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


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.

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.

All of which makes it hard to explain why the authorities, particularly in the UAE, brook so little dissent. Both countries, though ruled as autocratic sheikhdoms, have set up quasi-representative consultative bodies. But nobody is fooled; they lack any real power. And one can find more lively debates in the Saudi media than in either the Qatari or Emirati papers. Political filtering of the Internet is nowhere near as comprehensive as, say, China, but both governments have the capacity to censor websites and occasionally use it. A recent petition for political reform, signed by 130 Emirati activists and scholars, was met with stony silence by the government and next to no coverage in the local press. And over the last week, the UAE has arrested three outspoken liberal critics, none of whom was calling for revolution. One was hit with the ludicrous charge of alcohol possession.

What these countries claim to fear most, however, is not so much a liberal backlash as a conservative one -- that liberal reforms would open up space for the forces of the religious right, as happened in places such as Kuwait and Bahrain. Both royal families, for all their autocratic ways, style themselves as progressive forces sitting atop populations that may not take such an enlightened view of foreign workers, U.S. bases (both countries have several), or ties with Israel. The UAE even goes so far as to mandate that Muslim preachers across the country all read the same moderate sermon each Friday, written by a committee of moderate government sheikhs. And in Abu Dhabi, a phone bank of moderate scholars stands by, ready to provide an acceptable answer to such questions as, "Is it OK to go fight jihad in Afghanistan?"

Meanwhile, though both countries have worked hard to avoid unrest at home, they have not shied from playing provocative roles elsewhere in the region. Indeed, while Arab satellite channels Al Jazeera (hosted in Qatar) and Al Arabiya (hosted in Dubai) tend to refrain from raking muck on their home turf, they regularly ask tough questions and, to one degree or another, often report news that makes neighboring regimes deeply uncomfortable. The two countries have also played a leading role in the international intervention in Libya, sending humanitarian aid, pushing for action at the Arab League, and even contributing fighter jets to enforce the no-fly zone (Qatar has even admitted to arming the rebels with anti-tank missiles). While there are no doubt many motivations for this kind of activism, one of them is surely to be able to remind their Western allies some day, "Hey, we were there for you."