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Doha debate reveals gulf between locals, its elite and expatriates

While more and more Qataris seem to be expressing their disapproval or disquiet not only in the Majalis but also in the wider public sphere, it would be naive to speak of further liberalisation of the liberalised autocracy.

Sarah El-Richani
17 September 2013

Recent commentaries by Qatari citizens and journalists both in the local and social media reveal a polity eager to engage critically and openly on the manner in which its ruling elite are managing the country’s immense oil and gas revenues. Concerns voiced reveal a divide between the largely conservative population and the local elite’s ambitious plans for the emirate of Qatar. 

In addition to the ongoing call to boycott Qatar Airways for serving alcohol and monopolising the local market, other campaigns have recently taken on other state-owned institutions. Last month, Qatari columnist Faisal al-Marzoqi wrote a fiery piece accusing the largely expatriate management of the Qatar Museums’ Authority (QMA) of corruption, nepotism and mismanagement.

The QMA responded by threatening to sue for defamation. The Chairwoman of the QMA and sister of the ruling Emir, Sheikha Mayassa bint Hamad al Thani, who was dubbed by the Economist “the art world’s most powerful woman”, later announced the restructuring of the QMA into a “private entity for public good” thereby freeing it of obligations expected of government-entities.

Ensuing discussions on Twitter (in Arabic) have also scrutinised Qatar’s usually unannounced art acquisitions, which are purported to have cost at least $1 billion. It is unclear if purchases including Mark Rothko’s White Center and Paul Cezanne’s The Card Players, are part of a private collection, will be exhibited in local museums, or are regarded as investments adding value to the ambitious cultural goals Qatar has set for itself, in part to decrease the state’s reliance on oil and gas revenues.

Nearly a fortnight after the kerfuffle concerning the QMA, Qatar University (QU) was targeted last week by a petition condemning its library catalogue for listing books deemed offensive. The university was quick to respond, promising to filter out books which are considered to have breached “clear criteria”.

Although some of the publications mentioned in the petition do not appear to be academic (an outdated book on wine and beer making), others, albeit on controversial topics, are anthropological and of a scholarly nature  (academic edited work by sociologists Samir Khalaf and John Gagnon on “Sexuality in the Arab World”). It remains to be seen what criteria the QU library will implement amid a call by a QU student to resist censorship.

In addition to alleged accusations of corruption, both fiscal and moral, expatriates which greatly outnumber what is effectively a Qatari minority in Qatar have also been attacked for their lucrative salaries and for assuming higher positions than the Qatari ‘citizen aristocracy’. This is a common refrain that overlooks the limited number of Qataris – a mere 250,000.  

The inevitable cultural angst and other concerns expressed, which are at times xenophobic and classist, also reveal a deep gulf between the local population and the expatriates – both the highly-skilled white- and the poorly-treated blue-collar workers.

While more and more Qataris seem to be expressing their disapproval or disquiet not only in the Majalis but also in the wider public sphere, it would be naive to speak of further liberalisation of the liberalised autocracy. Despite having held four municipal elections in the past, the promised national elections for the Advisory Council were postponed yet again a day before Emir Hamad abdicated in favour of his son Emir Tamim in June of this year. Meanwhile poet Mohammed al-Ajami, who had his life-sentence cut down to 15 years, continues to languish in jail for his poem Jasmine.

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