The Axis of Stability: Why Qatar and the UAE Are So Calm

The two countries haven't seen the unrest that has hit the rest of the region, but it's about more than just economics

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Mohamad Dabbouss / Reuters


DOHA--The call went out on Facebook. Qataris were invited to protest at 4 p.m. on March 16 in front of the Fanar Islamic cultural center to voice their displeasure with the rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who has ruled this tiny sheikhdom since coming to power in a bloodless coup in 1995, and the prominent political role played by his wife, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Misned. Nobody bothered to show up -- not even the police. David B. Roberts, a British analyst who went to the protest site at the appointed hour, described the scene on his blog: "Nada. Zilch. Rien. Sefer. Nuffin. Sweet F.A. Diddly squat. Bupkus."

Of all the countries in the Arab world, only two -- Qatar and the United Arab Emirates -- have seen none of the unrest that has roiled the region over the last few months. Even Saudi Arabia, which has a restive Shiite minority and even a semblance of political dissent, has seen more action; staid Oman has been seeing small, scattered demonstrations over corruption and unemployment for weeks.

Which is not to say that there is no discontent, or that average Qataris and Emiratis are satisfied with the amount of say they have in how they are governed (hint: not very much). Spend enough time with the politically aware in either place, and you will hear grievances ranging from rampant nepotism to broken reform promises to the unequal distribution of wealth to fears of being overwhelmed by guest workers. The Qatari government is struggling to rein in an explosion of consumer debt, and many residents of the five northern emirates -- the ones not named Abu Dhabi or Dubai -- often feel they've been left out of the sweepstakes.

"Unemployed youth here tend to be driving Lamborghinis instead of running fruit stands."

But such complaints tend to be whispered, not shouted. The truth is that citizens of both countries have it pretty good. Qatar's economy grew by nearly 20 percent last year and is projected to grow by double digits again in 2011; the UAE has recovered quickly from the economic crisis and is poised for a solid recovery (as one U.S. official put it, "Unemployed youth here tend to be driving Lamborghinis instead of running fruit stands."). Qatar's GDP per capita is currently the highest in the world; the UAE's is comparable to that of Switzerland. Natives pay no taxes and receive a raft of goodies from the government, from marriage bonuses to free health care to easy credit. Less than 10 percent of Qataris work for the private sector, meaning that for most natives, the government represents a paycheck and an opportunity for advancement, not the enemy.

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Blake Hounshell is managing editor at Foreign Policy.

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