Qatar: When The World's Richest Country Has An Identity Crisis

A mix of rapid reform, incalculable wealth and a pious Islamic tradition leaves the Gulf emirate sorting out an uncertain future.

Walking away from the
Walking away from the
Benjamin Barthe

DOHA - On either side of the wide bridge leading into The Pearl, there is a Rolls-Royce dealership on the right, and a Ferrari dealer on the left. The scene leaves little doubt about the level of economic prosperity in this corner of Doha. Built on an artificial island in the north of Qatar's capital, with its villas and private beaches, 50-story palaces and marinas for pashas, The Pearl - or the "Arabian Riviera," as its promoters call it - is the latest real-estate folly in the wealthy emirate.

But since the sale of alcohol was banned at the end of December 2011, a good number of The Pearl's residents have lost their enthusiasm. The managers of upscale restaurants adjacent to the world's best-known couture boutiques and Western jewelers are complaining of a 50% drop in turnover.

"When we heard the news, we thought it was the end," said a server at the Mango Tree, a Thai restaurant where alcohol bottles that used to line the shelves above the bar have been replaced by rows of water decanters. Foreigners would flock on the weekends to the terraces of this wealthy enclave, but have now relocated to the hotels of West Bay, the business district of Doha, where the alcohol still flows. "No one comes now, we're dying of boredom here," said the owner of a café kiosk in The Pearl.

The order to ban alcohol came from the United Development Company, the engine that essentially runs the Qatari economy, of which The Pearl is the flagship. Digging a little deeper, it appears that a member of the ruling al-Thani family is likely behind the prohibition. One source describes alcohol-soaked evenings outdoors, a view that would be considered offensive by many Qataris strolling by.

Speculating on reasons for the ban, another source speaks of the need to polish the image of the emirate during the Pan-Arab Games held in Doha last December. A third person suggests a public relations strategy by the ruling family one year ahead of the country's first legislative elections.

Without an official explanation, foreign investors are placing their bets on a temporary tightening up of laws. They would like to believe that once restricted to restaurants, the consumption of alcohol will be allowed once again across the island's four square kilometers.

The pork polemic

But the alcohol episode has not concluded, as it is symptomatic of the tensions at work in Qatar, a society steeped in religious conservatism in the face of ultra-modernism, of which Doha is the epitome. "Qataris hold on to a strong traditional background," a French expatriate observes. "They are not as liberal as their leaders."

The case of The Pearl also illustrates the growing pains in a country of which 80% of its 1.7 million residents is expatriate – primarily Indians, Filipinos, Nepalese and Pakistanis. Together they represent the hands that physically built the Qatari miracle. It was with them in mind that the QDC company (a subsidiary of Qatar Airways) decided around Christmas last year to introduce pork in its supermarkets. It was a first – one that shocked the blogosphere and social media sites, already heating up over the presence of alcohol on the national airline.

"I never thought that one day I would find myself having to ask a server in a restaurant what kind of meat they put in their hamburgers," one Qatari tweeted at the end of last November. "It's not just about pork, it's about the fact that we are feeling more and more a minority in our own country," a second Qatari wrote on Twitter.

Still, this sentiment, primarily expressed on social networking sites, is far from posing a threat to the power of Sheikh Hamed bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir of Qatar. Some months after having secured Qatar as the host for the World Cup in 2022, and having promised that alcohol consumption will be allowed in the stadiums during the tournament, the emir also inaugurated with no apparent sense of irony a new mosque in Doha in honor of Abdul Wahhab, the Saudi founder of Wahhabism, a strict interpretation of Islam that is deeply rooted in Qatar.

"This is the great divide - but for now, the emir is keeping the situation under control," says a foreign diplomat.

The Card Players, a Cezanne painting recently acquired by Doha, is the latest example to date of this schizophrenia. On the table, behind the two players, is what appears to be a bottle of alcohol.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - isapisa

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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