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Qatar's youths: Why protest? We have it pretty great

Young people in Qatar say their contentment is not just about Qatar's oil wealth, but investment in education and innovation that gives them opportunity.

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A view shows the Qatar Petroleum headquarters (L), which is under construction, and other buildings that make up the downtown Doha skyline in this April 8, 2013 file photo.

Fadi Al-Assaad/REUTERS/File

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In a region beset with unrest and antigovernment protests that have ousted leaders and ignited civil wars, Qatar counts among the most stable countries. The tiny constitutional monarchy in the Arabian Gulf has been ruled by the same family for almost 150 years.

Qatar recently received a short burst of attention when its leader, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, unexpectedly announced that he would hand power to his son – not because of poor health or external pressure, he said, but because younger leadership was needed to take the country forward.

Said to be the richest nation in the world, Qatar is often seen as an outlier rather than an example for the region because of its prosperity. But for Qatari youths like those Sheikh Hamad hopes his son will shepherd to continued prosperity, the nation’s peace is not so much because of the nation’s wealth, but what the government has done with it.

“People think that we just fell into a pot of gold and now we’re just chilling as a whole nation, but I don’t think that’s the case,” says Hamad Al-Amari, a youth program associate at the Doha Film Institute who also does stand-up comedy. “Now that we have all that, where do you go from there? Do you just sit or do you take the challenge on and say, ‘OK, we have to show everyone that because we have this, we’re going to be better, we’re going to be creative.’ ”

Qatar is home to the world’s third-largest natural gas reserves, but compared to its neighbors in the Arabian Gulf, Qatar has been slower to develop. The difference in the opportunities offered to 20-something Qataris today compared to their parents is vast. Mr. Amari’s father, for example, worked his way through college, eventually earning a PhD. His son, on the other hand received a free education and benefited from the numerous programs that fund higher education for Qataris with the grades to qualify.

Between 1991 and 2011, the net enrollment of Qataris in secondary school has climbed from just 69 percent to 91 percent, according to United Nations figures. Although the number of those who go on to post-secondary education remains low – the country has about 12 percent gross enrollment rate – it is not due to lack of government support. The government is actively working to increase enrollment rates to meet its development goals.

Unemployment in Qatar has fallen below 1 percent and a wide array of government benefits has created an environment where Qatari nationals say they feel encouraged use the national wealth as a safety net that allows them to innovate and experiment.

Among the loudest in the national cheering section is Khalifa Saelh Al Haroon, founder of ILoveQatar.net, a popular website about Qatar. The site is just one of many of Mr. Haroon’s projects. He sits on numerous boards and works a day job as well.

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“I remember someone asking me, ‘Why hasn’t Qatar had its own revolution?’ To have a revolution you need to have unrest. When the people are happy, what are we going to revolt against?” he says. “OK, yes, we don’t have a democratic state in the Western understanding of the term, but democracy means that you have a voice and I believe in Qatar that you do have a voice. … I know that if the people didn’t particularly like something in the country, we would be heard.”

Qatar does have a number of restrictions that could be expected to create frustration, such as a constitutional prohibition against criticizing the emir, the nation’s leader. However, the demographics of Qatar also make it easier for locals to effectively communicate with those in government.

Qatar has about 2 million residents, but only 250,000 of them are native Qataris. A population of that size creates an environment unlike other countries in the region, or arguably in the world – one where where citizens can easily voice their concerns.

Still, for all Qatari youths’ enthusiasm about the opportunities within their country, the importance of the country’s wealth in providing that potential and staving off unrest cannot be overstated.

It’s not uncommon for a recent Qatari college graduate with no experience to land a job with a starting salary of $65,000 to $80,000 a year, says Darwish Al-Emadi, director of the Social and Economic Survey Research Institute at Qatar University.

“At the end of the day, if you look at the crises in Egypt, Tunisia, those are primarily economic,” he says. “We have a very fair distribution of wealth in this country, in a way that ordinary people will have a better share of the income.”


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