Qatar: 12 things you need to know

Ties: Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani (right) stands next to his son at a soccer match in Doha (Photo: Fadi Al-Assaad/Reuters)

Ties: Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani (right) stands next to his son at a soccer match in Doha (Photo: Fadi Al-Assaad/Reuters)

Eighteen years after he deposed his father in a bloodless coup, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, the emir of Qatar, has announced that he will now depose himself. The new emir, to nobody’s surprise, will be his own son, Sheikh Tamim bin Khalifa al Thani. At 33, he is young enough to live to see in 200 years of the Al Thani family’s dominion over Qatar, which they have ruled without interruption since the mid 19th century.
Here’s the rest of what you need to know about the only country in the world that begins with Q.

1. It is very, very, very rich
Indeed, depending on how you calculate it, Qataris are either the richest or the second-richest people in the world. Perhaps the best way to get a sense of it is with purchasing-power parity — essentially a measure of how much stuff you could buy. According to 2010 figures, if you say that American citizens have a purchasing power of 100, then Britons have 75.7 (26th overall). Qataris have 187.1.

2. They are relaxed about immigration
Actually, that’s rather an understatement. Qatar is slightly smaller than the Falkland Islands, and its resident population is only about 1.9-million. Yet among these immigrant workers — mostly from South Asia and the Philippines — outnumber native Qataris by about eight to one, the biggest ratio of migrants to citizens in the world.

3. But not about free speech
Criticising the emir is a crime written into the Constitution. A new Constitution in 2005 was supposed to guarantee press freedom, but last year the regime was still happy to sentence a poet, Muhammad ibn al-Dheeb al Ajami, to life in prison (later commuted to 15 years) for daring to poke fun at them. Qataris are also still waiting for their first national legislative elections, which have been promised for years.

4. You can pronounce it how you like
Even in the Arab world there are variations in the way you say “Qatar”, and most of the sounds don’t have English equivalents anyway. Ku-TER, Ka-TAR, KA-tar, KA-tr, Catarrh — all are acceptable. In the local Arabic dialect, the word actually sounds closer to “guitar”, but the official line is that you should give up and say it how you like, although, of course, the official line is also to get the country talked about as much as possible.

5. The new emir is a public schoolboy
Today he is the youngest leader in the Arab world, but in the 1990s, shortly before his father took power, he was receiving a high-class English education in the dormitories and on the playing fields of Sherborne and Harrow schools. In 1998, he went on to graduate from Sandhurst.

6. Global warming doesn’t seem to bother them
Not only does Qatar export vast quantities of oil and natural gas to the rest of the world, it also shows us how to burn it. By most calculations, Qataris are by far the largest per capita emitters of carbon dioxide in the world, with each person accounting for an estimated 49.1 tonnes in 2008. That compares with 18 tonnes each in the United States and 8.5 in the United Kingdom.

7. It’s growing at breakneck speed
You may think China is the economic miracle of the century so far, but it trails in Qatar’s dust where growth rates are concerned. On average, the country’s economy expanded by 12.9% each year from 2000 to 2010, compared with China’s 10.5%. This was the fourth-highest rate in the world, and the highest of any wealthy country.

8. It’s the anti-Switzerland
There is a tradition of small, rich states staying out of the world’s big arguments, but Qatar isn’t following it. The country was a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation intervention force that helped to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, and it is widely thought to be funding Syrian rebels against Bashar al-Assad. It is also a firm ally of the US, hosting the Al Udeid Air Base, the largest US military facility in the Middle East, yet it has permitted the Taliban to open an office in Doha.

9. Qataris love the limelight
The Qatari government is quite secretive about its business, yet it certainly spends money to get noticed. Al Jazeera, which is based in Doha, was bankrolled by the outgoing emir and has become the most important broadcaster in the Arab world. Then there’s the hugely ambitious Museum of Islamic Art, opened in Doha in 2008, which is more or less a Muslim Louvre. In 2022, Qatar will become the first Muslim country to host the Fifa World Cup, and it is turning Paris Saint-Germain into one of Europe’s major football teams.

10. They own everything
That’s less of an exaggeration than you might think. In 2005, the Qatar Investment Authority was set up specifically to buy a lot of things around the world and thus reduce the country’s exposure to the oil price. In London alone, it owns Harrods, the Shard, the Chelsea Barracks site, the US embassy and the Olympic village site. It is also the largest shareholder in Sainsbury’s, with just over a quarter of the business. And it co-owns Miramax Films after purchasing it from Disney with a group of other investors.

11. There are two bottle stores in the whole country
They are in Doha, and are run by Qatar Distribution Company. To buy alcohol in one, you need a letter from your boss declaring what you earn each month, only a limited percentage of which may be spent on booze. Pork products are also available.

12. The old emir has no taste
After buying Dudley House on Park Lane in London for £37.4-million, Sheikh Hamad launched one of the most expensive renovations ever on a British home, reportedly spending £75-million. The interior, we hear, is “gold leaf throughout” with chandeliers everywhere and “all marble” bathrooms. — © Guardian News & Media 2013

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