For three years I lived in the tiny Middle East country of Qatar. I recently got word that a poet in the country, Mohammed al-Ajami, was jailed for life after writing a poem deemed insulting to the royal family: the dictatorial Al-Thani family. Al-Ajami is appealing the ruling, which I highly doubt will be overturned. He wrote the poem, read it in front of a small crowd in Egypt, and someone else posted it online. As a result, Mr. al-Ajami is now in jail.
It’s just another reminder of the exceptional lack of freedom of speech not only in Qatar, but in the whole region. It’s also frustrating given the fact that Qatar is trying to take a regional lead in the Arab Spring, which is supposedly bringing freedom and democracy to the Arab world.
Furthermore, Qatar is the home to Al Jazeera news, which at least in its English service has been acting as a “liberal” voice on the surface while being owned by a dictatorial religious conservative regime. That smacks of hypocrisy. This channel loves to report on human rights abuses elsewhere in the world while many humans, particularly immigrant labourers, have few rights. Seeing as Qatar’s population is made up of four fifths foreign labour – that works out to a lot of people with very few rights. The channel has been championed by people who feel that it provides fair and balanced coverage and is the antithesis of “Western” news sources, which are seen in a negative light. The channel does do good reporting, I will give it that, but it is most certainly biased. It also escapes Qatar’s newly drafted media laws, which pretty much put a muzzle on the media within Qatar itself. Again, the hypocrisy is overwhelming.
Now, Qatar is a country that is filthy rich; one of the richest in the world, in fact. This goes a long way in placating a population. Who wants to rock the boat when you can afford to buy a Ferrari thanks to the government? As a result there is little interest in overthrowing the regime. Those who do dissent stand the chance of losing everything, as we see in the case of Mohammed al-Ajami. When even the act of writing a poem can lead to life imprisonment, there is little desire for the population to even think for themselves let alone dissent in any way. You think what the dictators want you to think. End of story.
So, when I see Qatar on the world stage appearing as though it is a liberal country I feel angry and frustrated. In my opinion, the image that Qatar is trying to put forth is a lie. This goes, again, for all of the Gulf countries, including Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia can’t even pretend to be liberal in any way, shape, or form so we’ll just exclude that one.
Sadly, the fact that these countries are dripping with money from oil and natural gas means that they wield a certain amount of power, which also dissuades countries like the U.S. from openly speaking too harshly of the human rights records of these countries. And it’s clear from this case that human rights are a myth when it comes to freedom of expression, despite what Qatar wants the world to believe.
I can only hope that the world pays attention to this case and puts pressure on Qatar. Hopefully, the rights and freedoms of Mohammed al-Ajami will be respected and his life sentence will be overturned. I hope this case also shows the international community—which is increasingly accepting Qatar and even praising its role in the Arab Spring—that it is not the nation it pretends to be. It is most definitely a wolf in sheep’s clothing.