When Fifa President Josef Blatter opened the envelope in the Zurich Exhibition Center on the evening of December 2, 2010 and announced that the bid for the 2022 World Cup would go to Qatar, Emir Hamad first hugged his wife Moza bint Nasser and then Hamad bin Jassim, his cousin and foreign minister. Shortly before that, Bill Clinton had climbed onto the podium to make the final plea for the USA as the venue.
The moment marks the culmination of an unprecedented image campaign. The attempt to make the country as visible as possible through art, architecture, education and sport can be considered successful. And when the soccer World Cup kicks off in Doha’s Al-Bait Stadium on November 20th, Qatar has actually achieved everything it set out to achieve.
The world knows the name, if in doubt any football fan can place Doha on a map.
But at the same time, Qatar’s background, its history, culture and tradition are unknown. With this long-read, MENA Research Centre is trying to give an overview and lighten-up parts of the “Gulf miracle”, that is not known to the major public, looking behind the facade of the glamorous desert El Dorado.
A brief history
The early times
Human settlement in Qatar can be traced back to the Stone Age, apart from a few small pearl-fishing settlements on the coast, no significant cities existed until modern times. Climate data suggest that Qatar was not always desert, but at least since ancient times it was probably hardly possible to practice agriculture for climatic reasons.
The great classical empires of Islamic culture, those of the Umayyads, Abbasids and Fatimids, established their centers far away in Damascus, Baghdad or Cairo. A short Portuguese interlude in the early modern period left no visible traces. Theoretically, Qatar was part of the Ottoman Empire until the First World War, but for a long time, apart from the pearl fishers, it was mainly Bedouins who made their way to the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula in what is now Qatar in search of grazing land.
In the mid-18th century, Al Thani clan went towards Qatar. Coming from what is now Saudi Arabia, the Bedouin tribe quickly gained inﬂuence and was able to establish itself on the east coast of the desert peninsula. They repeatedly clashed with another, much more influential Bedouin tribe, the Al Khalifa, who had migrated south from what is now Kuwait and built Fort Zubara on Qatar’s north-west coast.
The powerful Al Khalifa were even able to conquer the neighboring island of Bahrain from Zubara. Due to its strategically valuable location, the island had long been an important cultural center. It was probably already mentioned on stone tablets of the Sumerians as the kingdom of Dilmun. Compared to the barren and sparsely populated mainland, it must have seemed like a win to the Al Khalifa.
From the end of the 18th century, invaders swept once again into today’s Qatar, this time from the Najd, the heart of the Arabian Peninsula. They were the dreaded gangs of a newly emerged, strictly orthodox Islamic sect: the Wahhabis. They strove for a spiritual renewal of Islam through a close connection to the time of early Islam. They rely on a literal interpretation of the traditions of the Prophet Mohamed. They had entered into an alliance with another aspiring nomadic tribe, the Al Saud, which later became today’s leadership in Saudi Arabia. The Wahhabi militias were quickly feared between the deserts of Iraq and the Gulf, and for a short time they also took over the Al Thani fortress. To date, the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam has only partially gained acceptance in Qatar.
In the 19th century, the Persian Gulf was notorious for being a pirate stronghold. Because of the skirmishes between the Al Khalifa, the Al Thani and recurring pirate raids, the British East India Company saw its trade routes to India in danger. In 1821, a British sailing brig destroyed Bidaa, a forerunner settlement of today’s Doha that was first mentioned in 1801, and expelled 400 Bedouins. In 1841, the British reduced the village to rubble again, allegedly because the rulers of Doha could not pay the fine of 300 pounds at the time.
Sometime around the middle of the 19th century, the Al Thani then advanced towards Doha. Until then, there was no unified Qatari state. While the Al Thani were more powerful than other Bedouin families, they were far from dominating all of Qatar.
The rise of the Al Thani to rule Qatar is closely linked to the British. In 1868 they signed a protection agreement. Today, the Al Thani are the emirs of Qatar, while a Khalifa directs the fortunes of Bahrain and the descendants of the Al Saud rule over Saudi Arabia thanks to their alliance with the Wahhabis. The rivalry between the families has continued to this day and was to become even more explosive in the 21st century.
After the Al Thani drove out the Ottomans at the Battle of Al-Wakrah, Qatar ofﬁcially became a British protectorate in 1916. Not much changed at first. The few thousand residents lived mostly from pearl fishing. A hard and simple life in the colonial periphery, as one had previously lived on the fringes of the Islamic empires. But after the First World War everything was to change for the Qataris. And that was initially related to pearls.
At the time of the British protectorate, the Gulf States still exported 80 percent of the pearls traded worldwide. The region, in the absence of other economic activities, was almost entirely dependent on trade. Two developments in distant parts of the world destroyed this economic basis within a few years and plunged the people of the region into existential misery: The onset of the global economic crisis in Europe and the United States in the 1920s led to a collapse in demand. There was simply not enough money for the pearls from the Gulf.
At about the same time, a Japanese businessman discovered a way to grow pearls. The cultured pearls from the Far East were cheaper and their quality was consistently high. In the Gulf, on the other hand, the harvest depended on the luck of the sailors and the skill of the divers. The trade in pearls from the Gulf collapsed by 90 percent. The people of Qatar had not been prosperous before, now they fell into seemingly hopeless straits. Hunger spread and even the Qatari ruling family was affected.
But fate had another twist up its sleeve. Fueled by the British Empire’s unbridled thirst for energy, oil was first discovered in Qatar in 1939. Just ten years later, the country was exporting the valuable raw material. As if out of nowhere, a new lifeline had opened up.
Admittedly, prosperity was still a long time coming. Most of the profits went to London. In 1970, well over 60 percent of the adult population in Qatar was still illiterate.
The British finally granted Qatar independence in 1971. With great difficulty, the Al Thani prevented a connection to the United Arab Emirates, which had also become independent. In 1973, the newly formed state took shares in the country’s two leading energy companies, Qatar Petroleum Company and Shell Qatar. As early as 1977, both companies were in Qatari hands, laying the foundation for today’s prosperity. Suddenly the money was so easy to earn.
From 1989 another source of prosperity was added. Together with Iran, Qatar exploited “South Pars”, the largest liquefied natural gas field in the world. The economic power of the emirate grew from a gross domestic product of around 300 million US dollars in 1970 to 7.4 billion US dollars in 1990 and finally to an incredible 183 billion US dollars in 2018 highest per capita income in the world.
Driven by the new wealth generated by the petrodollars, the country made a leap during the tenure of Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad (1972-1995). The first was the futuristic Sheraton, which was built in 1982. At the time, the pyramid-shaped luxury hotel was so far out of town that it initially had problems finding its guests. Many photos from the period can be found on the Internet. They show a quiet small town, then desert, and in the middle of the wasteland the lonely hotel complex. Today the Sheraton sits inconspicuously in the shadow of the skyscrapers in the middle of West Bay. A more central location in the city is hard to imagine today.
Change really picked up speed under Sheikh Hamad (reigned 1995-2013), who overthrew his father in a bloodless coup. The cornerstone of his rule: the diversification of the economy in order to secure the newfound prosperity for the post-gas era, because fossil resources are finite in Qatar too. For this purpose, the emirate acquired company holdings, primarily in established markets: from Airbus to Volkswagen, via the French luxury company Moët Hennessy – Louis Vuitton to shares in the Russian energy giant Rosneft.
To this end, the Emir commissioned extensive infrastructure projects. This is how the university complex “Education City” came into being, in which branches of top international universities such as Northwestern University or Georgetown were located, as well as the aforementioned West Bay business district.
In Qatar, foreigners now make up around 90 percent of the population. As a classic rentier state that lives off the income from raw material exports, Qatar makes a strong distinction between the rights of Qataris and those of foreigners. The locals receive extensive social benefits: health care is free for them, as are electricity and gas. The average household income of Qatari families in 2014 was over 19,000 euros per month. In contrast, the guest workers in the construction industry share simple multi-bed rooms.
Qatar differs greatly in dealing with foreigners according to nationalities and the sectors in which people work. At the bottom are construction workers, often from Nepal, and security forces, mostly from East Africa. In the service sector, many Filipinos work under comparatively better conditions. Western expats are at the top of the foreigners’ pyramid. Most of them come from English speaking countries like Great Britain or Australia.
The largest group is that of the Indians. They make up 25 percent of the population and can be found in all social classes. Contrary to what is often assumed from the outside, many Indians and Pakistanis can also be found in leading positions in business. The traditionally large Egyptian community has recently shrunk due to the difficult Egyptian-Qatarian relations. According to the Qatar Embassy in Berlin, around 1,800 Germans are currently living in Qatar.
Experts believe that one cannot understand the demarcation between locals and foreigners without considering the motives of the ruling family. “Behind the Qatari state model is not only the desire to maintain prosperity, but also the goal of strengthening the legitimacy of the ruling family,” a researcher at the German think tank CARPO says. Legal harmonization, a path to citizenship for guest workers, is not planned. This also applies to expats from Europe. As in other Gulf states, the reason behind this is the fear of foreign infiltration and the loss of their own traditions.
The growth was only possible because tens of thousands of young migrant workers from South Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa toiled and toiled in Qatar. Often under the worst working conditions. The so-called “kafala” system made their living conditions worse. The principle is widespread throughout the Gulf region, but also in Lebanon and Jordan. At its core, it stands for a guarantor relationship in which every foreign worker needs a local guarantor. The associated dependencies are a gateway for abuse.
The human rights situation in Qatar remains difficult. However, the spotlight of global public opinion has led to reforms since the World Cup was awarded. “It’s not a matter of black and white, there are many shades of gray,” says the head of the International Labor Organization (ILO). One of the most important advances is the abolition of the kafala system. ILO also has praise for the introduction of the minimum wage, a first in the Gulf region. Also, companies should no longer let their workers toil outdoors during the hottest hours.
And yet massive problems remain, as can be read in the ILO reports. Last year, 34,425 workers complained that they had been denied wages. Even the way out of the kafala system is not always successful in practice. And workers are still dying on Qatar’s construction sites. According to the ILO, 50 people died at work in 2020 alone, and another 500 were seriously injured. Most of them were construction workers from India, Bangladesh and Nepal.
In addition to workers’ rights, Qatar has also been criticized for its treatment of women, homosexuals and trans people. Women are not legally equal in Qatar. The archaic principle of guardianship applies. When signing contracts, but also when traveling abroad, women need the permission of a male relative. While more women than men study in Qatar, this figure is not reflected in the labor market – where the employment share is just 37 percent.
Homosexuality is punishable. LGBTQIA+ people face several years in prison, criminal offense will not be prosecuted. The Qatari World Cup ambassador recently drew attention to himself in a German TV report with a statement in which he described homosexuality as a “mental disorder”.
Culture and tradition
Qatar’s development has been shaped by looking at its neighbors, be it in the form of skylines, museums, sporting events or the development of airports into international hubs. Similar motives and plans are known from Dubai or Abu Dhabi, Kuwait or Bahrain. Sometimes they lagged behind in development, sometimes they were at the forefront of innovations. Seen from the outside, the outbidding competition of the Gulf States sometimes looks like a phallic comparison. So who builds the biggest! In the competition of the city-states on the Gulf, Doha sees itself as a more Islamic and more traditional counterpart to Dubai. The plans are just as ambitious, but perhaps a little less gigantic, involving fewer mega-projects that ultimately bog down in plan sketches and blueprints.
A lot of money went into the idea of Qatar as the superlative of soft power. Father Emir Hamad bin Khalifa had a museum for Islamic art built by star architect Pei, and the national library was designed by Rem Kohlhaas. Hamad also had universities built and stadiums renovated. Culture and sport, until then no strengths of the Gulf States, should increase the power of the emirate. One airline could not be missing, Qatar Airways is now one of the major airlines in the Gulf.
The ruling clan divides the tasks among themselves, with the former Emir Hamad relying primarily on the children of his second and favorite wife Moza, 63. Sheikh Moza is something of a female figurehead in the Middle East, a beautiful, slim woman with high cheekbones . She is repeatedly referred to as the most influential woman in the Gulf. When Doha invites to a fashion event with her as patron, she sits between models and star designers. She is the mistress of the highly endowed Qatar Foundation and thus the architect of the so-called Education City. The offshoots of international elite universities are grouped here on 1,200 hectares – and there is always a sculpture by Damien Hirst in between.
Since raw materials are finite, Qatar is to become a knowledge society, based on the Western model. That is Al Thanis’ vision for 2030. Sheikh Moza’s daughters, the sisters of the emir, also represent the foundation to the outside world. Al Mayassa, 39, is a billionaire art patron and collector who selects locations for Jeff Koons’ sculptures and just designed the November issue of Arabic Vogue. She put her friend, supermodel Naomi Campbell, on the cover. Moza’s other daughter, Hind, acts as her mother’s deputy and a sort of Minister of Education. She is also in her late 30s, has six children and completed her first Olympic triathlon in Hamburg. The common goal of Moza and her daughters: to make Qatar fit for the time after oil and gas. The Emir himself, 42, is said to have loved sports since he was a child. Actually, he is more of a balanced guy, had long been silent about the vehement criticism of Qatar as the host country for the World Cup. But recently, he lost his temper. There is an “unprecedented campaign” against his country, he said, as if the development Qatar has gone through in recent years is not recognised.
The political system still resembles an absolute monarchy. Emir Tamim, who has ruled since 2013, is by and large continuing his father’s ambitious style. Educated at Harrow and Sandhurst, the Emir is less down-to-earth than his father and has a thorough command of the language and mannerisms of London’s banking district.
Emir Tamim has also embarked on some cautious political reforms. In 2021, elections to the advisory Shura Council were held for the first time. With the exception of one tribe, which is considered to be particularly stubborn, all adult Qataris whose ancestors lived in Qatar since at least 1930 were allowed to be nominated. But there is simply no real opposition.
And as true as this story is in a way, the question remains to what extent Qatar can still embody the role of the eternal underdog, which they have practiced so successfully. At least in sports diplomacy, Qatar represents the establishment par excellence like hardly any other country. The economic and personal ties are so close that it sometimes seems as if one can hardly escape the power of the emirate.
Still, of course, nothing has fueled the country’s rise quite like its resources. Qatar has the third largest gas reserves in the world, next to Russia and Iran – both countries are now under sanctions. Thanks to the income from raw material exports, the Qataris have been managing one of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world, the QIA, since 2005. The fund’s portfolio could hardly be more mixed. From the traditional French club Paris Saint-Germain to the London luxury department store Harrods to shares in VW.
Sheikh Al-Attiyah does not belong to the Al-Thani clan – but to one of the other important families in the country. As a former energy minister, he was also instrumental in the rise of Qatar. It was Al-Attiyah who began building what is now the world’s largest fleet of specialized gas transport vessels. He thought to himself: where no pipelines can reach, ships could operate. And if gas cannot be transported in this way, you have to change its state of aggregation – if you compress it, it becomes liquid, into LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas), which can be shipped almost as easily as oil. Qatar was to become the leading gas exporter – that was the plan of the father-emir since the mid-1990s. The aim was to become an important piece of the jigsaw puzzle for the global economy. The bigger, the safer the survival as a sovereign state.
When the Qataris discovered the gas field, everyone just wanted oil. And again it was the father Emir Hamad bin Khalifa who allowed himself to be persuaded and took out large loans. The management took a big risk at the time, since the production of LNG is complex and expensive. “The emir had the will and I had the ideas,” Al-Attiyah often says at public appearances. In Asia in particular, demand rose rapidly and prices rose with it. As early as 2006, Qatar was the second largest gas producer in the world. In 2015, the LNG fleet numbered more than 60 ships. Qatar had become a gas superpower.
“It’s the economy, stupid!”
The World Cup draws attention to how far the kingdom with the gigantic natural gas deposits has come: Qatar is now closely intertwined economically with Europe and the United States and is constantly expanding its influence. The strategy of the country is similar to that of China, the “attempt to gain institutional power in order to influence important decisions”. Unlike China, Qatar does not rely on strategic investments and takeovers of critical infrastructure, but on “soft power strategies in which (…) sponsorship activities in European football play a major role”, a new study of the “Center for European Politics” (CEP) writes.
The most prominent example is the Paris Saint-Germain football club. Former French President Nicolas Sarkzoy helped state-owned investment company Qatar Sports buying the club. At its head is Nasser al-Khelaifi. The Qatari politician and businessman has pumped more than one billion euros into the club, mainly for world-famous players like Neymar, Kylian Mbappé and Lionel Messi.
France and Qatar also maintain business relationships beyond sport. The desert state acquired stakes in corporations such as Vinci and Lagardère. Qatar now has 30 French Rafale fighter jets and is of strategic importance for Totalenergies because of its gas reserves. In June, the energy company was awarded the contract for the expansion of the world’s largest LNG project.
In Germany, the emirate is involved in a number of companies and has so far caused little public fuss. The Gulf state, whose sovereign wealth fund has more than 450 billion dollars, is involved in Deutsche Bank, Volkswagen, Siemens and Hapag-Lloyd, among others. When the entry into RWE became known recently, the nature of the new major shareholder became an issue: RWE announced in October that it would acquire an American solar system developer and receive support from the Qatari sovereign wealth fund QIA for the billion-euro financing, which is the largest single shareholder with 9 percent rises. The managing director of the shareholder protection association DSW judged that at first glance “a commitment by the Qatari, who are controversial from an ESG point of view, doesn’t really fit into the picture”. ESG stands for sustainability criteria, the G for governance, i.e. corporate management. Such sounds have rarely been heard until now. “On the other hand,” he said, “so far we have no indications that the major shareholder from Qatar would have exerted any influence on other companies that would have a negative impact.”
How much the Qataris want to be close to influential circles with their investments becomes clear in Great Britain. The former British protectorate has bought into the highest British society. Members of the Qatari royal family regularly meet with the British royals. The economic ties are close – in Great Britain, Qatar is said to have invested the equivalent of around 46 billion euros in investments and real estate. The sovereign wealth fund is a major shareholder in Barclays Bank, supermarket chain Sainsbury’s and British Airways parent company IAG. The Qataris are also involved in Heathrow Airport.
As in Germany, they are more commonly known as silent partners. The special passion belongs to the real estate market in London, which seems to be a second Mecca for the sheikhs. They own around 4,000 houses across the island, and real estate in the capital worth tens of billions, including The Shard, the city’s tallest building. The sovereign wealth fund also bought the luxury department store Harrod’s. Qatari royals have also taken over all or part of some of London’s most expensive five-star hotels, such as the Ritz, Claridge’s and the Savoy. The fine London district of Mayfair is already known as “Little Doha”. The fact that the Qataris also promote political and Islamist extremism, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, is rarely discussed in London circles. Last year, “The Times” reported on a lawsuit brought by several Syrians in the London High Court, accusing the Qataris of having supported the Islamist al-Nusra Front with millions; the Qatari ruler then sued the newspaper.
In the US, the emirate is now investing directly in a medium. The sovereign wealth fund has given Elon Musk $375 million for his Twitter takeover. In the US, as in Europe, the sovereign wealth fund has been characterized above all by investments in the real estate, banking and energy sectors. But a preference for luxury brands can also be seen: Shares in the Empire State Building belong to the portfolio like shares in Tiffany. Geostrategically more relevant are holdings in America’s largest power producer Vistra Energy and in the company Golden Pass LNG, which will be exporting US liquid gas to the world beginning 2023. Once bought, the Qataris hold on to their holdings, the interest seemed to be primarily commercial and geared towards value retention. Participation in Twitter has at least made the Qataris marginal figures in a political skirmish: President Joe Biden had asked the investment control authority to examine whether the ownership structure conflicted with security policy goals.
It is not always entirely clear to what extent all of these investments are primarily intended to serve as financial investments or to strengthen the institutional power of the emirate.
The communications tool
With the television channel Al Jazeera, founded in 1996, Qatar positioned itself as a global opinion leader. However, the Arabic program and the channel broadcast in English differ significantly. In Arabic, Qatar’s national interests are sometimes aggressively represented, while the tone of the English program is more matter-of-fact. In any case, Qatar has used Al Jazeera as a tool of so-called soft power, anticipating the rise of channels like Russia Today or CCTV.
The rise of the emirate began with communication, with news and moving images. When Al Jazeera was founded in a kind of warehouse in 1996, the area on Khalifa Street, where the station is still based today, still felt like an industrial wasteland. Ten years later, when the Arabic program was supplemented by an English-language program, the skyscrapers were already growing skywards on the Corniche.
And while the boring state channels in the Gulf continued to broadcast hour-long military parades, Al Jazeera crossed borders from the start: Radical sheikhs railed against Israel there, but at the same time Israeli politicians were asked for interviews – unthinkable in neighboring countries at the time.
It was Salah Negm, a slim, wiry man born in Egypt but raised in Amsterdam, whom the Emir entrusted with this task. And Negm knew immediately what the hour had struck: revolution. Thanks to its 24-hour news broadcast, the program can be received anywhere in the Arab world via satellite. Up to this point, the press has been state-censored in almost all Arab countries. The autocratic leaders were careful about what information reached their subjects – and more importantly, what did not.
Al Jazeera quickly became the favorite channel of many people in the region. And the station’s motto “the opinion and the other opinion” became a dictum. Here one was informed about the Arab world and beyond – only criticism of Qatar and the Al Thanis remained taboo. Al Jazeera provided a platform for Israelis, Hamas officials or dissidents from Saudi Arabia. The USA also reacted angrily to the video and audio messages from Osama Bin Laden and his terrorist brothers, which were often broadcasted without comment. The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, with whom Doha still maintains close ties, was also given a forum, which the leadership today denies.
Especially during the Arab Spring, the Muslim Brotherhood took up a lot of airtime. Because unlike its neighbors, Qatar supported the insurgents in Egypt, Syria, Libya and Yemen – and thus made itself unpopular with the other Gulf autocracies that wanted to maintain the status quo of absolute rulers.
One thing is certain, the broadcaster significantly increased tensions between Qatar and its neighbors. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have accused the Emir of Qatar of using Al Jazeera as a political weapon. They accused him of allowing himself to be made into Osama bin Laden’s henchman, optionally also into the henchman of the Israeli intelligence service Mossad.
Who else supports Hamas in the Gaza Strip, pays the wages and salaries of the officials there – but at the same time invites the Israeli foreign minister to Doha? Which important non-NATO ally of the US has also set up a liaison office for the Taliban, i.e. a kind of diplomatic representation?
The neighbors’ displeasure with Qatar and its television station culminated in the so-called Qatar crisis of 2017, in which the neighboring countries wanted to bring the country back into line with an air-land-sea blockade. The closure of Al Jazeera was high on the list of demands for an end to this blockade. It lasted three and a half years, then the neighboring countries gave up and Qatar emerged from the conflict stronger.
Doha is repeatedly accused of being close to Islamists and extremist groups. In recent years, members of persecuted Islamist parties from across the region have found refuge here. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban, but also members of the Syrian opposition and members of Yemen’s Islah party. Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani says: “We don’t help these groups, but in order to be able to negotiate with them, we have to be predictable and reliable for them.” The role of mediator is unique: “I believe that we are doing good with it.” The US government also seems to agree; it was only in January that President Joe Biden granted Qatar the status of an “important non-NATO ally”. This puts the country ahead of the Saudis in US favor, a long-cherished goal of the ruling family.
The allegation of terrorist financing is also raised again and again – which is largely due to the fact that Qatar, like Saudi Arabia, supported the rebels in Damascus during the Arab Spring of 2011 – but also fighters in Tripoli and Sanaa. Hamad bin Jassim is again considered a key figure. The Supreme Court of Great Britain even accused the then prime minister of using his office in Doha as a hub for financing the Nusra Front, a Syrian branch of the terrorist organization al-Qaeda.
But why did Qatar want to play a role in Syria at all? Hamad bin Jassim said in an interview to BBC: “I believed at the time that we should not cling to these old regimes, but also have sympathy for the people who are fighting for these revolutions.” There isn’t “one truth,” he adds. Especially not on the Arabian Peninsula, he says. “You can dig for it, for that truth. But when you think you’ve found it, a dune will come and fill it up again.”
The Muslim Brotherhood and its mastermind in Qatar
Qatar’s tight connections to key players of the Muslim Brotherhood have historical roots and are not a new phenomenon. The cooperation can be traced back to the 1950ies and 1960ies, when many influential Brotherhood intellectuals had to flee from Egypt in reaction to prosecution by the Nasser regime. Qatar provided refuge and since then the Gulf state has constantly played a major role in helping to promote concepts and ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood among the population of Arabian countries and – more recently – the Western world.
The best illustration of this alliance is the story of Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, one of the most famous figures of the Muslim brotherhood and a leading intellectual force of the organization for many years, a famous anchor at Al Jazeera Arab program. After being jailed several times for his preachings and agitation against President Nasser, he left Egypt and relocated to Qatar in the early 1960ies, where he resides until his death earlier this year.
Qaradawi has developed close ties to Qatar’s leaders and can presumably be regarded as a particular friend of the ruling Al Thani family. He was a personal guide to Sheikh Khalifa, the grandfather of the current emir and sovereign from 1972-1995. During the inauguration ceremony of the country’s present leader in 2013, the rulers publicly showed their respect for Qaradawi in gestures indicating deep trust, as both the outgoing and the new emir kissed the meanwhile 87-year-old scholar in front of broadcasting cameras.
Qaradawi has made a significant career in Qatar, he established various religious educational institutions and founded Qatar University’s Faculty of Sharia law. His most famous impact however was a weekly TV talk show called “Sharia and Life”, which has been broadcasted by Al-Jazeera since 1996. The program was regularly followed by approx. 60 million viewers throughout the Muslim world. Qaradawi was also the main scholar behind Islam Online, a popular, Cairo-based Islamic website featuring resources and fatwas.
Qaradawi was one of the most public figureheads of the radical wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, a former counterterrorism official at the FBI and Treasury Department says. He may appeared as a stoic intellectual old man, his religious views however had to be observed with the greatest possible caution. Based in his safe exile in Qatar, Qaradawi has distributed countless political and religious statements to millions of people using his various media platforms. Many of his positions must clearly be classified fundamentalist and extremist, they give an authentic insight into the Brotherhood’s real mindset: Qaradawi called for the destruction of Israel, approved the use of suicide bombers to attack the country, showed understanding for the killing of Jews by Adolf Hitler, and condoned violence against U.S. troops in Iraq.
Regarding social issues, he supported the right of polygamy, defended the beating of women and asks for female subordination, approved corporal punishments for homosexuals and demanded the death penalty for professed atheists and converts leaving Islam. Furthermore, he predicted that “Islam will return to Europe as a conqueror and victor after being expelled from it twice… the conquest this time will not be by the sword but by preaching and ideology”.
Qaradawi generally ranked Sharia-law above secular law. In societies where Muslims are in the minority, they are temporarily allowed to partially adjust to local law systems. The long-term goal however must be the remodeling of the non-Islamic societies and the full application of Sharia-law. Thus, Muslim communities in Europe should not integrate themselves, they should permanently stay different and wait for future times of Islamic leadership.
2017, Qaradawi was listed as a designated terrorist by Saudia Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt. He had been banned from entering the United States since 1999, the United Kingdom since 2008 and France since 2012. Two organizations chaired by Qaradawi, the Union of God and the International Union of Muslim Scholars, have been accused of supporting terrorism.
After the World Cup Finals on December 18, will the view on Qatar change, or will the focus on this little kingdom vanish?
Until then, human rights in Qatar are likely to remain a permanent media issue in this country. But the criticism from politics is no longer too loud. Of the gas imports into the EU in 2020, around forty percent came from Russia and only four percent from Qatar. Since the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine, the German government has wanted to change that fundamentally. The photos of the deep bow of German Economics Minister Robert Habeck to the Qatari Energy Minister made it clear that even the supporters of a “value-based foreign policy” have had to realize in the meantime that cooperation with autocratic regimes is sometimes even necessary for domestic warmth, if one wants to free itself from the dependence on a warlike autocracy like the Russian one.
How big the impact of the football World Cup on the state and society in Qatar actually is, will probably only be finally assessed in a few years. The Qatari state would like to retain the sovereignty of interpretation with repression. There are parallels to other authoritarian regimes such as in Russia, China or Egypt. But beyond that, Qatar relies more on “soft power” than almost any other country, on investments in technology, culture, sports and media worth billions. Prominent examples: the airline Qatar Airways, the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, the takeover of the soccer club Paris Saint-Germain or the news channel Al Jazeera. Four institutions that should keep Qatar in the international conversation with a positive connotation. The ruling family realized early on that they could not prevent criticism from the West, but could mitigate it with their own media networks. Doha has been responsible for human rights abuses for decades, the regime bans strikes and bans major demonstrations, but joined the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 2018.
And there is much to suggest that the conservative forces in Qatar will withdraw their tentative reforms – but probably only after the World Cup, when the media caravan has moved on and international attention has long since shifted to another arena.
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