The following interview with HH Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Emir of the State of Qatar, is taken from the Oxford Business Group's latest publication, Emerging Qatar 2004. For more information on how to order a copy of the most comprehensive review of the Qatari economy to date, please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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OBG: Almost a decade has passed since you became head of state. Were the changes that have happened inevitable, or would you describe your policies as a calculated shift in direction?
HH EMIR: The policies we have followed were based on our general understan-
ding that the world was undergoing an increasingly rapid transformation, and that no country would remain isolated from these changes. In Qatar we felt we had two choices: either to resist global trends, an approach which we recognised as fruitless and ultimately in vain, or to pursue policies that would enable our country to reap the benefits of the changing situation and become a full partner in the emerging new world.
In retrospect, you might say we had a general strategic direction, and that we were successful in creating a momentum for development and modernisation in politics, economics, education and the media. This is a process that will continue, and we hope it will ultimately lead to a better future for our people.
OBG: What is your vision for the next decade?
HH EMIR: We have laid the major foundations for the modernisation of our society, and in the next decade we hope the real transformation will be realised as the full benefits start to be established. From this perspective, our policies are aimed at building a modern state based on the principles of democracy and the rule of law, with a role for institutions in all aspects of governance and life.
But we must also make sure to preserve our heritage and cultural values, as well as to develop a vibrant economy to provide our citizens with better opportunities and new skills and qualifications.
We believe it is imperative to create the foundations for a democratic state, where the decision-making process involves active and responsible popular participation, where government can be held accountable, and where the role of state institutions is paramount under the constitution. By definition this means empowering citizens in general, and women in particular, by providing the space necessary for political participation with a multiplicity of views, as well as freedom of expression and respect for human rights.
OBG: Is empowering women at odds with respecting traditional values?
HH EMIR: We seek to empower women without violating the fundamental principles of our culture and heritage. This is greatly facilitated by the flexible nature of our culture and the moderate, tolerant traditions of Qatari society, which allow for a gradual, negotiated modernising process based on consensus. Of course, we recognise that this is a particularly sensitive issue, not only in Qatar but also for Arab and Muslim societies in general. We do believe, however, that the empowerment of women in our societies should be a continuous process that should proceed methodically and carefully, and which should be consistently clarified and explained to the public in ways that safeguard our values while encouraging our country's progress.
OBG: What motivated the current drive for educational reform?
HH EMIR: With a small population base, we need a qualitative edge, based on proper training and adequate technological, scientific and educational skills. This is a conviction that we hold deeply, stemming from our belief that in order to compete and participate actively in a globalised world we need to operate according to global standards.
OBG: What is your view of efforts in the UN to protect expatriate worker rights?
HH EMIR: One of the principles which we adhere to in Qatar is respect for human rights, and guaranteeing the rights of expatriate workers is an integral part of this. At the same time, each country finds itself in specific circumstances, and there is a need for us to take into account the needs and requirements of our society.
There are legitimate concerns about the rights and responsibilities of expatriate workers and their role in their adopted countries. We believe there should always be a balance, and we do not see this as a hindrance to our development plans. In fact, we greatly appreciate the positive contribution of our expatriate communities in furthering the progress and prosperity of our country.
OBG: What are the greatest challenges you face in ruling a country like Qatar?
HH EMIR: I think the greatest challenge for any ruler is to make sure the visions
he has and the decisions he takes ultimately serve the needs and fulfil the aspirations of his people. In Qatar, I believe we had the ambition to position ourselves more actively in the world, and for our people to shape their destiny in a productive
and purposeful manner.
We always try to adopt policies that are consistent with this vision, to bolster public support and enhance regional and international co-operation based on common interests and mutual respect.
OBG: The satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera has boosted Qatar's international prestige while frequently angering governments elsewhere. Have you ever been tempted to influence al-Jazeera's coverage?
HH EMIR: Al-Jazeera was conceived as an independent news network with guarantees for its editorial freedom and integrity. Indeed, independent jurisdiction and free speech are its cornerstones and raison d'etre. Yes, we have had many complaints from different countries about aspects of al-Jazeera's coverage - in some cases even to the point of those countries temporarily suspending diplomatic relations with us.
However we have always made it very clear that al-Jazeera's reporting does not reflect official Qatari policy, and we always tried to prevent such disagreements from adversely affecting our relations with other countries. In general, we are now past that stage. Rather than complaining, some countries have decided it was better for them to establish similar, competing channels reflective of their own interests and viewpoints. We consider this a healthy and positive development that should enrich the exchange of opinions and encourage debate both within our region and between our region and the world as a whole.
OBG: How directly are you involved in the day-to-day affairs of state, and how much do you delegate?
HH EMIR: I rely heavily on the judgment of my ministers and prefer to not get involved in the day-to-day affairs of government. But as you know, Qatar is a small country, and traditionally the Emir has been accessible to the people. This is a practice of which we are proud and which I believe should be continued. And I do not think that the people of this country would accept anything less from their Emir.
This is why there is a weekly reception for the general public, during which ordinary individuals can come and present whatever grievances or seek whatever assistance they require from the Emir personally.
OBG: What have you done to ensure a smooth succession?
HH EMIR: The issue of succession has been fully addressed in the new constitution, which was recently endorsed by an overwhelming majority of Qatari citizens in a popular and free referendum. We consider this part of our democratisation process, and we believe the constitution and its institutions will be the basis for our long-term political and social stability.
We are now preparing to hold our first free and democratic parliamentary elections, having already held local elections. Qatari citizens, both men and women, will have the right to vote and to run as candidates, constituting another major step towards a modern, democratic and stable society.
OBG: Is there a legitimate place for tribal affiliations in Qatari political life, and can tribalism be consistent with democracy?
HH EMIR: Tribalism is a fact of life in our society and in our region as a whole. It simply cannot be dismantled, and by the same token we simply cannot ignore it. Indeed, its influence on our political life is an important factor that serves in many ways to consolidate our society and encourage a sense of community that can be quite positive in nature. Although democracy is generally assumed to overrule other forms of communal and social interdependence, we believe that democracy as such does not exist in one particular form. On the contrary, our view is that the best form of democracy takes into consideration the specific nature of society.
For democracy to succeed, there must be a balanced and mutually inclusive process, respecting home-grown realities while at the same time being inspired by the experiences of other cultures and countries. This would turn democracy in any society into a genuine and accepted feature of the political process.