Qatar: The small Arab monarchy with the loud democratic voice

It's a contradiction. Qatar, the Gulf country which sits atop a huge natural gas field, is ruled firmly as a monarchy. And yet it has become a strong advocate of democracy in the Arab Spring.

Credit: Gary Fabiano/Sipa Press/Newscom
The emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, meets April 14 in the Oval Office with President Barack Obama. The American president had high praise for the Qatari monarch's support for democracy in Libya.

Qatar, the tiny monarchy on the Persian Gulf that's rich in natural gas, is by no means a free country. And yet, it's become a champion for freedom in North Africa and the Middle East. Can it be a credible advocate, given its own democracy deficit?

It won high praise from President Obama as the prime Arab backer of the democratic cause in Libya. It led the Arab League to support the no-fly zone over Libya, and then it sent its fighter jets to enforce it. Qatar became the first Arab country to recognize the rebel transitional council as the only legitimate government in Libya. It's helping the rebels market their oil.

There's more. That stubborn dictator in Yemen who won't leave? Qatar and other countries the belong to the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council have been working on a deal to get him to quit. Meanwhile, Qatar wants to set up a Middle East Development Bank to support Arab countries as they undergo democratic transitions. The bank would be modeled on the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development that proved so crucial in helping Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But there is another side to Qatar's democracy ledger. The country backed up Saudi troops in neighboring Bahrain to put down democratic protesters there (Qatar says it had to fulfill its alliance obligations). It's friendly with Iran (in the interests of fending off a grab of an enormous gas field that it shares with Iran). Despite reforms in recent years that allow municipal elections and women to vote, the rule of the royal family is firm. The watchdog group Freedom House designates Qatar "not free." The group complains especially about the lack of rights for foreign workers, who make up the majority of the population.

A good illustration of the credibility question is the Middle East media giant, al-Jazeera. The satellite TV network is based in Qatar, and owned by the government. Executives say the network maintains editorial independence, but apparently not. It reported enthusiastically and continually on the revolutions in North Africa, but it's been criticized for under-reporting the put down of protesters next door in Bahrain.

At the moment, Qatar itself is a peninsula of stability in the region. No mass protests here. Its wealth and social support for its citizens, and its reforms in education and the economy, have kept it peaceful and growing (its economic growth for this year is forecast at 20 percent -- the highest in the world).

Qatar is a helpful US ally. It is home to an American airbase, and has withstood severe criticism in the Arab world for that. It can be a forceful advocate for democracy in the region because of its influence, wealth, and forward-leaning ruler. But it will have to keep moving in the democracy direction itself, or, like its famed TV network, it may begin to lose the confidence of the democracy builders it is trying to help.

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