Published: March 2003
Qatar: Revolution From the Top Down
By Mary Anne Weaver
A young man teams up with his kid brother to send a remote-controlled hot rod tearing through the gravel outside their home in Doha. Passionate about cars, Qataris are ardent drivers, averaging tens of thousands of miles a year. That's made easier with gasoline running about 50 cents a gallon (four liters). A further nicety: no self-service. As a motorist sits behind the wheel in this torrid country, attendants pump gas, sometimes while the engine, and air conditioner, keep running.

The story of modern Qatar began the old-fashioned way: When a son dethroned his father. It happened near the end of June in 1995, as dawn broke over the splendid teak and marble royal palace in the seaside capital of Doha. The aging emir, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani, was en route to a holiday in Switzerland, leaving his firstborn son, Hamad, 45, to run the country in his absence. By 5:30 a.m., Sheikh Hamad, who'd been up all night, stood before an assembly of royal courtiers and representatives of Qatar's most influential families and major tribes and announced that he was taking over. No one protested or even evinced surprise, for in keeping with Bedouin tradition, Hamad had consulted them in advance. All that remained was for them to swear allegiance, and so the dignitaries—a hundred men in flowing white kaffiyehs and brown robes trimmed in gold—came forward to kiss him, depending on their kinship, on the head or shoulder or cheeks or nose.

Weeks earlier, a council of the ruling al-Thani family had agreed with Sheikh Hamad that his father, who had developed an unseemly fondness for opulence and alcohol, was unfit to continue at the helm of Qatar's hereditary monarchy. This consensus enabled Hamad, who was crown prince, to legitimately assume power that morning in June. So by the time the sun was full over the palace, Sheikh Khalifa's 23-year reign had come to an end.

Shortly thereafter, the new emir—his father's fair-haired boy, the first of his five sons—telephoned his father in Switzerland to break the news. Forewarned, an outraged Khalifa refused to take the call.

That wasn't the end of it. Eight months later Sheikh Khalifa, backed by many of his fellow monarchs in the Persian Gulf, attempted to regain his throne by launching a countercoup, an undertaking doomed from the start.

Six hundred Bedouin tribesmen, recruited by Khalifa loyalists, crossed into Qatar from Saudi Arabia, but once across the border many became lost. Meanwhile a band of French mercenaries, hired as a "seaborne invasion force," left their five-star hotel in Doha and went to the beach, but they couldn't find their boats. And there were stories like this, from a man who had been sitting in his garden when he heard a rumble "rather like a tank." He tiptoed to the garden's edge and looked out beyond the gate. To his astonishment he saw a Land Rover filled with half a dozen large Bedouin men, their red-and-white-checkered kaffiyehs dancing in the wind. "They were arguing among themselves," he told me, "and they were clearly lost. How is it possible to get lost in Doha?" he shook his head. "One of them was shouting 'Where's the palace?' into his mobile phone."

When the coup d'état failed, Sheikh Hamad arrested more than a hundred conspirators and demanded that his father—who lives in the south of France when he's not in London—return several billion dollars to the state. (He returned around a billion dollars in 1997.) As important, in a region where egos are elaborate and the rituals of power baroque, Sheikh Hamad began to reign in a manner that his fellow monarchs—whose average age was 68—considered heretical, by declaring a series of political and social reforms that in a few short years have transformed this tiny sheikhdom into a vastly different Qatar than the one his father had ruled.

One of the smallest and least known countries in the Arab world, Qatar is, after Saudi Arabia, the most conservative and most traditional society in the Persian Gulf, where Wahhabism, a strict interpretation of Islam, is the official religion and falconry and camel racing are national pastimes. Rich in oil and natural gas, Qatar (pronounced KUT-ter) is one of the wealthiest nations on Earth. It is also, under its relatively young emir, the Arab world's most revolutionary.

Sheikh Hamad's Qatar is a place where women have been given the vote, and where a population raised on tribal monarchy was recently urged—by its monarch—to get out and vote. It is home to two U.S. college campuses, including a medical school imported from Cornell University, giving Qatari students unprecedented access to modern ideas and opportunities. It has also mounted the world stage: as a key staging area for U.S. military forces in the gulf and as the home of Al Jazeera, the Arab world's answer to CNN.

Such changes might be expected to resonate with the young. Yet it's the younger generation that appears to be most unsettled by the reforms of Sheikh Hamad. Young men, feisty and politically aware—and educated largely in the West—are heavily influenced by the broader currents in the Muslim world, including the Islamic activism they encounter in local mosques. And young Qatari women are, it turns out, even more conservative than young men.

No one had been pounding on the palace gates, beseeching the emir to reform his country, share political power, or grant women political rights. The reforms had been his idea. All of which poses the question: Can a tradition-bound Arab country, even one as small and fabulously wealthy as Qatar, be reformed by royal decree, from the top down?

I arrived in Doha after an absence of 18 months; much had changed since my previous visit, which came before the tragedies of September 11. In late 2000 Qatar had assumed leadership of the influential Organization of the Islamic Conference, and in November 2001 it had successfully hosted the leaders of the World Trade Organization. It had also experienced its first terrorist attack, when a gunman opened fire on U.S. troops at a Qatari air base; he was killed in the exchange.

Qatar seemed considerably richer than on my last visit, and I soon discovered why. Its economy—arguably the fastest growing in the world—was being lifted by revenues from natural gas. As a result, Sheikh Hamad's subjects, whose per capita income is estimated to be more than $28,000 a year, are now among the richest in the world. And wealth had brought its own kind of revolution.

At night the sparkling lights of Doha, which had always resembled a necklace of pearls, were now studded with neon baubles from McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken. For morning coffee I had a choice of Starbucks (where a crowd of young men told me how wonderful Osama bin Laden was) or a coffeehouse in the suq (where a crowd of old men told me how wonderful Saddam Hussein was).

Both men and women are increasingly flocking abroad to Western, including American, universities. On their return to the sheikhdom, many become part of the growing number of young technocrats who serve in the government. Others take over professional and managerial posts. Everyone is encouraged to take up jogging, tennis, or golf—the influence of Sheikh Khalifa, who, as other Persian Gulf sheikhs were transforming their nations into mercantile centers and financial hubs, was riding around Doha in a black Mercedes, inspecting the construction of museums and sports clubs. So today young women, shrouded from head to toe in black abayas, can be seen jogging along Doha Bay in bright new running shoes.

Qatari society is so small that everyone seems to know everyone else—with the possible exception of the guest workers. Of the sheikhdom's total population of 600,000, less than 200,000 are citizens of Qatar. The other 400,000 are foreigners, who tend to live in their own compounds and keep to themselves. Qatar's oil and gas industries are run in part by Americans, Canadians, Britons, and French; its government offices are frequently staffed with Palestinians, Syrians, and Egyptians; its taxicabs and restaurants, with Filipinos, Indians, and Pakistanis.

Take to an airplane and Qatar recedes to a tan flatness, but on the ground its deserts become undulant mountains of sand rolling down to the sea. Geographically, the country is a peninsula the size of Jamaica: 4,400 square miles (11,400 square kilometers) of land protruding from Saudi Arabia into the Persian Gulf.

Not so long ago, the borders of Arabia were imaginary lines in the sand laid down by warring tribes, and it was into what is now Qatar that Sheikh Hamad's al-Thani ancestors migrated from the vast central desert of Arabia in the mid-1700s. Had the al-Thanis not come under British protection in 1868, and signed an agreement with Britain in 1916 that allowed for Qatar's eventual independence in 1971, the sheikhdom could easily have become a province of Saudi Arabia.

The peninsula had few apparent resources except for pearls, and by the mid-18th century it was one of the most productive pearling grounds on Earth. Oil was discovered in 1939, and it is still being discovered today. Off Qatar's northeast coast lies the world's largest deposit of natural gas not occurring with an oil field.

The size of that deposit is difficult to grasp: It covers an area half the size of Qatar itself and holds some 900 trillion cubic feet (25 trillion cubic meters) of natural gas, enough to heat all U.S. homes for more than a century. Being developed at an accelerated rate, this field promises to make Qatar one of the world's largest suppliers of energy, and in a few years the richest nation, per capita, on Earth.

Under Sheikh Khalifa, who ascended to the throne in 1972, as oil revenues started to pour in, Qatar became a welfare state whose citizens were provided all amenities. It also began to stagnate under his tepid and insular leadership.

Hamad, Khalifa's eldest son, was born in Doha in 1950, the only child of Khalifa's favorite wife, who died shortly after Hamad's birth. He was raised to his father's specifications and educated in Doha, where he studied the Koran and sharia law. When he was 17 he went to study abroad in England, where he fine-tuned his ear for politics. (As a teenager, he'd even been briefly detained, in Doha, when he and a group of school chums demonstrated in support of Arab nationalists.) After his father ascended to the throne, Hamad, by then back in Qatar, became commander in chief of the nation's armed forces and was named as his father's heir.

A subtle contest for power between the increasingly distracted Khalifa and his increasingly independent son surfaced during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, when several thousand U.S. troops were sped to the sheikhdom, which they used as a staging base for air strikes against Iraq. After the war Sheikh Hamad, who had argued for opening Qatar to foreign investment, began, as defense minister, to forge a military alliance with the United States. As emir he followed through, and today Washington has an enormous stake in Qatar.

I met with Sheikh Hamad in 2000 at the royal palace in Doha. He was dressed in a traditional white dishdasha, his face was framed by a flowing white kaffiyeh secured by a black cord, and he wore wire-rimmed spectacles perched on his nose. Unlike other Middle Eastern monarchs I've met, Sheikh Hamad's manner was informal, at times ebullient, and he spoke in impeccable English polished at Sandhurst and Cambridge.

I asked the emir if he would ever permit U.S. troops to be based on Qatari soil. Given the problems that a U.S. military presence has caused Saudi Arabia, I was taken aback by his reply.

"If the United States asks, there will be no opposition," he responded without pause.

After 9/11, the Bush Administration came calling. Today more than 3,300 U.S. military personnel, largely from the Air Force, are based here. Some are assigned to Camp Snoopy, a high-security facility on the outskirts of Doha; others are at As Sayliyah, on an enormous, Pentagon-financed pre-positioning base in the eastern desert, the largest such facility outside the United States. Still others are at Al Udeid, a Qatari air base deep in the desert that Sheikh Hamad built at a cost of more than a billion dollars. He recently went one step further, authorizing the United States Central Command to stage a major military exercise, held in December 2002, out of As Sayliyah.

Months after 9/11, I asked Muhammad al-Musfir, a professor of political science at the University of Qatar, how the U.S. presence was playing here. Not well, he told me.

"Your military is a very provocative element, and it's not just my students who are saying this," he said. "Go to the suq. Go downtown. Go to any café. The attitude is decidedly anti-American." He also took issue with the idea, promoted by the government, that Qatar's military alliance with the U.S. was making it more secure. "Qatar has no enemies; it faces no threat. In the long term, the American presence will not serve our security. Sheikh Hamad's reforms, in the end, are the greatest security blanket that he has."

One Friday morning, just before midday prayers, I went to the falcon market with a friend. January is the falconing season, and the birds were selling swiftly, and for a substantial price: A blond shaheen from Iran had fetched the equivalent of $30,000, a dealer named Hussein told us with a broad smile. We then settled ourselves in overstuffed armchairs, arranged in a large circle in his shop, and sipped Bedouin coffee from tiny porcelain cups.

A family of falconers joined us: a father and his son, and a bright little boy of six, who was the older man's grandson. Normally at this time of year scores of Qataris would be off to Pakistan with their falcons to hunt the houbara bustard, a cursorial desert bird that migrates there each autumn—via Afghanistan—from the Central Asian steppes. But the birds were late this year, and the falconers were most distressed.

"It's your government's fault," the son said to me. "Your bombing campaign in Afghanistan has disoriented them!"

I attempted to lead the conversation around to the emir's reforms, but the falconers were intent, like nearly everyone I met, on criticizing the United States and its war on terrorism, often referred to here as a war on Islam.

Although religion touches nearly every aspect of Qatari life, Islam here is a coastal breeze compared with the angry winds swirling over other parts of the Middle East. It's true that Qatar is the world's only Wahhabi state other than Saudi Arabia, adhering to the strict interpretation of Islam put forward by Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a religious leader in central Arabia who formed an alliance with the House of Saud in 1744. Yet Qatar has always worn the cloak of Islam far more loosely than Saudi Arabia. There are no militant Islamist groups here, no radical clerics calling for jihad during Friday prayers.

Still, there is religious activism. Some Qataris have joined scattered missionary groups known as Da'wa that are proselytizing and actively recruiting, especially among the young, in their advocacy of a more rigid form of Islam. Qatar's so-called Da'waists wear the long, broad beards and white calf-length robes that are emblems of devout Wahhabi faith in Saudi Arabia. Other Qataris make up what are by far the largest and most amorphous of the groups, known collectively as "the traditionalists." Most of them are considered, at least for now, harmless dissenters who cling to the status quo and oppose the emir's reforms.

Still other Qataris are admirers of Osama bin Laden, who is rumored to have occasionally visited a villa on Doha's beach until he went underground in Afghanistan in 1999. That villa is owned by an Islamist financier who is also a member of the ruling family. U.S. investigators are trying to establish whether he had any links to a handful of Qataris—the number is in dispute—who were captured by American forces as they fought in Afghanistan with the Taliban.

On my visits here in recent years, I'd come to appreciate the fine art of the Qatari picnic, which involves slipping out of Doha in a four-wheel drive loaded with bottled water and picnic supplies, and heading down the coast to Khor al-Udeid, a beautiful, secluded beach at Qatar's southernmost tip. So one morning I set out with two friends, Moza al-Malki and Zakia Malallah, who had become my eyes and ears as they led me by the hand through various passages—close-knit families, nascent empowerment groups, and contradictions and confusions—of Qatari women attempting to find their way in the modern world.

Between them they probably shared as many firsts as any two Qatari women: Moza, 44, was the first Qatari woman to have earned a master's degree in psychology and worked as the sheikhdom's first practicing psychotherapist. She now holds a Ph.D. Zakia, 42, who studied in Egypt, earned her country's first Ph.D. in pharmacology and now runs a government pharmaceutical lab in the capital. Moza had been a candidate in municipal elections in 1999—the first elections in Qatar's history—and had been the nation's first woman to drive. Zakia was one of the first female Qatari poets to be published outside the country.

As our driver navigated the outskirts of Doha, I watched as they served breakfast in the car on colorful paper plates. The scene was a bit incongruous: Moza, dressed in blue jeans and a beret, served a variety of traditional beans laced with marinades. Zakia, who had removed her face mask but not her abaya and veil, passed around bags of Fritos and potato chips.

About an hour south of Doha we left the highway. Between us and our destination there was no road, only desert, and we set off in a cloud of dust. Then, suddenly, the sand dunes began, looming on both sides of our car: A vast maze of peaks and dips, undulating ergs, they looked to me like monumental anthills. Some of them rose to a height of 30 feet and, as we raced up them, then hurtled down, it was like riding a giant roller coaster, or perhaps worse. Molded by the wind, the dunes constantly changed shape and form as they enveloped us in their expanse of beige and ivory, orange and red. At times they seemed to move and shift around us flirtatiously; at other times they seemed to chant.

After 45 minutes of this, we reached Khor al-Udeid, a picture-postcard beach, populated mainly by flamingos, where Qatar comes to a sudden but memorable end. In the distance, we could see a scattering of brightly colored shamiana tents and clusters, here and there, of bamboo tables and chairs. On the horizon, just beyond the dunes, stood the pink cliffs of Saudi Arabia.

We unpacked our towels and bags, then joined a few dozen other picnickers on the beach. While Moza and I sat watching the waves, Zakia, her abaya blowing in the wind, moved off down the shore.

I asked Moza to tell me about the municipal elections, in which she had been one of six female candidates. At the time, I remembered, a religious conservative had petitioned Sheikh Hamad to prevent women from running. He ignored the admonition, and the elections went ahead according to plan: the first poll in any gulf state in which women both voted and ran. During her campaign, Moza sent a questionnaire to her constituents asking, "Have you ever heard of democracy?" Fifty percent responded no. And on election day, she and the other women were defeated at the polls.

I asked why. "Because women didn't vote for us," she replied, explaining that 80 percent of her votes came from men. One of the female candidates, Moza went on, had received only 15 votes from women. The woman had voted for herself and the 12 female members of her family had supported her. Today, nearly four years later, she continues to puzzle over who the two other women were.

Zakia now returned, leading a group of six or seven men toward us across the sand. They were friends of hers from the government. As we chatted, American planes flew in formation overhead. Everyone in our newly enlarged group was full of opinions on everything, from Washington's growing military presence here to the pace of Sheikh Hamad's reforms, which are supported mainly by intellectuals and academics, along with influential members of the ruling family.

"Why are we spending 30 million dollars a year on Al Jazeera?" one young man asked excitedly. "We are meddling in everyone's affairs and making ourselves a sitting duck. We were quite happy as we were before."

"We weren't happy," said one of his older friends. "We were tranquilized."

A wake-up call went out to Qatar, and the Arab world, when Sheikh Hamad launched Al Jazeera in 1996 with a pledge of 140 million dollars. At about the same time, he dismantled Qatar's Ministry of Information, abolished censorship, and gave his new television network license to follow its journalistic mission.

Today opposition leaders from across the Middle East flock to its studios to challenge their governments; other guests have included, via videotape, Osama bin Laden and other leaders of al Qaeda. Subjects like torture and tyranny are hotly debated. Panelists confront each other, and viewers call in with questions or opinions of their own. Al Jazeera has transformed journalism in the Middle East, made Qatar a force to be reckoned with in regional and world affairs, and shaken the status quo.

The emir did not start Al Jazeera to irritate his fellow rulers, insisted his minister of foreign affairs, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabr al-Thani. Nevertheless, both men seemed to take a wicked delight in the bedlam the station has caused, particularly when the noise disturbs the sleep of the giant next door, Saudi Arabia.

One of Al Jazeera's most provocative voices is that of Faisal al-Kasim, a 41-year-old Syrian who hosts The Opposite Direction, a popular show modeled after CNN's Crossfire. I asked him what topics had generated his most important programs. "Those that have touched upon the debate in Islam over highly sensitive religious issues," he replied. "I've had secularists challenge Islamists, and Islamists challenge representatives of their states. This is at the very core of what's happening in the Middle East today."

These have also been among his most controversial shows, including one in which two women debated the merits of polygamy. One, a leftist member of the Jordanian Parliament, opined that a seventh-century practice, though sanctioned by the Prophet, was "total rubbish" now. As Faisal looked on in disbelief, his other guest, an Egyptian Islamist and traditionalist, stormed off the show, shouting "Blasphemy!" as she made for the door.

I asked the emir about the repercussions of sending such programs into the homes of some 35 million viewers, in an Arab world unaccustomed to hearing the truth on its nightly news.

"Was there any turning back with Al Ja-zeera?" I began.

"What a headache," he responded, chuckling. "It has caused me no end of problems, I must admit. But those same people who protested against it are following it too. For a headache, I use aspirin, and I can live with it."

In a speech during his first visit to the U.S., in 1997, the emir recalled President John F. Kennedy's famous words: "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." Qatar, he told me, could no longer isolate itself. The only hope the country had for coping with rapid change was to reform. In 1999 Sheikh Hamad put his belief in democracy into action, naming 32 people to a commission charged with drafting a new constitution, one that would set the stage for an elected parliament. With the emir's expected approval of the draft, which was finished last July, Qataris could once again go to the polls, perhaps as early as the end of this year.

"He saw Qatar before we had wealth," observed Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem, the foreign minister, of the emir. "We had no hospitals; some people had no medicine or food. So you can imagine when oil came: People here didn't even know what money was. Not surprisingly, the money was misused. Even with all this wealth and all this luck, the emir saw Qatar going nowhere. In his view, Qatar wasn't modern enough to survive."

It may take years to reform such a tradition-bound society, but today Qatar is moving forward in new and unexpected ways. In fact, of all the changes I saw during my recent visit, one of the most radical is occurring in Doha's City Center, a popular new shopping mall that is among the largest in the Persian Gulf. Socially, Qatar is still a largely segregated society, where most marriages are arranged, nearly half of them within the extended family. Even at the university, no classes are mixed; men and women have few opportunities to meet.

Yet now, at the City Center, riding the escalator has become a social event. Out one evening with some Qatari friends, I watched groups of young women dressed in flowing black abayas and veils, but with their faces uncovered, glide up an escalator as groups of young men passed by, riding down. Glances were exchanged, and so, on occasion, were coquettish smiles. Elsewhere men and women even sat together and talked, in the coffeehouses and restaurants sprinkling the mall, as their bored brothers, or nervous aunts or mothers, looked on.

"Before the mall, each family would sit together at home," Sheikha al-Misnad, a vice president of the University of Qatar, had told me. "Now people are going out; they're seeing other families, and they can relate to each other. Going to the mall, just walking, or sitting around is totally new in our society." Qatar is opening up.

On this point, at least, Sheikh Hamad's open-minded reforms appear to be welcomed by many of the young. No one on the escalator seemed the least bit unhappy.