy Institute – RQPI,
  • Qatar Science and Technology Park – QSTP, and the
  • Qatar National Research Fund – QNRF,

and there are a number of other organisations covering a wide variety of interests.

There is a national initiative to create a centre for learning that will have an international reputation, drawing in educators from abroad while exporting students capable of using the knowledge they gain both in the Middle East and abroad to best advantage.

More importantly, it is realised that education generally, and higher education in particular, is moving towards producing students who are more mobile than in the past, and who are likely to have to continue learning throughout their working lives.

Flowing from this is the realisation that the links between economic development and international higher education must emphasise the collaboration needed in regional and global terms. There are many ramifications to this which are outside the scope of this note, but one worth mentioning is the operational relationships between other countries and Qatar, not all of which have yet been translated into successfully working campuses.

The diversity which this suggests has much to do with the establishing of Education City and its present direction. These are early days and it will be understood that the early years will witness continuing change as the operations develop.

There is a considerable initiative being made on the education of nationals in Qatar. In the event most Gulf States established their own universities and, in this, Qatar was no exception establishing the university in 1985. Qatar opened a College of technology at Qatar University initially catering for between 150-200 students of both sexes.

Most students achieve passes, and at the 1989 graduation ceremony of Qatar University, 269 male students graduated compared with 665 female students – a proportion of approximately two to five. A similar proportion were graduated at the 1990 graduation ceremony. By the end of 1989 Qatar graduated, in the twelve years of its university’s establishment, 6,082 students of whom about five thousand were Qataris. Most men graduate as engineers of some form or other, and it is within the specialisations of scientific research and technological development that students are encouraged to attend university. It was only in 1989 that the first graduates in Economics and Administration appeared.

A much smaller number of students are permitted to go abroad to study – for the Academic Year 1987-88 this was reported at 916 students in nineteen Arab and other foreign countries compared with the 5,621 at Qatar University for the same period. These students are following specialisations that are not available to them at Qatar University, but they must also show unusual promise as funding is given them, and monitoring and ratification of their achievements must be effected through the Ministry of Education. These students tend to comprise a higher echelon of university graduates both by virtue of their initial selection as well as by the various effects upon them of their Western education. In this lies one of the causative factors of the social division that has developed, particularly since the increase of the oil prices in the mid-seventies.

Since writing the foregoing, there has been an opportunity to look at statistics taken from the 2007 Annual Abstract of the Qatar Statistics Authority website, a resource which contains a significant amount of information useful to those with an interest in education and other areas relating to planning in its wider sense. The following tables relate to education.

Male and female students at Qatar University – 2001/2 to 2007/8

Academic year





















































Foundation programme 159 118 296 254 98 137 404 618 646 1,240 513 1,281 699 1,906
Education 176 1,803 122 1,183 93 825 99 635 76 464 89 413 106 413
Arts and science 412 2,135 611 2,795 348 2,611 1,025 3,675 596 2,677 203 2,255 293 2,374
Shari’a 136 418 403 725 180 540 654 881 153 328 126 364 158 403
Engineering 281 0 261 65 327 166 358 192 452 425 401 466 467 489
Admin. & Econ. 327 892 423 666 225 648 529 608 319 410 186 412 242 595
Law 205 235 149 102 92 141
Pharmacology 0 23
Technology 161 319 117 211 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Parallel teaching 0 0 0 0 842 802 476 623 0 0
Non Specialized 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 4 1 4 0 0 0 0
Courses study 0 0 0 0 0 0 12 4 15 8 9 20 6 16
Postgraduate studies 0 0 10 3 17 8 37 24 41 39 46 50 47 59
Total for the year 1,652 5,685 2,243 5,902 2,130 5,737 3,119 6,641 2,504 5,830 2,198 5,986 2,110 6,419
Percentage of total 22.52 77.48 27.54 72.46 27.08 72.92 31.96 68.04 30.05 69.95 26.86 73.14 24.74 75.26
Total male and female students   7,337   8,145   7,867   9,760   8,334   8,184   8,529

The most significant figure to notice here is the percentage of female students in tertiary education, and which varies over this period between 70% and 77%. The gender gap, both in enrolment and attainment, has been noted as an extremely serious issue relating to all the Gulf States, and one that must be addressed by the State of Qatar. Not only does it have ramifications for the workplace, but it is a socio-cultural issue as is discussed elsewhere.

Qatari nationals are a minority of the population and their net growth rates are less than foreigners within the country. In order to service the infrastructural and economic boom, it is necessary to import much of the workforce. However, the State wishes to maximize or at least optimize the proportion of nationals in the workforce and, to take advantage of the range and character of opportunities available, it is essential that the workforce – particularly the nationals – are both well-educated and skilled.

Of course, not all students at Qatar University are nationals, though they are certainly the greater proportion, comprising approximately 55% and 72%, males and females respectively of the total. The latter is an interesting figure as although it reflects the national characteristic of there being more Qatari women than men being in tertiary education, it might also be thought that less women than men will be likely to travel to Qatar for their education, particularly if they are Muslims. Yet inspection of the table shows this not to be the case, only Mauretania has more men than women being educated at tertiary level in Qatar. So it is likely that many of the foreign nationals being educated in Qatar are the children of parents working in the country. Unfortunately I have not been able to find the figures which might test this theory.

Qatar university students by sex and nationality for the academic year 2007/08









Qatar 1,164 4,599 5,763
Bahrein 22 85 107
Oman 52 153 205
Saudi Arabia 49 113 162
Kuwait 5 11 16
United Arab Emirates 2 39 41
Iraq 17 69 86
Palestine 158 293 451
Jordan 131 241 372
Yemen 57 166 223
Syria 43 66 109
Lebanon 5 21 26
Egypt 77 96 173
Sudan 33 78 111
Somalia 11 19 30
Morocco 0 8 8
Tunisia 7 17 24
Mauretania 24 7 31
Algeria 11 28 39
Other countries 242 310 552





Total 2,110 6,419 8,529





Percentage of Qataris to total students 55.17% 71.65% 67.57%

As might be expected, not only are there more Qatari female students than male at university, they also represent a higher percentage of graduates. Set out below are the graduates for the academic year 2006/07.

University of Qatar graduates by nationality, sex and academic degree for the academic year 2006/07

Nationality and sex











Academic degree














BA in Education 10 67 6 4 16 71
BA in Arts and Science 74 433 27 116 101 549
BA in Shari’a and Islamic studies 9 44 6 2 15 46
BSc in Engineering 30 58 52 23 82 81
BSc in Admin. & Econcomics 73 86 30 12 103 98
BSc in Law 65 35 7 12 72 47
Other certificates
Primary Education Diploma 0 2 0 7 0 9
Master in Business Management 5 6 2 1 7 7
Early Childhood Diploma 0 10 0 3 0 13
Special Education Diploma 9 9 3 6 12 15
Total 275 750 133 186 408 936
Total male and female graduates   1,025   319   1,344

From this table you can see that the University graduates a far larger proportion of women than men – 80% of the female graduates, and 67% of the male graduates, were Qatari, while 73% of the Qatari graduates were female. This is likely to cause social difficulties in the long term. It is apparent that already there are incipient social problems in two specific areas.

At present it is understood that some women use the University to extend their life outside the home. Following graduation, if they are permitted to work, they will do so mainly in the Ministries of Health and Education – Qatari women, by social custom, can not work in the private sector, and their training restricts their opportunities to many areas due to the present limits of the secondary and tertiary education system. This appears to produce two difficulties:

  • a significant number of these graduates wish to be employed in areas other than those permitted them and,
  • increasingly, Qatari women graduates are vying with expatriate graduates for positions within the Ministries.

This in itself is a cause of some friction within the female side of the society. In addition the available positions are rapidly diminishing and placement can then only be made by the establishment of more posts at the levels at which graduates are created within the rules of the Government; essentially middle-management. Here there is a feeling that many of the posts are not absolutely essential, and that the Government is encouraging a centre-weighted structure that will be ill-equipped to face the present and future needs of the society.

The second area in which there are incipient social problems is in the relationship between male and female graduates. It is often said – and not just in the Gulf, but in the West too – that women graduates are ‘brighter’ than the men, and this appears to be felt quite deeply by men. So much so that there has been resistance to wives being found for men where they might cause difficulties by virtue of their

  • better education and its implied superior intelligence,
  • the possibility that they might be inclined to defer having children,
  • their wishing to satisfy their improved status by taking and holding a responsible job, and
  • the possibility that their improved status might demonstrate itself in a wife more likely to be socially and economically difficult to control.

There may something in this feeling. Already staff at the University are experiencing difficulties when dealing with the perceptions to study of their female students. Partly this arises because of the way in which courses have been designed, and partly because of the way the female students perceive they should carry out course work. For instance, there have been students who will either not carry out some of their home economics practical work because they would never do that kind of work at home, and there are others who will have their servants do the work for them for the same reason. There are also servants who will not permit their mistress to do the work, insisting on doing it themselves – though there is obviously significant self-interest in this. It is difficult to be critical, however, because the courses can be some way removed from the society and its practical way of going about its business. Having said that, times are changing and more suitable courses being developed.

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Western university campus impacts

The introduction of Western university campuses to Qatar have had, and are likely to continue to have, a profound effect on the country in many ways. The effects are impossible to foresee and, in this respect, might be considered to be a brave experiment as the Gulf, in common with much of the region, is experiencing continuing change in many other areas of development.

Criticisms of the introduction of Western universities have become commonplace in the region and these have been conflated with the continuing discussions surrounding the rationales and futures of the university system both in the Gulf as well as in their original countries.

University structures are responding to financial and other pressures in ways that are considered to affect, among many other things, academic freedom, the ability to access tertiary education, the tenure system and the access to, ownership and use of, information. This has resulted in a more corporate structure for many universities and, for those with international links, a different outlook that must additionally respond to the character and demands of the countries in which they operate their campuses.

There is a danger in this. The transnational and corporate structures of universities make their impacts not only upon the character of traditional universities and the education they provide, but also on the foreign countries and their societies within which they increasingly operate. It is evident that in many ways the legal, economic, cultural and political frameworks differ in the Gulf states from those of Western democracies. So it is not surprising that issues relating to these aspects are being reassessed and reconfigured.

One of these issues now reflected in the pressures associated with the introduction of Western educational structures is the diminishing of resources available for the humanities.

Increasingly students entering tertiary education are opting for studies which, at the end of their study, will guarantee, or at least prepare them for immediate entry, into a profession that will give them an immediate income as well as a career path. The humanities can not always do this and the effect is to diminish the productivity of both staff and students in terms of their research and course work, which in turn has an effect on how both students and staff are perceived and, eventually, rewarded. As might be anticipated, this has the effect for universities to reconsider the extent of resources given to the humanities.

The effect of this is for universities to question the manner in which they see themselves providing tertiary education. If it is to prepare their nationals to participate in the democracy of citizenship, then there is a significant problem if humanities courses are diminished by a need to provide for immediate economic benefit by its students.

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Education and the home

But the problems affecting academic freedom are having an effect not only in the classrooms, hallways, dormitories and social spaces of the university, but also in the students’ homes. Nor is this confined to the students. As individuals within the society, the changes are being marked in the homes as well as well as supplying a constant source of discussion in fora such as television and the press as well as the majlis.

In this there is a source for conflict where Gulf states are seen to restrict a number of rights commonly found in Western democracies. One such area relates to gender separation, though this is not a problem with Qatar University which specifically keeps men and women apart and has done since its inception. In the new universities there is increasing cross-gender participation and this is having an effect on those passing through the system and moving into the workplace.

There is also thought to be a diluting of the quality of education both through language difficulties as well as the limiting of academic freedoms. While the language problems are evident, particularly with courses given in English, the limits to which academic endeavours may be pursued are notional and likely to differ with each student and their understanding of cultural and legal constraints. It is quite probable that the Western academics do not have a complete understanding of this conceptual framework and of how it will constrain and direct study and the production of papers. In this there is the possibility for the dilution of the quality of education and the limiting of academic freedom.

There are financial benefits to universities operating in the Gulf, both in the Gulf as well as at home. This is one of the reasons universities are attempting to pursue donors and benefactors outside the restrictions of their own countries.

But there are also significant differences in the way in which Gulf and foreign students are funded. This applies to those studying in Qatar, but there are additional problems when foreign students are resident in the United States as part of their course work. In Qatar there is resistance to the integration of foreign residents with a degree of resentment at paying for them.

This is also felt as a response to the American requirement to transplant American traditions such as those of the University of Texas into Qatar where they are thought at best to be irrelevant. The standardised American testing systems are also considered problematic, and it is notable that the heavy testing of students in the States is now being questioned there.

more to be written…

Female students are very much under inspection, not only by staff, but by their peers. Women students represent their families outside the confines of their homes and their dress and behaviour are daily subject to intense scrutiny from other students. In addition they are also subject to the inspection of mothers seeking a wife for their sons, and the University has become a recognised place to view and select. In primary, preparatory and secondary education, where there are 62,000 students in 192 schools, there are said to be a number of problems that create a situation in which students are not given an education of similar quality to that which might be obtained in the West, and that does not prepare the student for his role in the society. A number of factors combine to bring this about:

  • the system of education is one imported from abroad, essentially Egyptian in character, rather than being tailored for the social outlook of Qatari students;
  • the learning of an extremely large amount of information is required to be assimilated by the student;
  • methodology is not a prime consideration of the learning method nor is there any emphasis on lateral thinking;
  • there is little time devoted to social issues nor immediate history;
  • the sizes of classes are large;
  • the physical state of many of the schools is poor; and
  • there appear to be difficulties in keeping order in schools.

Having said that, it is true that everybody in Qatar who wishes can now obtain an education, and that the literacy rate has risen dramatically. But despite this, there has been criticism within the Arabic world of the shortcomings of their education compared with that in the West and Far East particularly. Although it is unfair to make comments that are derived from the whole of the Arab world, they are included here as there is something to learn from them.

But there is a more serious issue at the heart of the problem dealing with formal education, that is informal education, particularly with regard to reading. A study has reported that children in Qatar read a negligible amount of books, quoting six minutes or a quarter of a page a year compared with children reading eleven books and eight books respectively in the United States and United Kingdom.

There may be at least three reasons for this. The first is access. There are a relatively small number of books published in the Arab world compared with the rest of the world. For every 100,000 books published in North America, there are only 6,500 books published in the Arab world, which equates to only 0.08% of the world’s production.

Secondly, and directly related to the issue of access, is the availability of books in the home. In Qatar it is reasonable to accept that with the country only beginning its development relatively recently, there would be few books around the house. My experience is that there are likely to be copies of the Holy Quran and, perhaps books and commentaries relating to it, along with some books for children. More recently it is notable that encyclopaedias have been added to this along with school textbooks. To a large extent, the habit of reading is picked up from parents. If parents are seen to read as a normal activity, and if there are books in the house, then it is probable that children will develop both the habit of reading as well as the skill of selection. I very much doubt if there is the habit of reading to children in bed at night.

A third, and certainly a contributory factor is our changing habits with regard to technology and the acquisition of knowledge. More and more people are becoming used to obtaining their knowledge using evolving technologies, and in relatively small increments. This habit encourages piecemeal, unfocussed learning and does not encourage those habits necessary to produce the educational background required in the Arab world.

This problem is exacerbated by the provision of inadequate resources. In the area of scientific research, for instance, only 0.02% of the GDP of the Arab world is spent on this area, while developed countries spend between 2.5% and 5%, and for every ten thousand in the workforce there are only 3.3 Academic researchers compared with 110 in the developed world. Bear in mind that in Qatar, many of the workforce are expatriates.

But a number of international studies have noted that although Arab states spend a higher percentage of their GDP on education compared with a World average, the quality of education is lower, a factor said to be responsible for the lack of skills and consequent difficulty in finding employment. This lack of skills has been particularly noticeable in the higher science benchmarks of primary school children, and also affects the competitiveness of Arab universities that rank low in World comparisons. One of the reasons given for this is the relative proportions of time given to religious education compared with mathematics and the sciences in Arab schooling. This continues through university. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, a quarter of the kingdom’s students read religious studies at University, more than those reading mathematics, the sciences and medicine combined, and religious studies will have been compulsory for all students up to tertiary level.

There may be one significant problem with regard to a stronger science-based education, and that is Darwin and what he stands for. His theories conflict with religious belief to the extent that few teachers and those with influence believe them, think them relevant or, naturally, teach them. Even al-Jazeera has supported this position in its reporting. This is not really surprising and may be a continuing problem with regard to the development of scientific education. However, it is not necessarily the main obstacle to educational advancement. In many Arab countries there are said to be considerable difficulties with the the educational system; class size, teaching qualifications, pay and a host of related issues have a negative affect on the quality of education received. This is not the case in Qatar and other Gulf states where funds are readily available to resolve these problems.

In order to improve the skills of their children, a number of Arab states are introducing private education, it being a policy by which curriculum reform and teacher training can be circumvented. In Qatar Unesco has recorded that in the years from 1999 to 2006, the percentage of students in private education rose from 30% to 60% – though it must be imagined that many of the students responsible for this change will be expatriates. Qatar has also introduced branches of Western universities to the peninsula for a similar purpose, as have a number of other Arab states, but it is thought they are struggling to find suitably qualified students.

A complicating factor may be the lack of books and other educational material written in Arabic, or translated from foreign languages. There is a resonance here with the golden age of Islamic learning. Traditionally the rate of translation has been low compared with translations into other national languages. Without similar resources to those which exist in the West from which to learn, it is quite possible that Arab students will continue to lag in the extent and depth of their education behind comparable students in the West. To avoid this there must also be a limit to any censorship of educational material, an exercise that can be difficult to regulate.

Compounding this is the apparent disparity in reading and learning skills between genders, boys apparently finding more difficulties than girls, an issue that is not confined to Qatar but is found in many other parts of the world.

The gender gap, mentioned above, has much to do with boys under-performing in primary and secondary education. Problems relating to reading have been mentioned, but job opportunities are also an issue. The Public Service is an attractive source of employment for both boys and girls but the former are likely to find more opportunities there, and not to require a degree. It is considered to be less competitive, more prestigious and secure. There are apparently less than 5% of Qataris employed in the private sector but it is notable that women are more likely to move into the private sector than men. It has been suggested that the answer to these problems may lie in the need to make vocational training more socially acceptable to nationals while making the public service more competitive.

Whatever the problems may be, a spokesman for the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development has noted that there is a skills gap between private and public sector employees, one that must be closed in order to improve opportunities and to benefit the State. One policy might be to restrict immigration and limit their ability to take work from nationals while ensuring that nationals meet global standards through an improved educational system.

Girls generally obtain better examination results than boys and the output from the University is in a proportion around three to one, girls to boys. Unfortunately for the female graduates there are a smaller number of opportunities for their employment than many would like though the State is attempting to improve this. Examination results are not the only criteria as there are obviously more alternative career opportunities for boys than girls, with many male Qataris electing to join the police or military, for instance. Because of the later age of marriage and, perhaps, the psychological feeling that women outnumber the men, some women at the University tend to marry for the sake of marriage rather than be left a spinster. It is, apparently, not uncommon for a university student to become a second or third wife for this reason though I also know of Qatari women who have deliberately decided to be a spinster rather than become a second or third wife. There is also resistance by women to marry men who have an educational level below theirs. Hence‘a woman who has a PhD would not like to marry an undergraduate or even a simple graduate’.

Despite there not being sufficient opportunities for women in the workforce, it is reported that women increasingly seek tertiary education in order to obtain work and, importantly, financial independence. Generally this can be contrasted with men who prefer to move from secondary education into government employment, with the benefits this brings in terms of salary and access to housing. One of the consequences of this is that around 30% of Qatari women are unmarried.

It should be noted that divorce is rising at an alarming rate due, it is thought, to the increasing financial independence of women. It is apparently, in 2009, around 40% due to the easing of the process, this reflecting the difficulties there may be within families due to strains created by men having more than one wife, or by their not taking family life seriously.

Girls traditionally have their husbands selected for them, but there is increasing evidence that they are becoming more particular in their acceptance of their mothers’ selection, and this choice is no longer automatically approved. The factors influencing this include…

more to be written…

There are more notes relating to education and social pressures on one of the society pages.

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Cultural change

Elsewhere I have mentioned the problem of cultural deterioration, the process where foreign cultures slowly supplant the native culture, not necessarily to its advantage. In fact, not at all to its advantage. The problem in Qatar stems to a large extent from the process whereby many of the necessary skills required to develop the country have been introduced from abroad, bringing with them the moraes and standards of those expatriates and their formal and informal effects on the national population.

A line of camels and their riders

But there are a number of internal problems as well. Apart from the massive effects of travel, wealth and the media, Qatar, by making itself a touristic destination – both for internal and external customers – has established a series of standards which it advertises as representing its past. This can be seen in the architecture of the reconstructed suq, dance and music troupes and, here, in the regimentation of the great tradition of badu rider where every rider and camel has been dressed in exactly the same manner. This dilution of tradition should be anathema to the State as although there is strength in unity, that unity derives from its religion, not the trappings. This is even more true when the trappings have been introduced from abroad as has much of the dress and music of the dance and music troupes.

More to be written…

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Media impact

Qatar television presenters, 1976

Like all of us, Qataris are subject to influence from the media. Traditionally, and particularly through the setting of the majlis, they have shared their interests in current affairs, literature and music. More recently, a number of newspapers and magazines supply them with a self-censored background in these areas. In the last fifty or so years, television has become common throughout the region and it is possible to obtain at least six foreign stations and more radio stations in Qatar. Programmes tend to be educational for adults and children with a smattering of popular and censored foreign serials and films. Foreign productions are preferred apart from locally produced drama and cultural programmes on the Arabic language channels.

Television shot of the Al Jazeera news channel

The most important change, however, has been the introduction of Al Jazeera in 1996, the Arab television station that has revolutionised news in the Middle East, as well as considerably raising the profile of Qatar to the rest of the world. Its introduction under Qatari patronage was the result of a number of strategic and political considerations, with its effect not only to counter the domination of the news from other Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia, but to demonstrate a more democratic freedom by Qatar.

This, together with a number of initiatives that have brought sports and a number of political, economic and other events to Qatar, have considerably improved the name of Qatar – despite the fact that most Westerners are unable to pronounce it correctly. This raising of its profile has benefitted not only the country in the abstract but, by reflection, has given many Qataris even more pride in their country.

The influence of the media on the individual can not be over-emphasised in its importance. There is a heightened awareness of the habits of peoples from other areas of the world and, when a large and increasing amount of time is given over to viewing or listening to the media, it is inevitable that this will have a cumulative impact upon the individual.

As a consequence, role models are inevitably taken from the West, reinforced by the trends in advertising and despite a censorious attitude to Western moraes. This conflict between Western moraes and Islam creates, at best, ambivalence and, at worst, serious psychological conflict. The State is not easily able to help its nationals with this as it has a similar problem itself.

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Arab language newspapers in Qatar

Previously I wrote that Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, when the Ruler of Qatar, had abolished censorship and allowed and encouraged news organisations such as Al Jazeera to operate from offices within Qatar with considerably less censorship than many might have envisaged. While this is a generally true statement there is still a degree of censorship both overt and covert.

There has always been criticism of aspects of life in Qatar from outside, but now the media within Qatar are able to articulate criticism of aspects of life in Qatar, this relating both to governmental as well as private operations. I understand that this is more prevalent in the English-speaking media than Arabic, but it is still a very different setting in which this Qatari generation is living. Having said that, it is guarded criticism and there is still formal censorship in certain areas.

English language newspapers in Qatar

Censorship is, however, a difficult concept to pin down as it is usually thought of only in its more practical sense. A generation or so ago all newspapers and magazines entering the country underwent a censorship process, instructions being handed down to the agents, and the actual work of tearing and blacking out being carried out by a team of young boys who, presumably, were unaffected at least by the written word but perhaps not so with the illustrations they were required to tear out or obliterate.

More recently there is commentary in the press that films are being censored, some of them heavily, Doha News reporting that a film had been banned in its entirety, and this being not the first film to be banned. Commentary continued claiming that other films had been censored in part.

Censorship is more pervasive than this, though. There is always a certain amount of self-censorship as individuals come to an accommodation with a variety of issues deriving from their education, understanding of the law, social and cultural imperatives, ambitions, plans and the like. These form a base from which issues are judged and decisions made, mostly within the constraints of the law which, in the case of Qataris, are both the State laws as well as religious laws.

It seems a paradox in what appears to be these times of new freedoms, but many Muslims feel that they are challenged more now than at any time in their lives. The Jordanian poet and writer, amjad Nasser, claims that all Arab writers believe censorship to be the most obvious problem facing Arab culture. He is concerned that culture in the Arab world struggles with impositions from two authorities: the political élites and religious movements with their supporters on the streets. He argues that artists have the choice either to agree to a number of political, religious and sexual taboos, or see their writings and artistic works banned from publication or exhibition in the Arab world. It is in these circumstances that some films appear to be banned in Qatar.

Censorship is more pervasive than this, though. There is always a certain amount of self-censorship as individuals come to an accommodation with a variety of issues deriving from their education, understanding of the law, social and cultural imperatives, ambitions, plans and the like. These form a base from which issues are judged and decisions made, mostly within the constraints of the law which, in the case of Qataris, are both the State laws as well as religious laws.

In many ways this choice is found all over the world, but Muslims feel it strongly because of the power there is in their artistic works, founded as these arts are on the Holy Quran. There is no real equivalent of this relationship with the written, drawn and spoken word in the Christian world, and because of this, freedom from censorship is more keenly desired not just by artists, but might be by all Muslims. Conversely, censorship is more keenly felt when it occurs in the Arab world, though there is a degree of ambiguity when the works are Western.

As the country develops, a considerable number of individuals have been and are being brought into the country, each having their own educational and socio-cultural backgrounds, many of them completely different from those relating to Qataris. Not only is there a general lack of understanding of the way in which Arabs and Muslims live, but many seem keen to complain about the ways in which they believe Qatar and Qataris are in error of their ways. It is remarkable that so many expatriates feel they have the right to criticise their hosts, and a tribute to Qatar that these complaints are permitted.

While most expatriates understand the difficulties resulting from behaviour that might be acceptable in their own countries, and so are more circumspect, others actively seek to influence the system to reflect how they feel different facets of local socio-cultural aspects should operate. It is claimed that

to cope, both academics and museum curators deploy five strategies: resistance, subversion, submission, conversion, and exit, although differences in the content and institutional structures of their work mean that they use them in somewhat different ways.

At the very least this might be seen to be inimical to the traditions relating to Arabic hospitality, but it is more complicated than that as these individuals generally hold significant positions within government structures by virtue of their experience and seniority.

Political relationships with the West are extremely strong in Qatar. This, allied to the manner in which development both physical and institutional, mirrors the West suggests that the move towards a Western democracy requires more tolerance than was practised within traditional tribal and religious constraints. This movement requires considerable changes in attitude, many of them inimical to traditional values and mores. In the past, censorship was one of the systems that enabled these values to be maintained, but the freeing of controls has had the effect of loosening the framework within which Muslims live their lives, creating more opportunities for behaviour at odds with the social codes established through the Holy Quran.

In addition to these pressures there are those which bear upon all who travel abroad, particularly those who study abroad where they live within a very different cultural environment from that which they have been used to in Qatar. It’s impossible to generalise about the way in which this affects individuals, though there is anecdotal evidence that the experience tends to polarise many, while giving all a better understanding of the normal ways of life of the communities within which they live temporarily while studying or working.

In this context, a complicating, but little known or understood corollary to this is the extent to which industries have built up catering for Gulf nationals, and others, living or visiting abroad. The travel and entertainment industries in their widest sense have seen such visitors as an opportunity for gain, usually financial. This has given such Gulf visitors a rather different view of foreign societies from that which those societies might believe visitors experience, and probably would like them to enjoy.

So, Gulf nationals now experience, and are allowed to experience a much wider range of activities and interests than they were able to a generation ago in their own countries, as well as abroad. It is only their internal socio-religious and cultural bonds which form any form of control on their traditional values. It is here that strains are most evident and is the field in which the difficulties with the twin authorities mentioned above are in evidence, not just by artists, but by all. This is generally not understood by ex-patriates and is, in itself, a contributing pressure on the cultural stability of the region.

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The environmentally programmed shading to the ice rink

We are in a period of dramatic change in the way in which we are employed and carry out our work. The manner in which this impinges on relationships with members of the family and friends is difficult to see, or even monitor. In the West people are having to work more flexible hours and now understand that there is no longer a job for life. Work in many areas takes the form of relatively short term contracts with no guarantee of continuation at the end of the contract. Although some enjoy the flexibililty and changes this brings, it reflects in uncertainty for all ages, particularly older workers, and also resonates for everybody in areas such as insurance, mortgages, pensions and holidays.

Qataris are able to obtain work with the Government and are, in a sense, provided with a minimum pension. They are also free to enter into commerce and develop incomes for themselves and family. While life continues much as before, work in the rest of the world is changing in response to the development of new technologies. In particular there is more flexibility in the hours worked, more women in the workforce and a greater proportion of people now working from home. Many of these trends conflict with Islam and the traditional ways of Gulf Arab behaviour. To a large extent the manner in which Government and business operates in the Gulf is similar to the traditional western models, but it is far away from many of the newer methods of business.

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Doha and its bay seen from the air

Nearly all Qataris travel abroad every year, and there are a number of ways in which they can find funds to leave the country. Travel within the region is popular as is the Indian sub-continent and the Far East, but Europe and the United States are visited by a number of influential Qataris every year.

In addition to holidays a number of Qataris are able to make work related trips abroad either on behalf of the Government or for their own businesses.

Although the State has an all-embracing medical system with advanced facilities a number of Qataris still go abroad for medical treatment and advice either privately or with State assistance, taking a number of members of their family with them to assist them in their stay.

There are favourite places to stay abroad, one of the most popular with influential Qataris being London where they can meet outside Qatar many of their friends and enjoy a freedom that cannot be enjoyed in Qatar. Regrettably they do not usually see the best of the countries they visit as there are organisations established to look after their every interests and out of which it is difficult for them to break.

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Window shopping at night

Some believe it is debatable if, traditionally, business has been mainly transacted by Qataris. Remember that families were dispersed through the Gulf, and the issue of nationality has been mentioned elsewhere. Fifty years ago the business of the suq was controlled by a few merchants of Iranian and Indian origin, though there were associations between them and Qataris. And there were some Qatari merchants. The main industry, pearling, was destroyed by the advent of the relatively cheap Japanese cultured pearl, the only other source of revenue being for consumables bought by a relatively poor and small number of people.

With Bahrein as its centre, pearling was a feature of the Gulf for the greater part of the nineteenth century, the Ruler of Qatar stating to William Palgrave that everybody was servant to the pearl. In fact it is probable that pearling was a feature of the life of Qatar for three hundred years and it is only within the last fifty years that this has faded despite Gulf pearls being acknowledged as among the finest in the world.

Nowadays it is difficult for us to understand the hold that pearls have on those who collected and dealt with them. There is a significant difference in quality between natural and cultured pearls, the former having a life of hundreds of years compared with the latter’s much shorter life. But their value goes beyond this. I have seen the way in which a tawwash will lovingly handle his collection, the pearls wrapped in their traditional red cloths. Each pearl is known to them and represents a particular story with its concomitant memories, not only of the individual pearl and its place in the pearling life, but the pearling songs and history, its joys and vicissitudes.

A selection of brass pearl sieves

The shapes and colours have individual names and their sizes are graded using a sieve known as a tasah, of which there are twenty-five in a set, collectively known as ghurbaal. Much has been written on pearling, but a useful introduction can be read here about pearling in the Gulf. The photograph above is of a small selection of brass tasah i have, the smallest, bottom left, being about ten centimetres in diameter.

The exploitation of oil in the late nineteen-forties changed that and the first millionaires supplied materials for the development associated first with oil and then with the growing State. However, Qatar took some time to develop the international links of other Gulf States and commercial Qatar tended to rely on high profits on a slow turnover, with the prices of goods and services reflecting this, being higher than in the surrounding States. The last ten years has seen changes but the massive development, first geared to the Asian Games at the end of 2006, then the 2022 football World Cup, have distorted the system.

One of the main ways for Qataris to earn money in the commercial sector has been to take agencies for goods. At the worst this is exemplified by purchasing, stockpiling and selling at whatever profit is considered to be required – even if this means waiting a considerable time for the return. This system is protected in law and delays by Government and the commercial sector generally in paying its bills, has not been helpful.

Qatar one Riyal notes

It should also be noted that commercial enterprises are registered as ‘General Merchants and Contractors’ which permitted a number of Qataris to benefit from the explosion of development in the seventies through participating in, and helping to develop, the construction industry. Without experience and with little skills, this did not benefit the built stock of the State.

There has been little successful inventive entrepreneurialism in Qatar, and some would claim this was so for the whole of the Gulf. Most Qataris have copied friends and gone into businesses which duplicate others – reducing choice and profit. The favourite commercial front has been the showroom, and Qatar now has at least 1.5 sq.m. of retail space per head of the population. Despite this there are still identifiable gaps in the market that Qataris are unwilling to fill. At its worst, there is still considerable copying of successful ventures resulting in a rapid down-grading of those ventures unable to respond to the limited demand successfully.

The rush to develop space and agencies has resulted in considerable over-building. Structures stand incomplete or unoccupied all over the capital, resulting in funds being tied up or spent. The commercial models for this are difficult to understand though they appear to be based on a continually expanding economy with an increasing population. The oddity here is that much of the expanding population are involved in the construction of the physical environment.

One of the most noticeable characteristics of development has been the apparent over-commercialisation of retail activities. There seems to be more retail activities than can be supported by the resident population. The early retail centres already show signs of incipient failure as larger and more interesting centres develop on the outskirts of the town. Yet they continue to proliferate, many of them selling a very small range of goods. Much of this appears to be due to the freeing of development which has coincided with the change in leadership of the State.

When the State began the process of legalising commercial ventures, it was notable that the larger merchants were allowed to become the the sole agents for the goods now beginning to come into the country. As a consequence, the retail experience was different from that in the West. Rather than go to a store which sold, for instance, hi-fi goods, you would have to go to the individual stores associated with each international brand. For instance, Darwish’s Modern Home store on Electricity Street sold Sony goods, al-Uthman’s store on the Abdullah bin Thani roundabout sold Akai and Pioneer equipment, while the Al Mana store on Abdullah bin Jassim street had Philips’ products. This dispersal of similar goods was replicated with all quality products.

A field of dead date palms

Another characteristic has been the development of farm land for commercial projects. Agricultural lands near urban development have been swallowed up as the towns have expanded, the land becoming too expensive to continue their use as farm land, and the State not being quick enough to appropriate that land and change its use to landscaped recreation, a situation that would have been of considerable benefit to those living around them. I can’t say that this is the case here, at Umm Salal Muhammad, but it is always sad to see dead trees where once there was a culturally and economically valuable resource. This sight has been relatively common but may also have been a consequence of over-abstraction of ground water, an issue that has been of concern since the early nineteen-sixties, the deep well water becoming increasingly saline and poisoning the crops that received that water.

Nowadays it is possible to see more Qatari women; they can be seen driving, they are more evident shopping and can even be seen together in large single-sex groups. There are many Qatari families who will not have their women seen out in public, but it is evident that traditional values are changing.

Another factor which has changed the way people move around is the changing of working hours. Until the mid-nineties the Government worked Saturday to Thursday inclusive. Now they work a five day week with Thursday and Friday off. Qatar Petroleum complicates matters a little. Previously they worked a five day week with Thursday and Friday off but, now that the rest of the country has changed to that pattern they take Friday and Saturday off.

Cars queuing to pick up children at the end of the school day

Schools finish at two in the afternoon, an hour after Government finishes its work, which complicates the difficulties families already have in organising their day-to-day lives. One of the effects of this is the traffic behaviour as the men or servants of the family attempt to pick up their children from school and get them back home quickly and safely. As you can imagine, few walk to school and back.

Fast food in Qatar

These small changes in the patterns of family life are having a significant impression on the day-to-day relationships of the family. The differences in mealtimes is reflected in the increasing trend for families to bring take-away foods back to the family, and for the family to take their meals individually or in different groupings from their traditional patterns. A number of people, particularly young men, now eat out in one of the many outlets available to them.

Interestingly, some Qataris feel that this is a great improvement, enabling men to get away from the women – and vice versa – the argument being that women need to have time away from their husbands as, when the men are in the house, the women have to be there to bring them what they wish and do what they want.

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The pearl, symbol of past wealth, and a bank

As has been written elsewhere, the economy of Qatar in the pre-oil days was largely based on pearls, slavery and smuggling, common activities that were to be found operating throughout the Gulf and its littoral. Times have changed and Qatar has been found to be wealthy in the natural resources of oil and gas, funds from which drive the development of the State and the collective and individual wealth that flows from it. This, together with outward and a degree of inward investment is the basis of the economy.

Qataris pay no income tax and have a number of social services provided free for them. Their income is derived in the main from small businesses and agencies, or from working for the Government. The benefit for a Qatari of working with the Government is that he will obtain a salary, can retire on full pay after twelve years’ service, can receive a free plot of land on which to build a house, and will receive a loan to put toward the house, and that is paid back on very favourable terms. Many Qataris are able to live relatively well on their income, though this is dependent upon the United States’ Dollar to which the Qatar Riyal is directly tied.

Above all the Qatari is able to enjoy a life style that depends heavily upon a variety of services being provided for him and his family. Not only does the State provide him with electricity and water, housing and work, education and a health system, he believes that it safeguards him in the event that something untoward will happen to him or his family.

In addition he is able to run his life relatively inexpensively with the use of servants who can be brought in easily, mainly from the Far East. This works to the advantage of both Qatar and those countries supplying the labour and who receive the remittances as a considerable element of their local economies. The extent to which this will continue is debatable. The stabilisation of Kuwait after the war has brought a number of issues into more public focus. In particular the Kuwaitis’ declared intent to reduce the numbers of expatriates living there may have repercussions throughout the Gulf. Many of the houses being constructed in Qatar are difficult to maintain without the use of servants and it is also certain that many households rely on their standard of living being buttressed by the use of a number of relatively inexpensive servants.

Previously dependent upon oil and gas – Qatar is particularly rich in the latter with the third largest reserves in the world – the State has made significant attempts to diversify its economy in much the same way as has Dubai. Dubai’s rationale has been that, with little natural reserves, it has been obliged to attempt to make itself a different kind of attraction in the Gulf, one that provides financial and other services that are not provided elsewhere. In particular they appear to be aiming their economy at high end tourism, property development and evolving their traditional position as an entrepôt between the West and Iran, the Far East and East Africa.

Dubai’s previous success as a business centre goes back to the nineteen seventies and appears to be based on two important strategies:

  • the development of free zones for a variety of businesses ranging from finance to commodities, media and technology, guaranteeing freedom from red tape and good access to regional markets, and a concomitant
  • transportation network integrating the Jebel Ali Free Zone with Dubai’s International Airport and Emirates Airline.

The aim appears to have been to facilitate travel to and from Dubai and regional offices, and to re-export goods. This is really what Dubai has been doing for centuries. In this case, however, the timing has been important as the massive development under way in Dubai is funded at a time when the price of oil has increased dramatically and Dubai has been able to suck in investment as well as prospering with the increased trade in the region.

This appears to have served them well until around 2009 when the financial difficulties faced around the world was reflected in less people looking for holidays and real estate in Dubai, as well as reducing its attraction for investment. Not only that, but it found itself over-extended, the financing of its massive projects being funded by what were now, considerable debts. This might not be thought to be much of a problem as Dubai is one element of the United Arab Emirates, but there has been for a long time, a strong element of competition, if not antipathy, between Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi is the only emirate that has natural wealth, and that is considerable. It has given some assistance to Dubai in 2009, but it is not possible to say at the time of writing this note how this will develop, though my feeling is that there would considerable loss of face to the UAE were Abu Dhabi be seen to fail to protect its smaller emirate – no matter how unwise the scale of investment is perceived to have been.

Riyal detail

Qatar’s economy, at the same time, has seen extremely good growth in GDP over a number of years, giving Qataris one of the highest per capita incomes in the world. Much of this has been ploughed into infrastructure development which has enabled construction development to move swiftly forward with the short term aim of providing a suitable setting for the Asian Games held in Qatar in December 2006. In the longer term it seems that development in Qatar is thought by some to be a smaller version of what is happening in Dubai and, to that extent, is in competition with its neighbour.

However, many commentators believed that development in Dubai was bound to suffer set-backs at some time in the future, both from political and economic difficulties they considered likely to develop in the region as well as their being vulnerable to any downturn in the world’s economy. If this were to be so for Dubai, it was argued that it might also be so for Qatar though, hopefully, on a smaller and more manageable scale.

But Qatar, in terms of its economy, is more similar to Abu Dhabi which has not developed as dramatically as Dubai but has, nevertheless, initiated considerable building development. Many would argue that this is more sensibly based as is witnessed by the Masdar project, an attempt to construct a small city that is based on zero-waste and zero-emission technologies. Of particular note is that Abu Dhabi is positioning itself as a centre for sustainable new energy technologies, and has the wealth to do so.

There have been a number of moves made to diversify the Qatar economy. The basic premises appear to be to:

  • encourage investment in the private sector through revisions to investment laws relating to foreign investment in tourisim, health, infrastructure, education and small to medium sized industrial projects, and
  • requiring the Qatar Industrial Development Bank to find and encourage industrial and economic development projects.

Both these groups of initiatives have been made possible by the development of a number of devices assisting foreign investment with:

  • tax holidays,
  • subsidised energy,
  • Customs exemptions,
  • the ability to invest in other economic areas excluding banking, insurance and commercial representation, and
  • to import the materials not available in Qatar that are necessary for projects.

The attraction of Qatar to investors has still to be seen in competition with Dubai with the latter’s relatively easier business operations, more generous terms for foreign investment and longer established development. Nevertheless, Qatar is developing rapidly, foreign investment is being made and the State anticipates that its more relaxed pace of development compared with Dubai – together with its oil and gas reserves, of course – will help it weather any downturn in the economy in the future.

Perhaps it is wrong for commentators to focus on Dubai, implying it to be the main competitor to Qatar. It is certainly building in a very visible manner, and many consider Qatar to be imitating it, though in a lesser manner. But the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is one of the Emirates, should be considered to be a major area of concern for those considering policy in Qatar, particularly Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi has the oil reserves that Dubai lacks, and Dubai sees it has little alternative but to develop along the lines it is doing in order to safeguard its future.

Steel reinforcement manufactured by the Qatar Steel Company

But going back in time a little, when Qatar began to develop after the Second World War, it established a number of companies to provide resources for this growth notably, in the nineteen sixties and seventies respectively, for the construction industry with the establishment of plants to provide cement and steel, thus reducing the need to import these major elements of construction materials. QNCC and QASCO still provide cement and steel for the construction industry though the industry requires a wide range of additional material, some of which is still imported. This stage in development was geared towards internal development, the main consideration being to reduce the cost of importing material.

At the same time the oil and gas industries were being developed as an economic base for the future of the peninsula, these initiatives being confirmed within a political framework when, in 1971, Qatar declared its independence. Now, as has been described above, it is recognised that the economic base of the country should be enlarged.

Although it was not considered at that time, it is now recognised that the natural resources, large though they may be, are likely to diminish in importance due to alternative sources of energy being developed elsewhere. So, as one of a number of policies, the State is attempting to make Qatar more attractive by developing facilities for tourists, as well as making the country a possible centre for foreigners to establish themselves within a region that is safe and has networks suited to that expatriate population.

The Gulf has a significant percentage of the proven world-wide oil and gas resources. BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy 2011 gives the following percentages of these resources for the Middle East:


Natural gas


Bahrein      0.1%   
Iran   9.9% 15.8%   
Iraq   8.3%   1.7%   
Kuwait   7.3%   1.0%   
Qatar   1.9% 13.5%   
Saudi Arabia 19.1%   4.3%   
United Arab Emirates   7.1%   3.2%   
Other Middle East *   0.8%   0.9%   
Total 53.6% 40.5%   
* ‘Other Middle East’ includes Oman, Yemen, Syria and other minor contributors. Algeria, Egypt and Libya – accounting for a total of 4.6% and 4.4% of oil and gas respectively – are not counted in the above figures.

It can be seen from the above table that Qatar has considerable natural resources compared with others in and around the Gulf, and that the Middle East contains a significant proportion of the world’s resources. While the major oil producers in the area – Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates – account for half the world’s proven oil resources, Qatar’s only competition in the area of natural gas is Iran. But the difference is that Qatar has developed its gas retrieval, processing and distribution systems far more effectively than other countries.

Oil and gas have significantly different systems of distribution. At its simplest, oil can be moved around and traded relatively easily and, to that extent is a very flexible resource. Natural gas, on the other hand, requires the establishment of long term contracts in order to obtain front end funding for the expensive technologies involved in its winning, treatment and distribution. These contracts also require the end-users to develop and maintain significant storage and pipeline installations in order to distribute the product. Qatar has been effective in evolving strong markets and appears to have become a significant focus among the emirates as a role model for development, buttressed by its strong relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Qatar is also developing its human resources by dramatically increasing the opportunities, particularly for tertiary education which I have written about elsewhere, and by beginning to provide resources related to cultural activities and facilities. This area is more problematic as there is a general debate revolving around the extent to which cultural facilities will benefit a population and, in particular, how and the extent to which, this might be of economic benefit.

Nevertheless, there have been problems creating work that nationals are able to fill naturally, a consequence of which being that a small percentage of nationals are unemployed or underemployed. It is a problem which is replicated throughout the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia, although it is claimed that Qatar has the lowest percentage of unemployment despite continual complaints in the press to the contrary. While the CIA Handbook estimates unemployment as 0.5% in 2010 and 2011, it makes no distinction between nationals and expatriates, and it is unclear why the unemployment rate dropped dramatically from 3.2% in 2007 to 0.7% in 2008. Nor does it differentiate male and female unemployment rates where it is claimed that unemployment for women is much greater than it is for males.

The political difficulties which have been experienced around the region seem not to have touched Qatar. It has been noted that a combination of authoritarian rule, corruption, a large rural-urban divide, high inflation and unemployment are common factors in the development of national unrest. Low unemployment should help safeguard Qatar which is, at 0.5% significantly better placed than Oman and Bahrein with 15% each and Saudi Arabia with 10.8%. But it is also claimed that unemployment may rise with time even though there is significant investment being made in infrastructural development. So far the different states have not yet been able to find effective policies to identify and resolve the underlying issues in order to reverse the apparent trend.

Since the above notes were made, the global economy has deteriorated significantly beginning late 2008 and national unrest has been experienced in many parts of the Middle East. It is difficult to gauge what might happen but there is certainly significant concern in at least Dubai where the press is reporting an attempt to ensure no news is broadcast relating to a dramatic fall in the value of accommodation, a construction slow-down and the flight of workers who have been dismissed but have considerable debt. While admitting that Dubai has a different series of difficulties compared particularly with Abu Dhabi, but also Qatar, the downturn in the economy generally means that there may no longer be the investment potential there was in the region generally, and some of the states in particular.

The pace of development is also creating economic difficulties with the effective planning and management of change. The Barwa village is a large and significant development, but its novelty has thrown up retailing problems and highlights the real issues facing the shopkeepers who have been moved to Wakra from Doha’s demolished inner ring. The problems they face illustrate some of the economic difficulties experienced when new communities are created rather than able to grow naturally – a common difficulty with communities established in developing areas. Not only this, but its size illustrates the potential for overdevelopment of retail facilities within the country, an issue that will have repercussions economically.

At the same time there are complaints from those wishing to live in the village about both the design of the housing units and their relationship with commercial facilities, as well as the selection process they must undergo in order to be able to rent accommodation. These are made more poignant by the statements of support for the quality of the development compared with developments elsewhere.

more to be written…

suq waqf.

Islamic art museum.

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Doing business

As this pages suggests, considerable pressures have been introduced to the country with increased wealth. One area where this has brought difficulties both within and outside the country is that related to the carrying out of business. There is a lack of understanding in the West of the traditional ways of business relationships, as well as conflict with the developed standards and legal constraints governing business in the West.

Developing countries need a wide range of goods and services, and they need them quickly. Developing countries, by definition, do not initially have systems in place to control the processes of identification, specification, tender and the purchase of goods and services, though this is something that all go through in order to establish some degree of control of their finances. The ostensible aim is to enable control, produce transparency and encourage accountability in the manner in which this is understood in the West.

The development of systematic processes and accounts is seen to be essentially Western in character and is certainly different from the traditional systems which were in place in the region for hundreds of years. Elsewhere I have mentioned these traditions which, while requiring a degree of accountability, permitted those who assisted in supporting their leaders to benefit themselves providing this was carried out inconspicuously and created neither embarrassment nor, perhaps more importantly, a power base which might lead to conflict with those leaders. However, this tradition has to be understood within the context of their having a duty to provide for others who needed or requested assistance.

This system produced a set of interlocking dependencies which requires a certain amount of ambiguity to work effectively, its key features being that the:

  • movement of funds and benefits was carried out with discretion and on a personal basis, and that
  • no one individual benefitted absolutely.

This last point is important to understand as although an individual might appear to be acting alone, it is almost certain that he will represent a group of people who will share in whatever profits and disbursements there may be. But they, too, will be expected to disperse some or all of these benefits as a part of the traditional system relating to tribal allegiances and behaviour in the Arabian peninsula.

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Despite this system, which suggests loose control, if any, of records, it should be noted that there has always been a system of accounting used by merchants to keep a track of their businesses. Accounting has been imperative to the handling of their businesses but, more recently, merchants have been lucky in being assisted by governments intent on permitting their citizens to benefit from the considerable wealth produced in and around the Gulf. In fact government policy, overt and covert, has been to ensure that wealth is shared, though to what extent is debatable.

I should add that whereas in the past accounts were kept by the individual merchants, for some time now book-keeping and accountancy have become the province of professionals from the Indian sub-continent. To some extent this has come about due to the scale of the business being generated and the consequent need for full-time control. But it has also moved the systems into more closely monitored operations based, at the beginning, with systems based on the British book-keeping methods introduced to that region over a hundred years ago. Now, of course, the systems are computerised and more easily accessed.

The scale of operations necessitated the employment of people with the requisite skills and these, as I noted, were brought in from the Indian sub-continent. This also ensured that those with a full understanding of the local businesses were foreigners and, for the most part, non-Muslims. This seems to be a general principle which I have mentioned elsewhere. While this enables a certain level of confidentiality relating to commerce between nationals, it follows that there may be a lack of confidentiality among those foreign nationals working in that area as well as the possibility of corruption, the only constraint upon any eccentricities being the threat of jail or repatriation, or both.

Government financial procedures are also accounted, monitored and relatively transparent, with the exception of areas which are considered sensitive, this being a continuing source of Western criticism. It is galling to the Gulf states that they are continually being criticised in the West with constant statements being made to the effect that they should become more like the West.

The development of the oil and gas industries has produced considerable wealth for many, some of them displaying it more visibly than others. Gulf countries are among a number which face criticism from within and outside with regard to the flow and destination of the funds from their natural resources.

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Agents and agencies

Since the nineteen thirties merchants have sought products which they know can be sold for profit. The early oil industry brought with it the need to import equipment, machinery and transport for its development, along with housing and supplies to maintain the growing workforce. In this way the important families associated with merchants in order that all would benefit from the increasing wealth. These associations were usually informal though some became formalised only in latter years with the increase in competition and other factors.

Merchants sought quality products from the West in order to sell to those wanting to dress and equip themselves well, but also bought goods from the Indian sub-continent, China and Iran to cater for many of the ordinary requirements of the growing households. Merchants spent considerable time touring in order to identify the goods they wished to stock while suppliers both entertained them in the West as well as travelling to the Gulf in order to obtain business.

Inititally the merchants, acting on behalf of themselves and their partners, were able to identify the agencies they wished to establish but, with the rapidly increasing economy, they were able to be far more selective as considerable numbers of businessmen flocked to sell their goods and services.

In order to protect themselves agencies and distributorships were established with legal protection, though the conditions and regulations differed considerably between States. Generally merchants endeavoured to become the sole agent for a product as this was seen to produce optimal return by preventing other agents from selling that product or service.

Although Qatar has recently partially privatised and permitted some foreign commercial interests to do without local agents, it is important to note that the economy is almost completely dependent upon oil and gas, and that this is controlled by government.

In addition to agencies, joint ventures were established, particularly in the construction industry, and licensing agreements were made between foreign and local companies. All these are governed by local laws which many foreigners believe to favour the locals.

Some foreign companies have been able to buy their way out of contracts, and this has put off some foreign companies from going into business in the Gulf. Disputes between foreign and local partners have been a feature of the law courts but, generally such disputes are settled by formal or informal arbitration, regardless of the provisions of any written contracts between the parties. Such arbitration has often involved the introduction of other local parties with an interest in resolving the specific problem. This is a difficult area, one which illustrates the importance of middlemen, and it is here that the issue of corruption tends to be most easily perceived in the West.

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Real estate and agencies

A ‘For sale’ notice adjacent to an old doorway within the inner ring road – with the permission of Noora.uae on Flickr

The increase in activities relating to the development of land saw the rapid evolution of those individuals, dallal, who acted as informal agents for those wishing to buy or sell property, into the more formal system of estate agents known as samsaar, who perform a more similar operation to those of the Western real estate agents. This photograph illustrates the most basic manner in which property for sale is advertised. Prior to the advent of spray paint and telephones the dallal would move around the neighbourhood in order to keep up-to-date with the needs of various individuals relating to property and to facilitate sales and exchanges.

As a result of the increasing interest in development, a variety of initiatives were taken by government in order to move towards an assortment of goals relating to promoting health and construction in their wider senses. One of the first important steps witnessed, in 1963, the establishment of the legal entity of the ‘Municipality of Doha’ by Law 11/1963, changed almost immediately, to ‘Doha Municipality’ under Law 15/1963.

The following year saw Law 14/1964 enacted, focussing on Real Estate Registration. The interest in this element of the law related to a perceived need to ensure the proper characterisation and documentation of property, as well as to ensure that its ownership was confined to nationals – though Article 3 permitted Arab nationals of other Arab countries to obtain and hold land on the basis of a properly executed reciprocity, subject to the terms placed by government. The first article states the purpose of the Law, here set out in English and taking amendments made in 1966, 1970, 1977, 1979 and 1982 into consideration:

  • Examine, survey, and demarcate real estates and draw their blueprints and calculate their surface areas;
  • Prepare printed forms for the most important contracts that the law provides its registration and submission before the concerned parties for guidance;
  • Register documents in the records set for such purpose;
  • Authenticate the signatures of the concerned parties in the documents whose registration is required.
  • Officially endorse documents to enable their final registration;
  • Make copies of the documents whose registration is required;
  • Keep the original documents, after duplicating them, and give a copy to the concerned parties;
  • Make indexes of the registered documents;
  • Give written copies of documents, as well as certificates of real estates and authentication of signatures; and
  • Authorize the concerned parties to examine the documents and records they may be of interest to them.

The registration and authentication of real estate falls under the aegis of the Minister of Justice supported, in the requirements of proving nationality, by the Director of Immigration, Passports and Nationalities as well as, for the purposes of identifying the land, the Engineering Services Department of the Ministry of Public Works. While these organisations have been reorganised, the activities remain with appropriate departments. Documentation must be in Arabic.

The price of land and property has increased dramatically within the peninsula and many people and organisations have taken an interest in the activities relating to purchase and selling parcels, the process being dissimilar to its general perception in the West. In the peninsula the dallal will move around, talking with those with whom he believes there may be an interest and, of course, profit. The process of development has witnessed significant increases in land and property and, by extension, to the profits to be made in the proceeds from sales. Individuals operating as dallal used to be nationals but are more likely to be expatriates working for a national, a relationship that is mirrored in many of the commercial operations of the peninsula.

But the increasing pace of development created a situation where greater involvement in the commercial markets was thought to be beneficial, in particular, attracting foreign investment into the country. As a result, a number of companies have been established to operate within the peninsula utilising, particularly, the framework of Law 17 of 2004 which regulates the ownership and leasing of real estate and residential units by non-Qataris within the Pearl, West Bay lagoon and al-Khor developments. In addition the law allows nationals of the Gulf Cooperation Council States including, of course, Qataris, to own real estate in investment areas defined by the Cabinet. This law also allows non-Qataris to lease for renewable periods of 99 years, real estate in the above areas as well as apartments in residential areas. Qataris may have complete ownership of real estate as may legal entities which are fully owned by Qataris.

Law 6 of 2006 has amended the right of non-Qataris to lease properties, extending this right to eighteen areas:

  • al-Dafna, Onaiza and al-Qitar – Areas 60, 61 and 63,
  • al-Khulaifat – north and south – Area 28,
  • al-Mansoura and bin Dirham – Area 25,
  • al-Rifa al-Hitmi – Area 17,
  • al-Sadd – Area 38,
  • al-Salata – Area 18,
  • bin Mahmoud – Areas 22 and 23,
  • Doha International Airport – Area 48,
  • Doha jadeed – Area 15,
  • Feriq Abdulaziz – Area 14,
  • Ghanem al-qadeem – Area 16,
  • Musheirib – Area 13,
  • Najma – Area 26,
  • New Mirqab and al-Nasser – Area 39,
  • Rawdhat al-Khail – Area 24,
  • Umm Ghuwailina – Area 27,
  • Lagoon Plaza, and
  • Dubai Towers – Doha.

It should be added that the leasing of properties is generally considered only to apply to residential properties, that the properties are for use by the purchasers and that they are not to be used for investment.

As mentioned above, Law 6 of 2006 allows non-Qataris to have absolute ownership in six areas:

  • The Pearl development,
  • West Bay lagoon,
  • al-Khor resort,
  • Lusail,
  • Fox Hills, and
  • al-Khuraj,

and nationals of the Gulf Cooperation Council States may own property without restriction for residential and commercial purposes in three areas managed by Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Company:

  • Lusail,
  • Fox Hills, and
  • al-Khuraj.

more to be written…

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In order for an expatriate to be able to work within Qatar, kafaala, or sponsorship, is required. This is a characteristic of laws throughout the Gulf and is an issue that causes considerable psychological and other pressures on those working within the Gulf States. For a number of reasons, it is an issue that has been criticised by international commentators. The Sponsorship requirements were amended in February 2009, but there is still concern that they do not go far enough in protecting expatriate workers.

Every foreign worker in Qatar must be sponsored before he or she is allowed to enter the country. They are similarly required to have an Exit Permit before being allowed to leave, though nothing prevents their wives or children leaving. Within the country they are required to have a Residence Permit and they are not allowed to work for anybody other than their sponsor, even on a part-time basis, without their sponsor’s prior, written agreement, usually in the form of a No Objection Certificate.

Workers who are sponsored may act as sponsors for their wives and children, the latter applicable to sons under twenty-five and students, and daughters until they are married.

Sponsorship may be transferred from one sponsor to another though this is extremely unlikely to be at the behest of the worker but with the initiation of one of the sponsors involved in such a change. Generally this has to do with the second sponsor not having the time or experience to find workers abroad, and the original sponsor not having sufficient work to pay the worker. Although this appears to be a sensibly provision, it can cause legal and other difficulties. A worker may not change sponsor within his or her first two years of sponsorhip. For workers who leave the country, or where the Residence Permit is cancelled, there is provision in the Sponsorship laws for the sponsor to prevent the worker returning to Qatar to work for another sponsor within two years, or as a tourist.

Ostensibly the Sponsorship law provides protection for the worker with a National taking responsibility for the individual within the country. This usually works well, but there is obviously the possibility for things to go wrong, either accidentally or deliberately – from both sides.

A written contract must exist between the sponsor and sponsored party, both parties having a copy with a third deposited with the Department of Labour. The contract exists in Arabic and, if translated, the Arabic version will take precedence, this being in common with all laws within the country.

Where a dispute arises this has to be referred to the Labour Department who will attempt to resolve it. Where this proves impossible, a Reconciliation committee will bring the parties together in the hope of resolution and, if that fails, to an Arbitration committee.

Where a sponsored party is dismissed, they have seven days to bring any grievance to the Labour Department, who will attempt to resolve the issues creating the grievance. These usually have to do with payments, particularly with regard to withholding or delay, holidays, working hours, sickness benefit and insurance, but there have also been issues relating to safety on site and in transportation.

The purpose of this note is to illustrate something of the way this law impacts those expatriates living and working in Qatar. It should be read in conjunction with the notes on the regulation of labour on one of the notes that looks at the way in which the society operates.

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Bribery and corruption

It is a fact of life that doing business in the Middle East is difficult unless introductions are made by individuals in a position to make them. Such individuals see themselves as enablers and have access to the important members of the society. They can ensure that foreigners meet those who are able to make decisions and who can benefit from an association with the foreign interest. Embssies also act as middlemen in that they are pursued by, and pursue locals in order to be able to aid this process of foreign nationals meeting locals. In a sense the Commercial Sections operate as introduction agencies. It is in the interests of foreign Embassies to develop those links both for economic as well as political reasons, but the scale of some of the contracts developed and entered into can create difficulties. For instance, the Al Yamamah contracts dealing with the supply of arms by Britain to Saudi Arabia are being critically examined with the possibility of considerable embarrassment to individuals as well as governments.

Middlemen are usually nationals but there are also foreigners who act as middlemen though they themselves have to rely on nationals in order to operate usefully. It is not surprising that middlemen wish to make a profit from their relationships and it is here that the issue of corruption becomes an issue with any Western organisation which has a proper accounting system in place, as funds have to be found to fund middlemen.

Relatively small amounts of money can be ascribed legitimately to travel and entertainment, but there comes a time when larger amounts need to be found to provide the percentages asked by middlemen. Western tax authorities have difficulty with the issue of expenses as they are unable to distinguish legitimate expenses from those funds they would not be able to countenance legally. Additionally, many Western countries have laws specifically aimed at corrupt practices and international business transactions due not just to fears about corruption, but of money laundering.

Usually, the percentages required for middlemen become line items such as consultancy fees as it can be argued that they provide a local service to expedite the movement of goods and services, resolve conflicts, short-circuit government procedures and provide expertise unknown to the foreign entrepreneur. This may well all be true, but is unlikely to amount to the sums often agreed upon. This is one of the areas which Westerners, particularly governments, identify with corruption.

Yet I believe there is little petty corruption in Qatar. Qataris working in government are generally well paid and many have outside businesses which add to their earnings. There may be the possibility that they are able to benefit their private business through their government employment but this is unusual and would be easily identified. Eccentricities are more likely to occur at a higher level and where the system I have described earlier operates.

There are a considerable number of expatriates working in Qatar, but they are unlikely to practise corruption in any significant way for three reasons;

  • firstly they will be concerned to keep out of prison for committing a crime as well as being frightened of being expelled,
  • where professionals are concerned, they will be worried about losing their professional status and both the stigma and loss of income this will entail, and
  • there are few government regulations and controls that might provide the source for corruption.

Education is a potential area for corruption. Entrance to the system is relatively easy as it is the intent of government to give its citizens as good an education as they may obtain. But concern has been expressed for the standards at which they qualify, the fear being that staff, who are mostly foreign, wish to maintain their positions in the country. There is also concern expressed for citizens taking their education abroad where, it is argued, educational establishments wish to maintain the links with Qatar by passing students who might otherwise not succeed.

From what I’ve written here, and what many in the West believe, it may be thought that any corruption originates within the national community, but this is not so. Much of it originates with foreign influences both within and outside the country. It has to be understood that there are significant interests wishing to derive benefit from Gulf nationals.

Times are changing and, with them, laws relating to transparency and democratic procedures are slowly being introduced, perhaps in response to the various criticisms levelled by institutions such as the United Nations, and with the resultant pressures which change brings. There are movements all round the Gulf attempting to bring a more Western approach to the way of life and, with them, increasing conflict with both the traditional ways of the area, as well as Islam. Corruption is one of the areas which is most easily perceived and criticism focussed upon, not only by those in the West, but also by those within the area wishing to maintain the status quo – or to return to the ways of a more fundamental religion.

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Islamic banking

As the name suggests, Islamic banking is a system of banking and financing, closely defined by and operating on religious principles, notably shar’ia law. The concept of fees or interest on loans common to Western banking systems is considered in shar’ia as riba and, as such, forbidden. Not only this, but investment in organisations or companies which provide goods or services that do not accord with Islamic principles is also haraam – forbidden. Because of these two principles, and with the global reach of Islam, Islamic banking is spreading. Islamic banking still constitutes a relatively small percentage of global banking, but it is increasing and having an impact in the development of areas such as ethical banking and mico-banking. But because of the different conditions found around the world, Islamic banking differs from place to place and can be difficult to define accurately and, in the West, to comprehend in some of its interpretations. Nevertheless, Western banking institutions are developing their own systems of compliant finance, banking, real estate and asset management systems in order to cater for the specific and expanding needs of their Muslim customers.

At its simplest banks may not profit from loaning capital to customers. Instead, the principle of sharing risk is at the heart of the systems developed from an Islamic point of view. From this Islamic principle, a number of concepts have evolved, including, and in simplistic terms:

  • mudhaarabah – where two parties enter into a contract, one supplying funds, the other expertise. Profit is shared by both parties, but loss is sustained by the party lending the funds,
  • mushaarakah – where funds are incorporated into a joint venture, with each partner profiting on a pre-agreed basis, but suffering losses in proportion to the amount put into the venture,
  • wakaalah – where an agent for the principals takes a fee, but both profit and loss is again shared by those entering into the contract,
  • wadi’a – where funds are entrusted to a bank for safe-keeping, with the possibility of a gift being made – voluntarily, to distinguish it from interest – on the return of the loan,
  • murabahah – sometimes known as cost-plus, where goods are sold at a price which includes profit based on time spent and is understood by both parties prior to acceptance, and
  • ijar – leasing, where goods or services are made available for a fixed period and price.

This list is not comprehensive, and may differ in its interpretation in different areas of their application.

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Earlier I mentioned the practice of the workforce remitting their wages to their families in their home countries. The reason the majority of workers are in the Gulf is, of course, to earn money, usually considerably more than they would be able to earn at home. The disbenefit to them is that they have to be away from their families for long periods of time, and the conditions of work and living abroad can be onerous if not unpleasant in various degrees.

The practice of remitting wages is complicated as there are cultural and other issues relating to the methods of obtaining work in the Gulf, agents and their fee reimbursement, and the relationships between workers. Having said that, the basic method of transfer is generally hawaala due to the workers being able to maximise the amount received by their families, and it is this which causes difficulties to governments at both ends of the transaction.

The West seems only to have come lately to an awareness of hawaala, and that because it is perceived to contain a threat. For centuries hawaala has operated throughout the Middle East, Indian sub-continent and Africa as a system for the transfer of money. It is believed that the system originated in times when travelling with money was a risk; hawaala minimised their exposure to robbery and theft. The system has been used by workers in the Gulf and elsewhere to transfer earnings back to their families, bypassing the banking system and their charges, controls and records. But there is also concern that it has been used to move funds illegally, and this is the reason for burgeoning interest and concern.

The benefit to the Gulf worker is the immediacy of the transaction and the fact that he is likely to have less abstracted from the transaction than would be the case if it were to go through the normal banking channels. The hawaala broker usually has few overheads, requiring only a good reputation, security for his premises and communication commonly by telephone or email. An important point to note is that the system fits the cultural patterns of the area more closely than the more formal, Western, banking systems. It is particularly relevant in the security of family and tribal connections. In the case of Gulf workers this means that the men working in the Gulf know that the sensitivities created by having their women left at home will be dealt with properly when the remittances are processed.

The process of transferring funds using hawaala

At its simplest, hawaala is an honour system. Somebody wishing to move funds will take them to a broker who will give him a password. That person will give the password to the person to whom he wishes to transfer the funds. The broker will communicate with another broker instructing him to make the funds available when the correct password is given to him. It’s as simple as that.

A running total is kept by each broker with the settlement of debts taking a variety of forms. The system works on trust, and there are no promissory instruments exchanged between the hawaala brokers. Because there are no contracts, the system is not subject to legal or judicial enforcement and can, therefore, operate where those systems are weak or do not exist.

The broker can be remunerated a number of ways, either by charging a fee, using an exchange rate spread or by an exchange of goods or services. This latter system may involve the manipulation of documents in order to have the transaction cover both the goods or services as well as the repayment of the original funds. It is also a feature of the system that more than two brokers may be involved in a complex evolution of transactions. The broker is free to organise his fee or return as he wishes, varying it with the character of the transaction. A fee or benefit may be charged at both ends of the transaction but, whatever the total fee to the sender, the hawaala system is likely to be less expensive than a formal system.

It can be seen that there is a significant disadvantage to governments as the movement of funds bypasses the usual controls on them. This means that there is no possibility to monitor, regulate or collect taxes on them. Governments, of course, make estimates as to the extent of the hawaala system as there are serious macro-economic consequences of the transfer of funds outside the formal systems of the financial world.

In simple terms money transferred through hawaala is not recorded in the receiving country as an increase in its foreign assets nor a debt in the transmitting country. No revenue is derived through direct or indirect taxes and, due to the character of cash movements in the receiving country, the cash circulating in that country tends to increase. These are not small sums of money but run collectively into billions of dollars world-wide. I don’t know what this is likely to be in the Gulf. Because of this problem governments are making attempts to calculate the extent of hawaala transfers based on the numbers of workers in transmitting and receiving countries, as well as attempting to control or, better, stop the practice. However, the system is difficult to detect and, therefore, control.

Its benefits to those wishing to maximise their transfers to family, together with criminals wishing to move sums around the world, means that it is likely to continue as well as continue to be a source of concern for governments wishing to control criminal activity.

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The main road to the north of the country

An element of the economic factors affecting Qataris is that provided by the State’s gift of housing to all nationals. As it is extremely good value and is therefore taken up by all nationals, it is a key element affecting the families taking up the offer of house and garden, both in economic terms as well as those social factors entered upon by living in and around this housing.

One of the most significant aspects of the State’s gifting land – and, therefore, housing to its citizens – is that the traditional pattern of living is broken. Qataris who lived in a single neighbourhood enjoyed a close relationship with each other. This relationship connected both the close and wider members of the family – the qabila – and resulted in a lot of movement around the neighbourhood related both to the inter-personal relationships of the family as well as movements reflecting their commercial and religious interests and activities.

The phenomenon of dispersal following development has been witnessed in many countries but what is particularly important to note here is that Qataris continue to keep the physical linkages within their family.

New areas for development have not been made contiguous with their previous residential areas. New areas have been given to some of the qabaa’l but this is not always the case. In addition to this there has been the dispersal of Government Senior Staff to their own area in the New District of Doha. Some poorer families have previously gone to Medinat Khalifa and mass housing similar to it in other parts of the country.

Effectively this has meant that the qabila has been effectively scattered. In order to maintain their relationships there is a significant amount of driving between people’s houses, particularly at lunchtime and in the evening as well, of course, as the use of the telephone.

Land ownership in Qatar is controlled by government, though this was originally established following discussions with the main families that have laid claim to land for centuries. Access across the country is relatively easy, as is access to the coast except for sensitive areas such as near the disputed Hawar Islands which were recently ceded to Bahrain. Land, both ownership and access to, in Bahrain – a much smaller country at about a sixteenth the size of Qatar – has become a highly political issue, but it is not thought that this will be replicated in Qatar or, if it is, hopefully not to the same extent.

The head of a government boundary marker – with permission from elmothelemon on Flickr

While the ownership of land is controlled by government, a number of the tribes that have moved around the peninsula for centuries feel they have rights to certain parts of it. In such a society there is an emotive and understandable attachment to the land and, today, considerable value where there is the possibility for development. Government has been marking out its ownership for many years now in order both to assert its rights as well as to test ownership. This photograph is of the top of one of their simple pre-cast concrete markers and shows the initials for hakmuwat qatar – Government of Qatar. Incidentally, note the weathering.

For many years now the price of land has been increasing, creating a group of entrepreneurs who trade in land. Previously land was exchanged for a variety of purposes, generally with the assistance of a middleman. This has now developed into a full-time career enriching those who have moved into this line of work. Usually these are not nationals, but expatriates working for them, though with much of the preparatory work being carried out for them by nationals. While the system appears similar to those operating in other countries, there is still a socio-political element operating in the identification and development of land parcels.

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Social Services

Many services are provided for Qataris as a deliberate method of sharing the revenue from oil. All medical treatment is free. A system of preventative health screening based on local clinics is well established and there is a four hundred and fifty bed hospital staffed with foreign specialists and some Qatari doctors and nurses as well as a Women’s hospital. It is intended that the State should be self sufficient in medicine and discontinue the practice of sending patients abroad. Some argue, however, that the cost of providing this service is very high, and a requirement for patients to pay for the services they received was introduced in 1989.

Education is also free to all, although kindergarten stages are not provided by the State. If the Qatari is prepared to study within the State he or she can continue through tertiary education, though it is noticeable that graduates are now becoming demonstrators and lecturers without benefit of wider educational experience, and it is feared that there will be a spiral down of educational standards. Certainly there appears to be a concern that the present product of the University does not match the requirements of the State, but this is a direct result of the difficulties relating to the establishing of a University for a small national catchment, and the inherent inflexibility that exists in making courses respond directly to the real needs of the State over time.

Housing is given by right to Qataris who do not have houses. A gift of land and a grant for a house are given to government staff of Intermediate or Senior Staff status, and divorcees, the poor and others thought appropriate by the Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Housing may also have a house built for them.

Pensions are given by right to all Qatari Government staff, those who have no income and those who are considered by the relevant committee to require it.

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The national flag of Qatar

There is a very strong feeling among Qataris for their relationship with their country. Many see themselves owing a great deal to the State which has provided them with what they have and who they are, both personally and in how they see their place in the world. More particularly, there is a tendency to identify this allegiance with the leader of the country. In this you can see badu traditions operating with their focus on the leader of the tribe working on their behalf, and with their need to support him – as long as he makes the right decisions.

In this case, the right decisions are not just ones that will benefit individuals, but ones that will also establish and maintain their national place in the world. Qataris really do see themselves within a religion and a State that cradles them and gives them the setting for their several roles in society. I have mentioned elsewhere the concepts of shame and honour and the importance of this concept; this should also be considered with regard to nationality, pride in their country and the obligations this places upon them.

Allied to this is the independence the State must have in order to pursue its way in the world. Bear in mind the differences many feel relating to the surrounding States where there are continuing political problems resulting from centuries of tribal activities associated with the problems of establishing and consolidating the mechanisms of the State, as well as religious differences.

Generally the different States are reluctant to give nationality to anybody who wants it. There is a requirement that residence in some of the States must be proved to go back a number of generations. In Kuwait, for instance, there must be proof of settlement in Kuwait prior to 1920 and there has been considerable concern expressed for the erosion of rights both for those known as the bidoon – those who should have Kuwaiti nationality but, for one reason or another, don’t have it – as well as those who are Kuwaitis. I should state that the bidoon are not just common to Kuwait but exist in relationship to all Gulf States where Arabs are stateless due to their being nomads.

Compared with this, Qatar is more generous, permitting those who have lived in the country for twenty-five years to request nationalisation – provided they drop any nationality they previously had as dual nationality is not permitted. Having said that, the right to nationality in all Gulf countries is not as generous as it is in many countries in the West and there has been criticism from many International organisations that deal with Human Rights. Issues such as these take time to resolve. The Gulf States have come a long way in a short time to reach various accommodations with Western principles, but there is no reason to suppose that International organisations have natural right on their side. But that’s another discussion…

Nevertheless, as in many other countries of the world, Qataris know who a ‘real’ Qatari is, and their understanding is rooted in knowing the history of individuals reaching back at least to the beginning of the twentieth century.

This knowledge, together with the history of allegiances of the tribes of the area, has contributed to decisions relating to dual nationality where individuals’ traditional lands have straddled borders, giving them dual nationality. It is not an easy problem to resolve because, despite the difficulties associated with giving rights to nomads, badu generally are seen to be the nearest kith or kin to many of the residents of the Gulf States.

A car decorated in Qatari colours – permission requested from cariboudesneige on Instagram

Nevertheless the identification of Qataris with their State is visible much of the time. Schools and official buildings display portraits and flags and, for instance, many private cars carry photographs of the Head of State, the national flag and other devices of association. In this particular example a car, apparently now abandoned, has been decorated extensively with symbols associated with Qatar in order that it could be driven at public events such as parades and the celebrations associated with National Day. Compare this car with the illustration on one of the Society pages.

But it is not only Qataris who demonstrate their allegiance or affection towards the State as so, too, did and do many expatriates. All over the country it is possible to see how expatriates show their gratitude by visibly associating themselves with the country in which they are now living and working. The most common examples were Qatari flags with the maroon replaced by green and graffiti painted on the walls of workers’ residences; but public displays of affection or respect for the State and its Ruler are also common.

It is important to note that nationality in Qatar is not a right, nor is it absolute, but is a privilege and can be withdrawn.

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Postage stamps and philately

Part of the 1966 set of circular stamps

It may seem strange to see postage stamps on these pages but philately has been a small but important part of the economy since 1957, and seems to have a place adjacent to nationality as it is one of the ways in which the country came to be known around the world. In this it replicates the initiatives taken in many countries where stamps were introduced not just for the purpose of paying for a postal service, but also in the knowledge that rare stamps are valuable and can be a useful source of revenue to the country.

Those first stamps were produced as overprints of British stamps. They were needed in order to be able to operate a legitimate international postal service. In 1961 the first set of national stamps was introduced bearing the head of the Ruler and being valued in Rupees, the currency of the time. The Postal Service was and is efficient and has continued the production of stamps reflecting national and international themes. More information on the service, together with information on all the issues since 1957 can be found on the website of Qatar Post’s Philatelic Bureau.

The new issues have been eagerly sought by collectors and some of the more rare issues are very difficult to find. While there are many designs that are not that interesting to look at, some of them are quite dramatic as are the stamps shown above. Part of the 1966 imperforate gold and silver foil, twelve-stamp issue, these designs are an attractive addition to the range of Qatar stamps.


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