Qatari women as depicted on the main website of the Qatar Chamber of Commerce

Qatar’s social divide: hindering a pathway to the future?

By Michael Stephens, Open Democracy, June 10, 2012

When considering what Qatar might have in common with Arab countries which experienced revolutions following December 2010, one might get easily confused. There was no Arab Spring here, people did not take to the streets in protest. Indeed, most Qataris hold a genuine affection for the Emir, something which cannot be said for many other Arab nations.

It follows then that Qatar must be unaffected by the macro social processes that led to the outbreak of the Arab Spring. For if Qatar did not experience any of the symptoms it surely did not suffer from the illness, right?

Wrong, Qatar, like every Arab country in the world is struggling to deal with a number of social issues,ranging from a youth demographic boom, to political Islam, to inherent tribalism which pervades the public sphere.

Of most importance is the struggle between traditionalism and modernity, between the values of a mostly Bedouin orientated society clashing against western ideas. The struggle that many of the country’s young population go through on a daily basis is painfully obvious, as they attempt to combine the expectations of their families with growing up in a globalised world which their parents fundamentally do not understand.

This social cleavage leads to a society which awkwardly steps into the future, leading the ruler Sheikh Hamad Al Thani to plot a course which combines a mix of modernising polices on one hand with concessions to conservative forces on the other.

In recent years, this process has begun to accelerate.

Firstly Qatar has increased its reach to the world, and welcomed in large numbers of expatriate workers, who bring with them ideas and culture alien to Qataris. Some aspects of this alien culture have been absorbed, while other aspects are totally rejected.

But the real driver of change is the huge number of Qataris studying in the United Kingdom and the United States, fully funded of course by the endlessly deep pockets of the state.

For those who shun the temptation to pay for their degree and stick out four years in college, the inculcation of western ideas and values is an inevitable part of their learning experience. Such types are easy to spot, usually by their beautifully accented and flawless English, which in many cases is of a higher standard than their Arabic.

In recent years many of these cultural crossbreeds have made their way back to Qatar, and the result has been both positive and noticeable. Local think tanks designed to encourage Qataris to build their own civic identity from the ground up are finding their feet, and entrepreneurial Qataris now tentatively push for liberalising reforms. It is a slow painful process, but the first signs of real change in Qatar are there.

What is noticeable in Qatar now is that the Arab Awakening has given this process more edge and vitality, and imbued these younger educated members of society with a sense that change will come, and that they must be part of that change. Conversations in the majlis are now more alive with the idea that Qataris must play a more active role in being the change they wish to see.

To some extent this is not against the wishes of the ruling house. Her Highness Sheikha Moza long envisaged a more active public space for Qatar. That the Arab Awakening may have begun to push this process forward a little quicker may be unsettling, but the process was to some extent inevitable.

It remains to be seen if this transition led by young educated Qataris inspired by different values, and the courage of their fellow Arabs in other nations, leads to genuine change and egalitarianism. One thing is for certain, processes of social change have started, which will not be undone.