Times are a'changing in Qatar

Dec 26, 1997 01:00 AM

Times are a'changing in Qatar. It's not just that Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani took power in this rather sleepy country 2 1/2 years ago by overthrowing his father. Now he's shaking things up at home and rattling his Gulf neighbours like powerful Saudi Arabia with his independent streak.
Hamad, who at 47 is some 20 years younger than other Gulf leaders, is moving to give Qataris more say in running the country and to develop the vast North Gas Field that will keep Qatar rich for the next 200 years.
So far there seems to be coexistence between the old and the new, the Western and the Islamic. In the old downtown bazaar, with its graceful arabesque arches, there are as many stores selling American T-shirts as there are shops making the white "dishdasha" robes that are the national dress of Qatari men.
On the capital's seaside promenade, Qatari women covered head to toe in black share the path with Western women jogging in shorts or sweatsuits.
Hamad is beginning to change Qatar's image as the Gulf's most backward state, gained during the 23-year, do-nothing reign of his father, who himself took power in a 1972 coup.
The younger sheik has brought women into his government and lifted press censorship. He is encouraging Western investment and technology and has opened trade relations with Israel. Now he's planning to hold the Gulf's first municipal elections, to be followed in time by the creation of a national assembly.
Nasser al-Othman, editor of the Qatari newspaper Al-Rayah, praises Hamad's modernization but says the emir must be cautious, too. "Some people say, why hold municipal elections? Why not go for electing (a national) advisory council straight away?" al-Othman said. "But he knows he needs to give people time. You need the people to practice for it."
Qatar, like other oil-rich Gulf states, is struggling to open up to the modern world while retaining strict Islamic traditions. It has been easier here because Qataris, though members of the same strict Wahabi sect of Islam that prevails in Saudi Arabia, are more tolerant to foreign ways than some straight-laced neighbors.
Alcohol, for example, is available in Qatar, although it is served in lounges tucked away on upper floors of hotels that have the feel of American speakeasies of the 1920s. Qataris are not allowed to enter.
Abdullah Ali, a Qatari who owns a fabric store in the bazaar, says he is not alarmed by such things. "Yes, we are devout Muslims. But, no, we do not insist that everyone be like us," he said. "We want more people to come here. We want them to feel welcome."
Hamad, who was educated partly in England, does not have universal support at home or abroad for his reforms. Some princes were unhappy when he cut royal family stipends to get money for developing Qatar's gas reserves, the world's third largest. There is talk of imposing fees for the first time for schools and health care, in an otherwise cradle-to-grave welfare system.
Neighboring Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, have been upset by his decision to deal with Israel and his refusal to follow their lead. Qatar held this year's Middle East economic conference in November despite Saudi demands that it be canceled to punish Israel for the lack of progress in peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
When the emir's father, Sheik Khalifa, tried unsuccessfully to regain power last year, he reportedly had backing from the neighboring United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia as well as old Qatari allies.
"The Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, see Sheik Hamad as an upstart who is rocking the boat," said a Western diplomat. "He represents the next generation, and that's a threat."
Hamad is the latest in a long line of Al-Thanis who have ruled Qatar for a century and a half. Once an impoverished land of camel herders, fishermen and pearl divers, the small country is now among the world's wealthiest nations. Per capita income is dlrs 17,500 a year and rising.
Thousands of foreigners work in Qatar's oil fields, factories and homes. As a result, its 180,000 citizens are outnumbered more than 2-to-1 by Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos and a rising number of Americans and Europeans.
It is Qatari women who most feel the tugs and pulls as the country tries to modernize. Women traditionally have stayed at home. There are separate schools for girls. Socializing without a chaperone is forbidden, and most marriages are arranged.
Now, more women are choosing to work, and the Education Ministry is introducing computers and vocational courses to train Qataris for high-technology jobs. It is even think of organizing sports for girls.
Sheikha Ahmed al-Mahmoud, the undersecretary of education and the first woman with a senior government post in the Gulf, doesn't believe tradition should hold Qatari women back. "We can work in our hijab," she said, tugging at the black headscarf she wore with a long-sleeved floral blouse and floor-length skirt.

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