Since June 1995, when Sheikh Khalifa Bin Hamad Al Thani was replaced as emir by his son Hamad Khalifa Al Thani in a bloodless coup, Qatar has been transformed.
On one level, it has tried to court friendship with odd bedfellows – allowing American troops to launch operations in Iraq and Afghanistan from Qatar, for example, while courting the Taliban, Iran, Hamas and militant Islamist rebels fighting in Libya and Syria. This dichotomous approach may have caused consternation in Arab and Western capitals, but when a country has the world's largest gas fields and is consistently among the world's three richest countries in per-capita terms, there's little appetite for rocking the boat.
Besides, the lack of democracy in Qatar has not proved too much of an issue among the native population. In 2011, Qatar was notable among its regional neighbours for the lack of Arab Spring protests, despite having no elected representatives in government and despite key government posts being occupied by members of the emir's family. The most likely explanation for Qatar's lack of protests is the ruling family's generosity in spreading the country's wealth and allowing a degree of (albeit limited) free speech.
Instead of democracy, the ruling family has accelerated the modernisation of the country through encouraging education and training (in which women make up the majority of university students), investing in independent media, and opening the country to tourism – the stunning rise of Qatar Airways and the country's dazzling new international airport are the most obvious signs of this latter ambition.
In 2013, in a peaceful transition rare in this part of the world, Hamad abdicated as emir and elevated his 33-year-old son Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to the throne. The early signs are that Al Thani the Younger has little intention of altering the course set by his father. Cleverly, his early years as ruler have seen him make a priority of boosting the private wealth of ordinary Qataris, as well as investing heavily in the country's health and education systems. And all the while, the massive investment in infrastructure continues as Qatar seeks to boost its profile by hosting some of the world's most prestigious sporting events.
It hasn't all been smooth sailing. Qatar's successful bid for the 2022 FIFA World Cup was marred by controversy: in the fallout from the troubles at FIFA, football's world governing body, from 2015, claims were widely aired in the international media that bribery and corruption had played a role in Qatar's winning bid. In late 2014, the UK's Guardian newspaper also reported that more than 1200 Nepalese workers alone had died on construction sites at the World Cup stadiums; these latter accusations have shed uncomfortable light on Qatar's broader treatment of migrant workers. And Qatar's bids for the 2016 and 2020 Olympics were both unsuccessful – Doha's searing summer temperatures were widely viewed as the main reason the country never made it past the first round of voting.
Proof that money can't buy everything or a mere blip in Qatar's seemingly inexorable rise? Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between. But with Qatar's phenomenal wealth seemingly assured for generations to come, it's difficult to find too many Qataris who spend much time worrying about the setbacks.
Feature: Al Jazeera TV
Al Jazeera has transformed the press in the Arab world. Established as Al Jazeera Independent Satellite TV Channel in November 1996, it differed from all that went before it because it was free from censorship or government control, it offered regional audiences a rare opportunity for debate and independent opinion, and it opened up an alternative perspective on regional issues for the world at large. Its call-in shows were particularly revolutionary, airing controversies not usually open for discussion in the autocratic Gulf countries.
Al Jazeera, which means ‘The Island’ in English, was originally launched as an Arabic news and current-affairs satellite-TV channel, funded with a generous grant from the emir of Qatar. It has been subsidised by the emir on a year-by-year basis since, despite the airing of criticism of his own government. The station was originally staffed by many former members of the BBC World Service, whose Saudi-based Arabic-language TV station collapsed under Saudi censorship; a close relationship with the BBC continues to this day.
The station has always been viewed with suspicion by ruling parties across the Arab world: on one occasion in the early days (on 27 January 1999), the Algerian government reportedly pulled the plug on the capital’s electricity supply to prevent the population from hearing a live debate that alleged Algerian military collusion in a series of massacres.
Al Jazeera only became internationally significant after the September 11 attacks on New York in 2001. The station broadcast video statements by Osama bin Laden (incidentally earning the station $20,000 per minute in resale fees) and other Al Qaeda leaders who defended the attacks. The US government accused the station of a propaganda campaign on behalf of the terrorists; however, the footage was broadcast by the station without comment. Al Jazeera continued to air challenging debate during the Afghanistan conflict, bringing into sharp focus the devastating impact of war on the lives of ordinary people. In 2003 it hired its first English-language journalist, Afshin Rattansi, from the BBC’s Today Programme.
Al Jazeera has earned its spurs on the frontline of journalism and is today the most widely watched news channel in the Middle East. In November 2006 a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week news channel called Al Jazeera English was launched and it currently broadcasts to more than 260 million households in more than 130 countries. It has won many international awards for risk-taking journalism both on TV and through its website (www.aljazeera.net, in Arabic, and aljazeera.com – with more than 20 million visits every month), which was launched in January 2001. In 2012 Al Jazeera won the prestigious Royal Television Society Award for news channel of the year.