They have the highest per capita income in the world. They have a complete and extensive social welfare benefit package that covers practically everything from the cradle to the grave. And they have a government that is open to liberal reforms and that allows the press to operate and publish freely. These descriptions sure sounds like traits common to the Scandinavian countries. But away from the bitter cold of Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Finland, the country being described above is located in a steaming hot desert in the Middle East. This is Qatar, currently considered as the richest country in the world!
A Humble Past
Qatar used to be one of the poorest countries in the region. Up until the 1920s, its main industries were pearl farming and fishing. However, Japan came out with the cultured pearl in the 1930s, which dealt a huge blow to the pearling industry of Qatar.
The Thani family has dominated the country for more than 150 years. Up until the early 70s, Qatar had remained a protectorate of the British Empire. It declined an invitation to join the United Arab Emirates and instead declared its independence in 1971.
That Black Gold – Oil!
Oil completely transformed Qatar’s economy. It was discovered in the 1940s, and the proven reserves gushing out of the country’s oil fields amount to more than 15 billion barrels, which is enough quantity to tide them over for the next 37 years. The country also has the third biggest proven reserves of natural gas, amounting to 26 trillion cubic meters and accounting for 14% of the world’s total. The reserves in its North Field, an area almost the size of the Qatari peninsula itself, are estimated to contain up to 800 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Financially, oil and gas are responsible for more than half of the country’s gross domestic product. They also account for more than two-thirds of the government’s income, including nearly 85% of all export earnings. As a result, Qatar has enjoyed lopsided surpluses in its trade dealings with other countries.
The financial haul of its petroleum products has translated into one of the highest standard of living in the world. Per capita income is estimated at $98,948, and this is further bolstered as there is no income tax and welfare benefits are either completely free or heavily subsidized. Last year, the country of 1.7 million people was adjudged to be the richest country in the world.
Changes and Reforms
In 1995, Qatar saw a change in leadership when the Crown Prince Hamad bin Khalifa replaced his father to become the emir. Bucking the trend of other Middle Eastern nations that adhere to extremely conservative norms and laws, the new leadership introduced several key reforms to bring about a more liberal society.
In the municipal council elections for 29 seats in 1999, women were allowed to run and vote for the first time in the country’s history. The first national elections for the legislature are scheduled next year, just eight years after limited democratic reforms that called for mixed Advisory Council was introduced. The Advisory Council, while still retaining 15 appointees from the emir, also consisted of 30 members elected by the people.
The country’s press also enjoys a freedom not normally seen in the region. The Al-Jazeera network, one of the most important news broadcasters in the Arab world, has its base in Qatar.
Qatar’s small population also means they have to rely heavily on foreign labor. As a matter of fact, up to 94% of its labor is done by non-citizens. The Qatari government has sought to protect them and grant them the freedom to form their own labor unions.
Drive to Diversify
Despite its still substantial oil and natural gas reserves, the country has started to develop its non-energy sectors by increasing investments in other areas of the economy. The government’s drive to develop a knowledge-based economy has resulted into the establishment of the following:
Qatar Science and Technology Park
Doha Sports City
The Sports City in Doha was built primarily for the Asian Games in 2006. The area consists of a world-class track and field stadium, aquatic centers, exhibition halls and several other buildings dedicated to various sports. A sports academy has also been established to train the nation’s athletes.
Qatar will also be hosting the World Cup of football in 2022. Billed as the most-watched program in the world, the country has embarked on an ambitious infrastructure program that aims to build several football stadiums that will host the match fixtures. A modern metro system is also being constructed, as well as a causeway linking the country to neighboring Bahrain.
Qatar Financial Centre
The Qatar Financial Centre (QFC) aims to support the development of not only Qatar, but also the entire region. It strives for the development of the local and regional markets, even as it strengthens the links between the region’s economies and the global financial markets. World-class investment and capital support services in the forms of no-interest loans are provided at the QFC.
Qatar’s Global Role
Qatar has been playing an increasingly active role on both the regional and world stage. The QFC has made available nearly a trillion dollars for investment projects across the gulf region. This is over and above the $130 billion that Qatar itself would need for its own investments. These projects are in road and bridge construction, infrastructure and public transportation development, housing and real estate, health centers and sanitation projects.
On the geopolitical stage, Qatar has also been involved in the mediation of various conflicts and disputes in the Middle East and Africa. The country also plays an active role in the pursuit of a comprehensive peace plan for war-torn Afghanistan.
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