Amid the continuous stream of revolution reports from the Middle East and North Africa, one country is noticeably absent. Unlike its neighbors, the tiny, oil-rich Gulf nation of Qatar has shown no signs of tumult, ranking last in the Economist’s “shoe-thrower’s index” of Arab unrest. Why has Qatar remained completely peaceful?
Money, and a small population. The revolutions in nearby countries, like Egypt, Yemen, and Oman, have been fueled largely by economic grievances like unemployment and rising food prices. Qatar, which has a population of around 1.5 million, approximately 200,000 of whom are Qatari citizens, has an unemployment rate of half a percent. Its GDP per capita of $145,300 is the highest in the world and its 2010 growth rate was 19.4 percent, also ranking it No. 1 in 2010. Qatar’s wealth comes from oil and natural gas: The country sits on 14 percent of the world’s total natural gas reserves and has 15 billion barrels of proven oil reserves. Qatar should be able to maintain its current export level of oil for 37 years.
And unlike its neighbor Bahrain, Qatar—a majority Sunni Muslim country led by Sunni Muslims—doesn’t struggle with sectarian violence. * Qatar can be most aptly compared to the United Arab Emirates, which is also majority Sunni and flush with oil money. But Qatar’s population is less diverse and much smaller than that of the UAE, which has recently seen some unrest: There were small protests from migrant laborers in January, and a Facebook page promises protests in the region on March 25. A cadre of intellectuals has also petitioned the government to hold open elections.
There are no similar stirrings in Qatar, which is ruled by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. (He overthrew his father in a bloodless coup in 1995.) Its comparably small, docile population allows Sheikh al-Thani to operate a rentier state: Qataris don’t pay income tax, and they’re provided with free utilities and health care. Education is also heavily subsidized, with Qatari students often receiving full scholarships to attend universities. In exchange for these perks, Qataris allow Sheikh al-Thani to rule unopposed.
While most Qataris seem content, one group does suffer from significant injustices. The country’s migrant laborers, primarily from Southeast Asia, are frequently underpaid and abused. The controversial Sponsorship Law, which other Gulf countries have recently abolished, prohibits them from leaving the country without permission from their sponsor, essentially dictating a relationship of indentured servitude. Southeast Asian laborers have virtually no political voice in Qatar. If they were to take to the streets and protest, they’d be deported.
If anything, Qataris are unsympathetic to the plight of migrant laborers. In a recent survey by the Qatar University Social and Economic Research Institute, 77 percent said they thought there were too many expatriates and migrant workers in the nation, and 62 percent thought the number of migrant laborers admitted into the country should be reduced.
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Explainer thanks Steven Cook and Steven Simon of the Council on Foreign Relations, Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution, and Toby Jones of Rutgers University.
Clarification, March 29, 2011: This article originally described Bahrain as “oil-rich.” While oil represents 60 percent of Bahrain’s exports and 70 percent of its government revenues, it ranks behind 62 other countries in terms of oil production. (Return to the revised sentence.)