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Political stability: the mysterious case of Qatar

The stability of Arab Gulf monarchies has been remarkable given the high level of regional conflict and internal unsteadiness in the Middle East. These states have survived and successfully prevented conflict. It is noteworthy that stability is sometimes more difficult to understand than conflict. Scholars have offered many conceptual explanations for why and how wars and revolutions occur. From a theoretical perspective, wars are events, whereas peace is non-event. Hence, the sources or causes of societies at peace receive far less scrutiny.

The case of Qatar challenges traditional comparative politics and international relations literature to typify this small sheikhdom. According to the State Fragility Index presented by Marshall and Cole in The Global Report 2009: Conflict, Governance and State Fragility[1], Qatar seems to present the model of a stable country which faces no immediate threats to its security and political stability. Nonetheless, the stability in Qatar is hardly perfect. The royal family, the Al-Thani, has a history of internal conflict and competition over political power. The last three leadership transitions—in 1949, 1960 and 1995—came about as a result of forced abdications, due to in-fighting within the ruling family. However, this ruling family has maintained social peace in Qatar for decades.

Qatari political stability is baffling. While its diplomatic successes are what have made Qatar’s branded image—the state has engaged in peacekeeping and the hosting of major international events—its economic achievements are impressive. This small peninsula in the Persian Gulf region, with its abundance of oil and gas, has achieved high economic growth rates, boasts the second highest per capita income in the world (an annual per capita income of $95,000 in 2008, at current prices) and has modernized its economic sector at a breathtaking pace. At the same time, the political system appears anachronistic. Once Shaykh Hamad consolidated his position within the Al-Thani family and within Qatar, all talks of political liberalization were dropped; the Qatari state remains fundamentally autocratic. Given this picture, this article attempts to assess the likelihood of continued stability of the state of Qatar.

The weak and strong state dilemma in the Gulf is of a particular nature. Tribal and religious structures are central to understanding the political dynamics in these traditional regimes. ‘Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun’s Muqqadimah[2] and his discussion about the strength and weakness dilemma efficiently contributes to understanding these traditional regimes as distinct from the Western model. He states that the ‘natural’ state must possess the means to control different groups in the society, each part on its own, and in return, these groups must recognize the state’s power over them. This is because leadership (ri’asa) exists only through superiority (ghulb), and superiority only through group feeling (‘asabiya), which relies upon blood ties. This feeling of ‘asabiya remains strongly present in the Gulf through tribalism and family allegiances. Although the taming of the traditional structure has been a major part of the state-building process in the Gulf, tribal and religious institutions are central concepts for understanding the dynamics of these regimes and are still used to legitimize those systems to their citizens. A central element of this legitimization formula common to all of the monarchies is the notion of the ruler as the paramount Shaykh of all tribes in the country. In Qatar, family and tribal allegiances are at the country level, where the state-building process and the history of Al-Thani family have been inseparable. The state has efficiently ensured that the political stability of Al-Thani is established, not by an overarching political structure, but rather by a delicate balance of power between several groups of families and tribes, where all of them reap benefits equally. Moreover, the robust mechanisms for the distribution of power among members of the royal families appear to be yet another factor contributing to the stability of the state system. Within the Al-Thani, Shaykh Hamad undertook a number of significant changes, not the least of which was the creation of new institutions and offices that were staffed by his loyal supporters—some his sons and daughters. In other words, the institutions of tribalism have developed into significant supports for the existing political system, while losing much of the ability they had in the past to challenge those systems. Nevertheless, ruling family involvement in high politics is not completely without risks for the ruler. In fact, the Al-Thani family has been extremely fractious, and much of contemporary Qatari political history has been shaped by in-fighting within the ruling family.

Otherwise, centralization of power within the Al-Thani family by itself does not explain enhanced state capacity. But its juxtaposition with steadily increasing rent income from oil and gas resources on the one hand and an absence of meaningful centers of social resistance on the other hand does. The Al-Thani family had been one of the only centers of potential opposition to the reigning Amir, with merchant families and the religious establishment having not played an important role in the country’s political history. Steady rises in oil and gas revenues allowed the state to significantly deepen its capacity in relation to society and co-opting social groups and classes that can potentially mobilize resources toward resisting state agendas. The most distinctive political aspect of the Arab monarchies of the Gulf is that governments have access to enormous wealth, particularly in the light of their relatively small populations, without having to tax their societies. The relationship between state and society is different than more familiar models which rely on the concept of “no taxation without representation.” In the Gulf monarchies, the autocratic regimes are centered on what has been labeled dimukratiyyat al-khubz[3] (democracy of bread), the tacit social contract in which the regime provides social and economic welfare in return for political loyalty, or at least political quiescence. This loyalty creates a particular strength for the Gulf monarchies. Citizens do not have to pay for increased services through taxation. This historical anomaly has given rise in political science parlance to the term: the “rentier state.”

Moreover, the political economy of rentierism has helped strengthen authoritarianism and undermined prospects for democratization. Oil’s relationship with authoritarianism is conventionally explained by two different causal mechanisms: co-optation and repression. In other words, the concentration of resources in the hands of the state has allowed ruling families to consolidate power and political positions by employing a mixture of carrots and sticks. Vast resources at the disposal of most of the Gulf Arab monarchies have allowed them to build up large government apparatuses, in both the civil and the military areas. The expanded state apparatus provides the government with more levers with which to control society, and the state’s offices very quickly became the scene of inter-family bargaining. According to H. Beblawi and G. Luciani, the key issue is that “oil revenues allow governments to buy off political consensus.”[4] The Qatari state remains autocratic, relying heavily on clientelism and patronage; hence, such dominance from the ruling families over the state makes it very difficult for any opposition to overthrow the current system.

Furthermore, Gulf states have grown substantial armies and security structures. After Bahrain, Qatar is believed to have the second smallest army in the Arab world, but it enjoys US protection as it is home to a major American military presence in the Gulf. Moreover, Qatar is one of the biggest defense spenders in the world in terms of budget allocations, with such spending accounting for nearly a third of its total current expenditure.

In conclusion, this political status quo in Qatar is facing several challenges. The strong correlation between the external rent and the state system in these sui generis states makes Qatar more vulnerable to external challenges. Hence, the major challenge faced by Qatar is how to draw a balance between internal stability and regional stability without being constantly threatened by regional conflicts usually protracted in the Middle East. Another major challenge is embedded in social demands for participation and political liberalization, which request wider powers than the current consultative council offers. While the Qatari regime promotes modernization, the probable tension in the areas of social and political organization is not between “tradition” and “modernity,” but according to G. Gause III “between nearly powerful government that seeks to dominate the public sphere and social, economic and political groups working to maintain some degree of autonomy.” [5] Finally, the misperception of state stability causes a substantial amount of confusion between the national state apparatus and those who are manipulating it. Hence, the traditional political disquiet within the Al-Thani family, silenced for now, may be a potential risk for political unrest.



Beblawi, H. (1990). The Rentier State in the Arab World. In Luciani, G. (ed.), The Arab State (pp.85-98). London: Routledge.

Beblawi, H. &  Luciani, G. (1987). The Rentier State. London : Croom Helm. P.7.

Gause III, G. (1994). Oil Monarchies: Domestic and Security Challenges in the Arab Gulf States. New York: Council on Foreign Relations Books.

Kamrava, M. (2009). Royal Factionalism and Poltical Liberalization in Qatar. The Middle East Journal, 63(3), 401-420.

Ibn Khaldun. (1969). The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. (Franz Rosenthal, Trans.). Princeton: Princeton University Press. (Original work written in 1377).

Salame, G. (1990). ‘Strong’ and ‘Weak’ States: A Qualified Return to the Muqaddimah. In Luciani, G. (Ed.), The Arab State (pp.29-64). London: Routledge.

Rathmel, A. & Schulze, K. (2000). Political Reform in the Gulf: The Case of Qatar. Middle Eastern Studies, 36(4), 47-62.

Sadiki,L. (1997). Towards Arab Liberal Governance: From the Democracy of Bread to the Democracy of Vote. Third World Quarterly, 48(1), 127-148.

Zahlan, R. (1979). The Creation of Qatar. London: Croom Helm.


[1] Marshall, M. & Cole, J. (2009). Golabl Report 2009: Conflict, Governance, and State Fragility.

[2] Ibn Khaldun. (1969). The Muqaddimah : An Introduction to History. (Franz Rosenthal, Trans.). Princeton: Princeton University Press. (Original work written in 1377).

[3] Sadiki,L. (1997). Towards Arab Liberal Governance: From the Democracy of Bread to the Democracy of Vote. Third World Quarterly, 48(1), 127-148.

[4] Beblawi, H. &  Luciani, G. (1987). The Rentier State. London : Croom Helm. P.7.

[5] Gause III, G. (1994). Oil Monarchies: Domestic and Security Challenges in the Arab Gulf States. New York: Council on Foreign Relations Books. P. 118.


+1 # riham 2011-02-15 07:52 excellent article May!
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