In late June 2013, as neighboring Arab states continued their struggles against popular pressure for political reform or regime change, the Gulf emirate of Qatar undertook its own, voluntary transfer of power. Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, patriarch of modern Qatar, appeared on state television to name as successor his 33-year old son, Sheikh Tamim. The outgoing leader was hobbled by serious health problems, it was said, and in any case most observers agreed that a recalibration of Qatar’s domestic and international agendas was perhaps just what the doctor ordered.
In the weeks and months prior, Qatar had witnessed a decided backfire of its strategy of greater regional involvement and even interventionism pursued since the beginning of the Arab uprisings. Former Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi, whose brief administration Qatar had supported to the tune of several billion dollars, faced debilitating protests and was but days away from ouster. In Syria, Qatar’s year-long competition with Saudi Arabia over patronage and coordination of the opposition was nearing an end, with an overmatched Doha effectively conceding the field to its wealthier and better-organized rival.
Thus it was that while the June leadership transition did evoke the expected feelings of apprehension, as well as genuine affection for Sheikh Hamad, it also raised popular hope for a change, if not in policy substance, at least in policy emphasis. Whereas ordinary Qataris remain generally supportive of or indifferent to the state’s foreign exploits in principle, the same cannot be said of the money used to fund them, which most agree would be better spent at home. Indeed, in a scientific public opinion survey administered in February 2013, a full 77 percent of Qatari respondents felt that “the state should spend more resources inside the country.” Only 13 percent wanted increased spending on “international affairs and investments,” while 10 percent said they were content with the current balance.
The wholesale cabinet shakeup that attended Emir Tamim’s succession, in which only a few junior ministers retained their posts, seemed to signal the state’s appreciation of this general concern. Out not only of the cabinet but indeed of politics and reportedly the country altogether was influential Prime Minister Hamad bin Jasim Al Thani, who in his second role as foreign minister had long served as co-architect of Qatar’s personality-driven foreign policy. His replacement as premier, Sheikh ‘Abdallah bin Nasir Al Thani, would double not as foreign minister but as interior minister, a duality taken to be symbolic of a shift in state priorities toward the domestic arena. The foreign ministry, by contrast, was now to be headed by a non-royal, Khalid al-‘Attiyah, for the first time since 1992.
Out of the Frying Pan
That attention has turned now more to local matters does not necessarily imply smoother sailing for the state, however. On the contrary, the state has effectively reopened public debate over a long list of citizen concerns including rampant inflation; a sense of unchecked Westernization; maddening gridlock due to ubiquitous construction; perceptions of inequality in the treatment and compensation of Qataris and non-Qataris; and the sustained population explosion. The population has doubled in five years and increased by 9 percent — with 170,000 new expatriate residents — in the month of October alone. Such trends show no signs of slowing as Qatar quickens preparations for its great prize — hosting the 2022 World Cup.
Beyond its resource wealth, Qatar also has other features that militate against political activism. Its citizenry is tiny — barely 250,000 people, fewer than the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu — and it is not riven by the sectarian, ethnic and regional cleavages of the other Gulf states. Unlike Bahrain and Kuwait, Qatar has no tradition of popular political consultation or participation. And, although the state has been an active promoter of revolutionary Islamic ideologies abroad, it does not confront them at home.
Yet such advantages for the state do not amount to immunity from criticism. Nor does an unrivaled capacity to enrich make boundless the soporific effects of material contentment. Qataris are wealthy by regional and even international standards, yes, but all politics is local, and blatant inequality differentiates citizens themselves — and, from the Qatari point of view, locals and expatriates. This sense of disparity not only increases economic expectations but also lowers overall satisfaction, dampening the pacifying effect of plenty on political orientations.
The aforementioned national survey, for instance, asked respondents to rate the economic situation of a hypothetical Qatari family. “Imagine,” it asked, “a Qatari family with three children. Its monthly income is [the equivalent of $100,000 per year], its primary vehicle is a Landcruiser, and in the summer the family vacations in Europe but doesn’t own a house there. How would you evaluate the economic situation of this family?” Just 22 percent of respondents said that this family was doing “very well,” whereas a combined 36 percent rated it as “moderate” or below — “weak” or “very weak.” The question for Qataris is not simply one’s absolute standard of living, then, but how well one is doing relative to others, such as fellow citizens whose enormous wealth is often on showy display.
Also among these others are expatriates, especially the Western professionals who fill a disproportionate percentage of administrative and supervisory positions in universities, multinational corporations and the many quasi-governmental institutions that serve as virtual private-sector shadow ministries. Despite a 60 percent salary increase in September 2011 for nationals working in the public sector — doubled to 120 percent for those in the police and military — many Qataris still feel they remain at a disadvantage in both hiring and pay.
Respondents to the February survey were asked whom they thought more likely to be hired for an opening at “a major company” in Qatar, a Qatari or a non-Qatari of equal qualifications. Only 36 percent believed the Qatari would be hired, and 9 percent thought the decision would be made fairly, while the remaining 55 percent said the non-Qatari would get the job. Similarly, only a third thought the Qatari would be offered a higher salary than the expatriate, with just 14 percent believing the salaries would be similar. Analogous results obtained in the area of higher education, with Qataris predicting overwhelmingly that Western students would be favored over national applicants in admissions decisions.
More importantly, not only do Qataris tend to perceive inequality in society and the economy, but these negative views work to dampen overall economic satisfaction even as individuals and households report financial prosperity. As a measure of fairness in society, Qatari respondents were asked to rate the necessity of wasta — personal influence and connections — for accomplishing a variety of practical objectives: securing a good job, gaining entrance to a top school or university, receiving a desirable land allotment from the state, and so on. Even after controlling for household income, negative perceptions regarding the prevalence of wasta are strongly associated with lower overall economic satisfaction. Indeed, a Qatari who perceives little wasta in society is 20 percent more likely to report being “very satisfied” with his or her economic situation, and a third less likely to be “not very” or “not at all satisfied,” compared to one with identical household income but who reports a high prevalence of wasta. A similar result emerges if one takes as an indicator instead the aforementioned question about fairness in hiring.
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This article first appeared in Middle East Research and Information Project.