Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Long Live the King!

I have received some interesting criticism about this blog. It seems that some think that I am too positive about Qatar! I plead guilty as charged. Perhaps I should explain myself.

There are many middle-eastern blogs out there that are highly critical of the regimes that they live under, and rightly so in many cases. I think that there is an expectation on the part of many that bloggers will practice the sort of muck-raking journalism (if you can call what we do “journalism”) that is sometimes necessary to bring about change. I applaud the efforts of bloggers to pressure their governments for reform, especially for example, the courageous Bahrainis (heck, for that matter let’s include the Americans!). On the other hand, running about finding things to criticize just for the sake of criticism is both unfair and cruel. I will not seek out problems, but only point them out as I notice them.

I am positive about Qatar, and for a variety of reasons. First, and most importantly, I am a muslim. According to the Qur’an, we are not supposed to speak of an evil unless we are a victim of it. There are exceptions to this when a problem affects society at large, however. An example of this is as follows. Say someone else commits a sin, and I become aware of it. If I tell others of his sin, I am committing a sin probably more grievous than his. On the other hand, I can speak in general terms against the type of sin that he commits, or, I can speak of his sin specifically, if society as a whole is harmed by it. I generally will not speak of negative things that do not affect me or society as a whole, as it is unislamic.

Thus I will criticize certain issues that affect society here, for instance the abuse or mistreatment of foreign workers. I have mentioned maid abuse and camel jockeys in the past. Regarding the jockeys though, I should point out that several Gulf nations practice this, yet tiny Qatar was the first, and until recently the only one to ban the practice of using children as jockeys (UAE just followed suit! God be praised!). Change is slow and difficult here, traditions die hard and vested interests are strong. It took no small amount of courage to be the first one to take action against it. In light of that, I think it’s unfair to be too terribly critical of them after the right action has been taken. If we want to criticize someone for this, how about the nations that have done nothing about it, and continue the practice? If Qatar were to back down from this reform, then perhaps my tone would change, but so far they have done the right thing, and are phasing the jockeys out as we speak. By next season it will be history, God willing.

I have philosophical reasons for being positive about Qatar as well. I chose to come here as opposed to anywhere else because I thought it would be an interesting and exciting time to be here. Qatar is in the midst of an economic and political renaissance. The economy is booming, the country is modernizing and change is in the air. Qatar held its first elections in 1999 (in which women voted, and ran for office), and elections for the shuraa, or parliament, are scheduled for next year. Qatar is now a constitutional monarchy. The Qatari Constitution was approved by a public vote two years ago. All in all, Qatar has done a lot of things right.

So often we in the west think of corruption and backwardness when we think Gulf regimes. While this may be true of some, Qatar (and the UAE) are exceptions. Qatar’s wealth began to accrue in earnest after the 1973 oil crisis. Unfortunately, for the twenty or so years that followed they had little to show for this wealth regarding modernization and development. Sure the money found its way to the people to some extent, but there was little improvement in terms of infrastructure or diversification of the economy. People used to come here years ago and disbelieve that this was an oil country…because it didn’t look like one. All that has changed under the current Amir.

The Amir has been great for Qatar. He has been instrumental in bringing about positive change in terms of both the economy and democracy. Under his leadership Qatar has emerged from the doldrums to become a regional economic powerhouse. I think Qatar and the UAE share the possibility of becoming powerful and influential forces in the region by the examples they set, and by the services they offer in terms of banking and trade. There is a sort of glastnost occurring here, and oddly, it’s largely been imposed from above rather than demanded from below.

As such it’s important not to move too quickly with everything. A traditional society can only digest so much change at once. Democratic reforms, for instance, are being phased in step by step. I think of Qatari society today as similar to England in the 17th century. Due to the novelty of increased political power and rights, the people of England lacked a certain political sophistication at that time. They were only able to produce kings or clerics as leaders. As time progressed and sophistication increased, other interests came to bear and politics reflected economic and class interests, regional concerns and so forth. Politics stabilized as the people adapted to a greater voice in their affairs. The situation is similar in most of the middle east. Were there an election tomorrow in most countries here, religious leaders would win hands down. Gulf nations are better served by an enlightened king than by an Oliver Cromwell.

England’s slow transition from absolute monarchy to parliamentary monarchy and finally to democracy provides a fairly good model to follow. It shouldn’t take centuries though, and I doubt that it will. If Qatar today is like 17th century England, then 50 years ago it was like 12th century England. 500 years in 50 isn’t bad.

When I speak of modernization, I don’t want it confused with westernization. The model for development here is not anything like that of the Shah of Iran for example. In that society the Shah dragged his people into the modern age kicking and screaming, until they finally had had enough of him and his heavy-handed “modernization”. Qatar is not simply aping the west and marginalizing its traditions. It’s developing at its own pace and in its own way, and trying to evolve its culture to meet modern challenges, rather than simply abandoning it and replacing it with a western system. Preservation of the culture is vitally important to Qataris. In short, Qatar is not trying to become America, nor should it.

I am also positive about Qatar because I occupy a unique position here, as that of an honored guest. The Qatari people have given me a warm and sincere welcome, and made life here easy for us. Many are eager to befriend us. To be overly or unnecessarily critical of Qatar would be ungrateful and rude. Does this mean that I will do nothing but produce sunshine and light about Qatar? Not at all…. I will call things as I see them…but I am not going to be unduly harsh or judgmental in the face of such kindness and generosity.

Perhaps if someone wants to see more controversy on this blog, then the comments section can be utilized to bring up topics or ask questions about specific issues. I welcome comments, even ones I don’t agree with, provided that they are not rude, sexual, or based upon ignorance (I deleted one a while back that said that the crime rate in Qatar is so low because there is nothing to steal!). Intelligent, controversial commentary is welcome…. Bring it on!


Blogger Blogger User said...

OK . . . .

You said that elections for parliament are being held next year. Does the king still get to pick the cabinet? Can he veto legislation? How much power, in short, will the king get to keep?

5/03/2005 6:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Emma - he's a Prince, not a King.

5/03/2005 3:11 PM  
Blogger dervish said...

Yes, the Amir still picks the cabinet (the council of ministers), and he can veto legislation. He will also appoint, I believe, one third of the members of the shuraa, and two thirds will be elected. Up to this point though, the Amir has picked all of the members of the shuraa.

The Amir will retain the largest voice over most matters of state. Qatar is in a similar state of political development that England witnessed in the days when parliament frequently had to defer to the king. The idea is to slowly introduce democratic reforms.
Progress has been made in the field of civil liberties as well. Qatar has a large degree of freedom of speech and expression, and freedom of religion. The second of these is a very big deal… Qatar is one of the only Gulf states to host churches (I think the UAE might have them too).

Freedom of speech is not absolute here. There is still censorship, but it is in regard to obscenity, not politics. Certain keywords trigger a screen-blocker on websites, so pornography won’t appear. Likewise certain magazines have parts of pictures of women’s bodies covered with black ink or tape, if they are deemed obscene e.g. Cosmopolitan, etc.

Regarding politics, it could be argued that Qatar has more freedom of speech than the USA, as the Bush administration has been leaning on the Qatari government heavily to rein in al-Jazeera. What a hilarious sight! A US administration complaining that a Gulf state’s press is too free! The irony was not lost on the Amir, and he is not knuckling under. The claim is, rightly, that al-Jazeera is independent and can say what they wish. Al-Jazeera is in the process of being sold, it remains to be seen what will ultimately happen to it.

I have never seen political censorship here. All newspapers, television, and websites are available (except pornography). Because freedom of speech is still a new concept here, it’s best not to push the envelope too far without good reason, but so far so good.

5/03/2005 4:47 PM  
Blogger Blogger User said...

Thanks for the info dervish. Amir, sorry, not King. I guess my analysis would be that the new parliament won't have a lot of power but will have moral authority, which it will hopefully use to push for more democratic reform. Hopefully !

5/04/2005 7:05 AM  
Blogger dervish said...

yeah, basically I think it will be a forum where issues can be brought up, and a formal redress of grievances sought.

Interestingly, if someone has a problem here in Qatar (a citizen), an appointment can be made to see the Amir about it.. that's how small this country is!

5/04/2005 11:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

:The Amir will retain the largest voice over most matters of state. Qatar is in a similar state of political development that England witnessed in the days when parliament frequently had to defer to the king. The idea is to slowly introduce democratic reforms.:

As-Salaamu 'alaikum,

In fact, the Queen in the UK is still theoretically allowed to veto bills passed by parliament, and still chooses ministers, including the prime minister. She chooses whoever leads the elected party, but that's convention, not law.

5/05/2005 12:00 PM  
Blogger Ann said...

Assalaamu alaikum,

I think some people don't realize how much Qatar has changed. I wanted to visit there just because we'd been to every other Gulf country, and my husband had this idea that is was kind of a dump... He was pleasantly surprised, and we really enjoyed our visit.

By the way, Kuwait has many churches of various denominations. They also have diplomatic relations with the Vatican and at least one school run by nuns. In fact, non-Muslims may have more freedom of worship than Muslims, since the U.S. government isn't insisting that their sermons be monitored, their donations be tracked, their religion curriculum be watered down, etc.

5/05/2005 6:32 PM  
Blogger Blue Chi said...

I am not sure if this thread is a reply to what I wrotne in my blog. I really like your blog, but at one point I got irritated by what I thought was the 'will-to-like-everything-regardless'. I am not from Qatar and I am not writing this because I want to bash the country, the Qatari nation is so friendly and their economy and development is sky-rocketing, but that does not mean that there isn't a single negative thing about the country, I mean, the most smallest aspect, how could you consider 'cheating' in sports justifiable? Giving a person the passport just so that they can claim they have goodsports men is nothing but lame. I don't know if you understand the reason behind making such a rule that only a citizen can play in a national team, if all countries gave 'temporary citizenships' to players they BOUGHT would the rule ever make sense? Some international sports authorities have created new rules just to avoid cheaters like Qatar in that it made only players that are CITIZENS FOR A MINIMUM TIME PERIOD could qualify to join in a certain event. It is shameful to BUY your glory, that's my point. (Just to make things clear, this comment is related to the post about the stadium thing the other day!)

Anyway, talking about the Queen in the UK, she does IN THEORY have the choice whether to consent or not to finalise the passing of a statute, but in practice she cannot ever not consent because that will mean that they will have to kick her out.

5/05/2005 9:54 PM  
Blogger dervish said...

Frankly, I think the citizenship-for-footballers thing is hilarious! Granted it could certainly cause trouble for international events, but on a local level it does make for some good football.

5/05/2005 11:34 PM  
Blogger Blue Chi said...

I think that it has a much deeper implication of the attempt to 'buy glory'. It is just so shameful, I mean how can you award your nationality to a player for the sole reason of getting a medal at the Olympics?! Just read the first paragraph of this article here http://sport.guardian.co.uk/olympics2004/othersports/story/0,14817,1290339,00.html

5/06/2005 7:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Blue Chi:-

okay, agreed - buying championship glory etc, where the champion is not a 'native' sportsman, true this is possibly disingenuous at best (and shameful fraud at worst, which is your point).

Although dervish's comments show his take was on the local arena,
your outrage of this is regarding being dishonest at the international sports arena.

BUT is this really different from accepted practice?? Even big western countries.

Case in point: British Tennis - Greg Rusedski.

- Junaid

1/18/2006 3:02 PM  

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