Qataris return majlis to its roots

DOHA // The majlis has played a central role in Arab society since pre-Islamic times, when groups of tribal elders would sit and discuss important community concerns and make decisions. In Qatar, though, the majlis in recent decades has become more of a simple social gathering or informal business meeting than an earnest consultation.

Now a handful of young Qatari men and women are returning this tradition to its roots, taking up urgent social and political issues and adding a dash of activism and diplomacy.

“There is a need to have serious discussion about some topics here in Qatar,” said Hamad al Ibrahim, 30, who, along with his brother, hosts a majlis where topics of debate have included freedom of speech, democracy and Islamism. “What we are trying to do is get people to think about their current situation.”

An Arabic term meaning “a place of sitting”, the majlis is an integral Ramadan tradition, in part because the Prophet Mohammed consulted regularly with an inner circle of friends and advisers.

In the centuries that followed, majlises spread across the Muslim world. Today it is the name for parliaments in Iran, the Maldives, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and other countries.

On any given day a dozen or so majlises take place across Qatar. Few are as open and thoughtful as the al Ibrahims’, which meets every Saturday and holds a monthly discussion on a pressing issue.

Guest speakers have included David Kerr, the former head of Sidra Medical Centre and now a healthcare adviser to the British prime minister, David Cameron, and Tim Sebastian, host of the BBC’s Doha Debates.

On a recent Saturday in a warm, carpeted space on the edge of Doha, a dozen Qataris and a few guests sat on couches set against walls covered with striped wallpaper. A visitor spoke of the floods in Pakistan: the displaced, the lethargic government response, the looming starvation.

At the majlis a week earlier, the al Ibrahims asked members for donations for Pakistani flood relief, to be handed in at the next majlis. In the first day they received commitments totalling 40,000 Qatari riyals (Dh40,360).

“This is the worst disaster in Pakistani history,” said Abdul Ghaffar Aziz, an official with Al Khidmat Foundation, the charitable arm of Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan’s oldest Islamic political party.

Al Khidmat is building camps for the displaced and providing food, clothing and medical attention. By the end of Mr al Ghaffar’s talk the majlis had raised more than 265,000 riyals.

“People really contributed generously,” said Mr al Ibrahim, who works as an analyst at Rand-Qatar Policy Institute. “It’s one of the things that we are proud we could achieve.”

Majlis members feel the same way. “This is good for Qataris,” said Jaber al Mosallam, 23, referring to the al Ibrahim majlis.

At his own family majlis, which Mr al Mosallam attends almost nightly, the talk is of business, football, the latest news. Some issues remain taboo. “It’s not that you’re scared of it, but it’s very difficult to talk about certain issues,” Mr al Mosallam, who works at Qatar Petroleum, said. “Honesty has a price.”

Maryah al Dafa is trying to do something good as well. Returning to Doha last year after getting her master’s in the United Kingdom, she launched what most believe is the first women’s majlis in Qatar.

“We needed a place to vent and talk about anything, from girly issues to politics and other topics,” said Ms al Dafa, 24, the daughter of a Qatari diplomat. Members of her majlis include a handful of US citizens and other westerners. For Ms al Dafa, the majlis is as much about cultural exchange as it is about expressing opinions and discussing life in Qatar.

“It’s comfortable but also critical – of everything, even ourselves,” she added. “Even if you don’t say anything you leave having heard three to four views on society in Qatar or politics in the United States.”

Such discussions represent a shift, according to Hiba Khodr. A visiting fellow at the Doha branch of the Brookings Institution in Washington, she has studied majlises in the Gulf.

“In Kuwait they are more organised, more involved in political discussions and policy making,” Ms Kodhr said, adding that in Kuwait there are several women’s and even mixed-gender diwaniyat, as they are called. In Bahrain, majlises are similarly open.

“Here [in Qatar] people don’t talk about these issues,” Ms Khodr said. “They simply don’t speak politics, at least not yet.”

This reluctance to talk politics is what inspired Ms al Dafa to carve out a space for real discussion. “There’s only, what, 300,000 Qataris, and most of them are apathetic about all this,” Ms al Dafa said. “I’m not a revolutionary, but it’s about being critical and constructive and making positive change.”

Many Qataris believe the country’s current leadership has allowed for greater openness. They point to mixed-gender higher learning at Education City and thoughtful public discussion on the Doha Debates. “The more educated people get, the more willing they are to break boundaries and express themselves,” Hassan al Ibrahim said.

His brother Hamad is hopeful that a new generation will be perfectly comfortable talking politics, free speech, and the direction of Islamic society in the modern world. For now, he just wants to get the ball rolling.

“In order to change people’s mentality it takes some time,” he said. “I think if we can replicate this in more majlises, it would be great.”

originally appeared in the 10 Sept 2010 The National, www.thenational.ae


Glittering Gulf states' dark labor secret

By David Lepeska
Christian Science Monitor

Doha, Qatar: The rise of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf is a now-familiar tale. Tiny societies of pearl divers, coastal merchants, and nomadic Bedouin were transformed in the last half of the 20th century by oil and natural-gas wealth. Sparkling office towers and hotels sprang into the muggy air, the monarchs that rule these tiny emirates became bywords for financial excess, and newspapers described the region's economic "miracle."

Now, countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are seeking to polish all that glitter, spending hundreds of millions on universities in association with the likes of Harvard and on museums with organizations like France's famed Louvre.

But as they do so, one fact about their astonishing economic success has remained largely unchanged: The vast majority of the workers who have built these states are foreigners who are often exploited, rarely protected by local laws, and frequently return home after years of work as poor as when they got here. Promises have been made in recent years to protect the migrants, but labor advocates say millions are still being abused.

"It's breathtaking hypocrisy," says Azfar Khan, with the International Labor Organization (ILO). "They flout the most basic laws protecting the rights of workers."

Tiny Qatar is just one of the examples. The leading exporter of liquid natural gas is smaller than Connecticut, but state-funded Al Jazeera News is a powerful regional voice, and Education City, built in association with Georgetown, Northwestern, and four other US universities, is seen as a beacon of progress for the Arab world.

But not far from the futuristic campus, Rajan Sapkota and many like him are working in conditions that activists liken to indentured servitude.

The young Nepali shares a room with nine of his countrymen. More than 140 Nepali laborers have died in Qatar this year, according to the Safety Awareness Center, which tracks deaths among Nepalis. And in a country where the average wage for citizens is $83,000 per year, the world's highest, according to the International Monetary Fund, he is paid about 60 cents an hour.

Mr. Sapkota can't quit or leave as his boss has taken his passport. "Work here is not so good," said Sapkota, his eyes heavy-lidded after a 12-hour workday in 116-degree F. heat. "Sometimes we get tired and thirsty; it is very hot here."

So hot that leading Sunni cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi called for construction in Gulf states to be halted for Ramadan, the holy month during which Muslims fast in the daytime.

Because it is illegal in these countries to consume food or water in public during daylight hours during Ramadan, construction workers are compelled to fast, to a certain extent.

The number of expatriate workers in the Gulf has nearly doubled, from close to 9 million in 1990 to 17 million today. In Qatar and the UAE, foreign workers are more than 90 percent of the workforce.

In recent years, workers in Bahrain, Kuwait, and the UAE have protested conditions, with many complaints stemming from the system of kafallah: Foreign workers are sponsored by an employer and barred from changing jobs, leaving the country, or renting a home without his approval. A 2009 State Department report said the law leads to "forced labor activities and slave-like conditions."

Qatar has created the National Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons and boosted labor camp inspections. The UAE moved to improve conditions and Kuwait announced a reform of labor laws. Yet Kuwait's new minimum wage for laborers of about $209 per month excludes 500,000-plus domestic workers.

"Reforms often encounter stiff resistance from employers fearing higher costs and fewer entitlements, labor brokers profiting off a poorly regulated system, and government officials who view migrants as a security threat," Human Rights Watch wrote in May.

"We must ensure that the laws are enforced strictly and fairly," says Hasan al-Mohannadi, head of Qatar's Permanent Population Committee. Yet Qatari sponsors still hold workers' passports, despite a prohibition, and laborers regularly work more than the legal limit of 10 hours a day.

"The UAE and Qatar have definitely regressed," says the ILO's Mr. Khan.

For Nepalis in Qatar, the situation is bleak. Most take high-interest loans to pay a recruiter $2,000 for a visa and a job. For Bharat Bika, a father of four, his $216 monthly salary is inadequate. "It is so difficult to pay my loan," said Bika, who still owes more than $1,400 after a year. "I'm not sure I'm going to be able to do it."

Thousands of workers in the UAE have gone unpaid for six months or more because indebted employers fled the country. In Kuwait, activists say worker suicides are common. In Qatar, activists say deaths among the migrant Nepali workforce are rising. "They do not have enough doctors and the health care is extremely poor," said Radha Krishna Deo, president of the Safety Awareness Center.

Qatar says it plans to build three clinics and two health centers for male laborers. "They have health problems that are difficult to address and they impose problems with their huge demand on hospitals here," said Jamal Khanji, of the Supreme Council of Health.

Yet Qatar's progressive reputation may suffer as abuses continue and the worker population grows. "The world community has to bring pressure on the governments to redress the situation," said Khan. "You can only fool people so many times."

originally ran in Sept 3, 2010, Christian Science Monitor, with photo: