Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani transformed Qatar

May 15, 1999 02:00 AM

Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani looks like any other Persian Gulf ruler, draped in his traditional flowing robe.
What sets him apart are his liberal ideas, which have transformed Qatar and rattled some of his more traditional neighbours.
The emir speaks against autocracy and repression and encourages the 550,000 Qataris to have a say in the running of their state in a region where the concept of democracy is alien.
"The chaos that occurs in some countries is due to the absence of democracy and the denial of people to participate," Hamad said.
Hamad, a graduate of Britain's Royal Military Academy, at 49 is at least 20 years younger than most other leaders in the region.
In addition to his youth, his thinking is believed to have been influenced by the favourite of his three wives, Sheikha Moza. It is apparently at her urging that he has included women in his reforms.
Some 23,000 Qataris, including women, went to the polls in March to elect an advisory Municipal Council. Six of the candidates for the 29 seats were women, although none of the women won.
Hamad overthrew his father in a palace coup nearly four years ago and declared the country's oil and gas wealth the property of the state.
Since then, he has tolerated lively debate and free criticism of the government in the press and decentralised the government, giving more powers to individual ministries and departments. Qatar University is now autonomous, free of Education Ministry oversight.

The Municipal Council is supposed to gain powers in the near future, perhaps when elections are held in four years. The emir also has proposed holding elections in the next century for a parliament that would have lawmaking powers.
"Taboos are being discussed. People no longer speak secretly," said Ibrahim Haidoos, who was elected to the Municipal Council in March.
The speed of reform is making many neighbouring governments nervous. Kuwait, the only Persian Gulf state that has an elected parliament, does not allow womento vote or run for office. Oman's consultative council has two women members, but the body is indirectly elected.
What has probably irritated Saudi Arabia more than the elections is that Hamad has slowly steered his country, a barren peninsula jutting into the gulf, away from Saudi influence and closer to the United States. A bilateral defence pact provides for the building on Qatari territory of the largest U.S. weapons storage site outside the United States.
The reforms have also angered a few Islamic conservatives at home.
The "motawaein," a non-violent group of men in long black beards, have so far only made their protests in the form of a letter to the consultative council last June. Among other things, they objected to women's participation in elections and demanded an end to "corruption," including the availability of alcohol, which is sold only to foreigners.

Source: AP
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