Friday, 29 April 2011

22 April 2011

MUSCAT-DOHA: As I hope you’ll have noticed, if you’ve been listening to the programme over the past couple of evenings, I’ve been in the Gulf this week to report on how the recent upheavals in the region have affected two very different Gulf states: Oman and Qatar.

Oman is one of the poorest countries in the region – it has only modest reserves of oil, which are fast running out. Unemployment is high and opportunities are few.

It’s a very different picture in Qatar, which is now classified as the richest country in the world, if you calculate these things as total economic output per head of population. (Huge amounts of oil and gas; very few people. The sums aren’t hard to do.)

But what the two countries have in common is that they are both ruled by hereditary rulers who came to power by gentling pushing aside their fathers. Sultan Qaboos of Oman took over 40 years ago and set about modernising his nation; the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, has been in office only since 1995 but has already made a substantial impact.

Most of the countries of the Gulf have remained relatively peaceful during the recent turmoil in the Arab world. The big exception is Bahrain, which has no oil reserves, and where there are deep sectarian divisions between the people, most of whom are Shia, and the ruling royal family, who are Sunni.

In Oman, there were protests in February and March – at least two people were killed, and for a time it looked as if the country, usually a by-word for stability, might be heading for trouble.

But the sultan took rapid action – he sacked 12 of his cabinet ministers, announced an immediate increase in the minimum wage, and set up a committee to look at constitutional reform. And Omanis say they have already noticed that the local media are taking a more robust look at the record of some government ministers.

Is it enough to keep the protesters quiet? It’s enough for some of them, but there’s still a permanent encampment of job-seekers outside the majlis al-shura, the consultative assembly, and pro-democracy activists are reserving judgement until they see more detail about exactly what constitutional reforms the sultan has in mind.

In Qatar, there have been no protests. Why would there be, in the land of plenty? (In fact, most of the people living in Qatar are foreign workers, and they don’t necessarily share much of the wealth. But nor are they in a position to complain, so you hear nothing from them.)

This may be the home of Al-Jazeera, the TV network that did so much to spread news of the early uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt – but there’s no home-grown pro-democracy movement.

After all, as one young Qatari student openly admitted: “If you already have everything you want, why would you want democracy?”

Despite the glitz of its shiny high-rise hotels and office blocks, Qatar is still a pretty conservative place. Its people mainly belong to the ultra-strict Wahhabi sect of Islam – although unlike in Saudi Arabia, in Qatar, women are allowed to drive.

But alcohol is banned more or less everywhere, and most women still cover themselves entirely in black abbayas when they appear outside their home.

So if there is pressure on Qatar’s rulers, it’s not for more change, more quickly, as it is elsewhere in the Arab world. It’s the exact opposite – and the emir knows that there could be trouble ahead if he tries to move too quickly.

Just a reminder that The World Tonight can now be downloaded free of charge as a podcast, which means that if you’ve missed any of my reports from here, you can catch up while you’re sitting in the garden over the long weekend. Just go to

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