The adoption of Qatar’s permanent constitution in a public referendum in April 2003 with 98% approval represented a milestone in the reform process and brought about some modest improvements with regard to democratic ideals. While the constitution stipulates that rulers of Qatar should be from the Al Thani family and the position of the emir is not to be contested, it nonetheless officially provides basic rights and liberties for citizens. Also, it lays the ground for an – albeit underdeveloped – system of power sharing between the three traditional branches of government. Significantly, however, the constitution called for the creation of a partially elected parliament to replace the 35 appointed members of the current Advisory Council. However, elections were delayed multiple times and are not expected to take place until 2016.
Economically, Qataris have the highest per capita income in the world. Its enormous hydrocarbon rent income enabled the ruling family to establish a vast social welfare state without the need for taxation and its citizens enjoy a very high standard of living. However, this development was accompanied by the ever-rising import of cheap labor from foreign countries as Qataris were at first not able, and later unwilling, to perform the amount of demanding or degrading work necessary for such rapid progress. This led to Qataris becoming a highly privileged, but also tiny minority in their own country, constituting only about 12% of the population. Qatar’s economy is thus highly dependent on hydrocarbon exports and foreign labor, and is in need of diversification. The challenge now is to transform its mainly rent-based economy into a knowledge-based one and to Qatarize the workforce. Doha is already known as an economic and financial hub, Qatar Airways is one of the world’s leading airlines, and it is strategically located between the important markets of Europe and Southeast Asia.
Over the last decade, Qatar has positioned itself as a key power broker in the region, having successfully contributed to the resolution several regional conflicts. As a result, Qatar developed strong ties with both regional and international players. However, Qatar has also been subject to increasing criticism for its regional power and foreign policy activity in the wake of the Arab Spring, which includes the support of (violent and non-violent) Islamist groups in various Arab countries. Saudi Arabia in particular tried to dampen Qatar’s rise to regional power, culminating in the withdrawal of Saudi, Bahraini and Emirati diplomats from Doha in March 2014. Qatar’s activism significantly declined among rising domestic criticism since Emir Tamim came to power in 2013. Further pressure was put on the tiny country because of international attention surrounding FIFA’s decision to give Qatar the hosting rights to the World Cup in 2022 in December 2010. At the time, this was seen as a major victory – a signal that Qatar’s national branding and development were appreciated, which could be used as a catalyst for development. However, the tables turned on Qatar and the media attention was seized by human and labor rights groups who vocally decried the situation of foreign workers in the Gulf state. Also, more traditional sectors of society that do not support further political opening and economic liberalization saw the event as a further challenge to the country’s identity.