Saturday, July 14, 2012

Qatar and Tradition

In a book published earlier this year, Allen Fromherz has finally given us a solid scholarly history of Qatar.  One of his major themes is summarized in the conclusion:
"Unlike other rentier states based on personal rule, such as Qaddafi’s Libya, reliant
almost entirely on oil wells for its strength and legitimacy, in Qatar Al-Thani can draw upon an even deeper well, a well of historical myth and solidarity linking the success and independence of Qataris to the historical leadership of Al-Thani...Like the Saudis, Al-Thani have maintained their power not through force or domination but through their historical legitimacy as leaders and defenders of the idea of Qatar and Qatari independence decades before the discovery of oil. Despite their appropriation of the oil bureaucracy, Al-Thani legitimacy and power remains dependent on historical, tribal relationships from the pre-oil era and on the loyalty and solidarity, the ‘asabiyya, of Al-Thani family and other Qatari tribes. In Qatar a citizen can only vote if his or her family has been living on the Peninsula since before 1930, or before the discovery and development of oil. This rule exists despite the fact that the vast majority of Qatari residents, including Bahraini or Shiʿa families living in Qatar for decades, do not qualify. Even as ‘democratization’ progresses, it is a democratization based on a select group of citizen elites, most coming from tribes that at least publicly agree to a narrative of Al-Thani primacy in the pre-First World War era...The Emir constantly attempts to bypass traditional obligations and tribal systems in the name of benevolent totalitarianism and progress. Indeed, there is often a disconnect between the social morals of traditional Qataris and the progressive internationalism of the Emir and his immediate family."
This idea of the persistence and renegotiation of tradition is found throughout the work, such as when those claiming the Nasserist banner in Qatar are primarily interested in their historic tribal rights and representative institutions serve primarily to extend bonds between the ruling Al Thani family and a Qatari population for which tribal identity continues as a cornerstone of society and political participation.

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