Collective Frustration, But No Collective Action, in Qatar

by Justin Gengler | published December 7, 2013

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.

And in Libya, protesters burned Qatari flags and effigies of the former emir, while gunmen more than once blocked the arrival of passengers on Qatar Airways. Far from grateful for Qatar’s military and humanitarian assistance in service of the revolution, many Libyans accused the Gulf emirate of unwanted interference for its alleged support of salafi movements and groups tied to the Society of Muslim Brothers. For fear of retribution from the country’s many new enemies, ordinary Qataris now regularly hid their identities while traveling abroad, posing as Emiratis or other less conspicuous nationalities.

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, [1] 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. [2] Such trends show no signs of slowing as Qatar quickens preparations for its great prize -- hosting the 2022 World Cup.

These misgivings have inspired much individual grumbling but so far only the hint of collective action. Qatar has remained the sole redoubt amid the wave of popular protest washing over the Arab world, even other Gulf states, since the beginning of 2011. Home to the richest people in the world, the country has annual oil and gas revenues that alone amount to more than $165,000 per citizen, much of which is duly distributed via a vast complex of salaries, allowances, land allotments and other economic benefits. That Qataris should feel no strong desire to alter this comfortable status quo, whatever the attendant annoyances, would seem to require little by way of explanation.

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. [3] A similar result emerges if one takes as an indicator instead the aforementioned question about fairness in hiring.

Bounds of the Acceptable

In May, noted Harvard political scientist Gary King published an academic paper on the nature of Internet censorship in China. [4] Analyzing millions of social media posts captured before they passed through government filters, King and his co-authors demonstrated that it is not criticism -- even vitriolic criticism -- of officials and policy that China works systematically to block, but rather any content that might spur or facilitate collective action. Individual grousing is permitted and perhaps even welcomed as a relatively innocuous outlet for frustration, they show; joining together with like-minded others is potentially dangerous and thus intolerable.

Such a lesson has obvious parallels in other non-democracies, including in the Middle East, where a common description of government-citizen relations runs, in the imagined words of the state, “You say what you want, and we do what we want.” In Qatar, the art of tanfis, or controlled venting, reaches an impressive height, not least in the form of a daily program on state-owned radio called “Good Morning, My Beloved Nation.” For two hours, callers lodge complaints ranging from insufficient retirement benefits to unfair standardized tests to the poor quality of local fish. The two empathetic hosts duly promise to follow up with the concerned authorities, before moving on to the next caller. Intermittent follow-ups by previous callers make it clear that some cases are resolved more satisfactorily than others.

In September, however, a rare thing happened. Rather than take solace in the mere airing of grievances, a group of citizens animated by a perennial issue -- the state of the country’s primary and secondary education system -- took the bold step of seeking to organize in pursuit of shared policy aims. Beyond its poor quality per se -- as of 2009, Qatar surpassed only Panama, Peru, Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan in student performance in math, science and reading [5] -- citizens also criticized the system’s perceived Western curriculum and independent school model. In addition, Qataris resented the high enrollment fees charged by some schools, these taking advantage of a newly introduced government voucher system, meant to subsidize citizens’ schooling costs, by charging nationals double the rate of expatriates.

The upshot is that by the time of the national survey administered in early 2013, only 29 percent of Qataris reported being “very satisfied” with the K-12 education system, whereas the same proportion were either “somewhat” or “completely unsatisfied.” What is more, a clear majority of Qataris indicated that they would like a greater say in changes to the education system, with only 42 percent of citizens believing that such changes “should be left up to the concerned authorities.”

When parents returned from summer vacation to find inflated fees and limited spaces at desirable schools, frustration boiled over in an unusually public -- and collective -- manner. A social media campaign launched by the well-known and outspoken Qatari columnist Faysal al-Marzouqi called on parents to keep their children home on October 1. [6] Titled “First of October, I Will Stand Up,” the unprecedented boycott came complete with a list of demands printed in the popular Arabic-language daily al-‘Arab. The campaign was effectively defused when, a day before the scheduled boycott and following weeks of government silence, the minister of education met with school operators and agreed to limited changes. Yet his concessions were soon negated by the Supreme Education Council, chaired by the emir himself, prompting renewed if less organized anger. [7] The boycott in any case was averted, and the effort prompted no actual change in policy.

It is of course an open question how many Qataris would have taken the unusual and very visible step advocated by their more voluble peers. Indeed, asked about the significance of this seemingly extraordinary mobilization, several individuals suggested that its real purpose was precisely to identify those citizens with questionable allegiance to the new ruler -- a sort of early loyalty test. For now, at least, the expected price to pay for overstepping the bounds of acceptable citizen action remains too great a risk for most Qataris, whose protests seem destined to be heard only on Twitter, in the opinion pages and, of course, on call-in radio.

Endnotes

[1] The survey was developed by faculty and undergraduate student collaborators at Northwestern University in Qatar, led by Jocelyn Mitchell, and the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar. It was funded by a grant from the Qatar Foundation, and was administered by the Social and Economic Survey Research Institute of Qatar University.
[2] The Qatar Statistics Authority reports a population of 1,864,817 as of August 31 and 2,035,106 as of September 30.
[3] These effects correspond to predicted probabilities evaluated at –1 and +1 standard deviations, respectively, from the mean response for this question regarding the prevalence of wasta in Qatar.
[4] Gary King, Jennifer Pan and Margaret E. Roberts, “How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression,” American Political Science Review 107/2 (May 2013).
[5] OECD, “PISA 2009 Results: What Students Know and Can Do: Student Performance in Reading, Mathematics and Science” (2010).
[6] The Peninsula, September 19, 2013.
[7] The Peninsula, October 2, 2013.

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