Friday, February 25, 2011

A Tale of Two Countries -- Qatar and Bahrain

While I was away on vacation there was a lot of action in the Middle East with protests against governments in many countries -- Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Bahrain. These protests were very disruptive to their respective countries and in most cases there were battles with police or the army, and a number of deaths. I've already been asked by a few people that since Qatar is so close to Bahrain whether Qatar is at risk for any kind of protest or strife?

I highly doubt it.

Despite their close proximity, their shared history, and close ties (many Qataris have relatives in Bahrain and a number of tribes have a presence in both countries) the two countries have significant differences, and these differences mean that while one country has unrest the other is fine. So what are the differences? Here are some that I know of:

1) Wealth

Bahrain was one of the earliest of the Gulf countries to utilize its petroleum reserves and this brought it significant wealth, it also gained a lot of the regional financial services industry back in the 70s during the unrest in other parts of the region and Lebanon. Unfortunately it is a small country and it wasn't long before it had used up most of its oil. Meanwhile other countries in the region gained prominence and attracted away many of the companies (at first Kuwait, then after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait the UAE became the major hub). Bahrain today is not as wealthy as many of its neighbors, and many Bahrainis have issues with poverty, finding affordable housing, and simply making a living. For example I believe all of the taxi drivers in the country are Bahraini.

By contrast Qatar has significant reserves of oil and gas and only in the last decade really begun to tap those reserves. Its reserves in comparison to its size and population are massive, this has allowed Qatar to have the highest per capita GDP in the world. The Qatari government is also utilizing a lot of that money into benefits for its citizens: free healthcare, free education (even paying for university abroad), monthly allowances when you get married and have children, a generous pension plan for government workers, assistance with building your first home, subsidized water and electricity, and I'm sure there are many more benefits. There are no significant issues with unemployment and Qataris tend to be employed in the government, large energy companies or banks, or running their own businesses. No Qatari works as a taxi driver.

2) Sunnis and Shi’as

There are two main groups in Islam: Shia (this is the main form of Islam in Iran), and Sunni (predominate in most of the rest of the Islamic world, including Saudi Arabia). The schism that created the two occurred early in the history of Islam and ever since there have been times of peace and times of strife between the two groups. An analogy for Westerners would be the problems that occurred between Protestants and Catholics since the Reformation. Things have been relatively peaceful between Protestants and Catholics now, with the possible exception of Northern Ireland, but for centuries there have been wars, purges, and violence on one or the other group. Sectarian violence between Shia and Sunnis still tends to flare up every now and then, with Iraq and Lebanon being good examples. This is one of the main reasons why much of the Islamic world has tensions with Iran. I suggest viewing the recent Wikileaks diplomatic cables regarding Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE if you want to see examples of the mistrust.

In Bahrain the majority of the citizens are Shi’a (I believe around 60%) yet the Royal Family and most of the people in power are Sunni, so you essentially have a Sunni minority ruling over a Shi’a majority. This has caused problems -- Shi’as accuse the ruling Sunnis of discrimination and limiting access to good jobs and housing. I can't tell you to what extent this is true or not but such accusations have existed for years. Protests in Bahrain by the Shi’a majority tend to occur every couple of years or so and many Shia clerics and other leaders have been imprisoned or have had to flee the country. The recent chaos in Tunisia and Egypt has really lit a fire under the Shi’a citizens who immediately began mass demonstrations in Bahrain, much bigger than in the past.

In Qatar however the majority of citizens are Sunni, well over 90%, so you do not have the level of sectarian tension that exists in Bahrain. While I'm not sure if there is any discrimination in Qatar against Shi’a I've never heard of any. I do know that some of the wealthiest businessmen in the country are Shi’a so I don't think there is any kind of "glass ceiling" in terms of being allowed to be successful, though that may or may not be the same in government. There have certainly never been any mass protests by Shi’a in the time that I have been here. Qatar also maintains reasonable relations with Iran, and had invited them to the last GCC summit that was held in Qatar.

3) Qatar won the 2022 World Cup bid

Thanks to the successful 2022 World Cup bid Qatar is in the midst of a wave of nationalistic pride. In about 15 years His Highness the Emir has taken this country from obscurity to the international spotlight, managing a feat that a couple of years ago even I highly doubted would ever happen. If there were such things as popularity polls here in Qatar I'm sure right now His Highness would be enjoying the strongest results of his entire reign.

So why do I not think there'll be any problems in Qatar? A wealthy country whose citizens are comparatively well-off, a government that has been using some of that wealth for the benefit of its citizens, a demographic that minimizes sectarian tensions, and the pride that comes from hosting the World Cup.

Other Middle East rulers may be having some sleepless nights. There won't be any problems here.

Friday, February 11, 2011

On vacation

Sorry, forgot to mention I'm away for the next two weeks in Canada. I'll see about doing a post or two while I'm here.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Gas prices

For the first time since I've arrived in Doha almost 5 years ago the Government has raised the gas prices. It was a massive increase, around 30 to 40%! Oh well I guess the government-subsidized cheap gas wasn't going to last forever.

It's really brutal now, supreme is now $0.27 a litre! I at least take some small consolation that I usually use premium at $0.23 a litre. Even then though it costs at least $9 for me to fill my car.