How Qatari citizens are tested in epic battle for freedoms

Every man, woman and child in the Gulf state is forced to demonstrate their allegiance to the ruler

An anonymous passerby stopped to take a photo of the symbols on the rock on a small corner of Qatar’s desert highland. The symbols are disappearing, but the experience will never leave him.

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The man, whose hand had come very near to the rock, appeared poised to do a kung fu kick. He then backtracked, as though pausing for thought, brushing sand from his fingers. It had seemed like a mystic gesture.

Then, like a mirage, the symbols faded. The stone later lay untouched, on the rocky island of Doha.

No one knows where or when the symbols, which were carved in the desert about four centuries ago, were found. They are permanent symbols of allegiance for everyone in Qatar. Each man, woman and child in the oil-rich, Sunni-ruled country, must be in flag-waving, superhero-hand-clapping agreement with its ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.

Qatar, an unprecedentedly wealthy oil and gas exporter, was officially declared the capital of the seven emirates that make up the state of Qatar in 1995. Since then, the emirate has implemented a complex structure of religious and political opinions, placing its ruler, its president, above scrutiny. People read the Koran as a sacred text, but the acts of worship themselves are open to interpretation. All rulings come from Sheikh Tamim, and his committee of advisers makes changes on a daily basis.

A 2013 act allowed the mixing of men and women into schools and other public places. A walkway for men was opened near the parliament building in Doha this summer, and women were banned from an official gala in 2015.

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The population is mostly young and educated and this makes them fertile ground for the emir’s re-election campaigns. Parties are banned and campaigns are deeply controversial. All independent statements are deemed illegal.

Qatar has famously and aggressively marketed itself as a cultural mecca – an irony at a time when it seeks to position itself on the world stage. The $500bn infrastructure spending programme during the past two years has helped Qatar expand its image, without the direct involvement of its infamous, computerised prison.

More than 120,000 pilgrims are estimated to have visited Masjid al-Haram at the foot of the Western Wall in Jerusalem this year, making it one of the largest per capita pilgrimage sites in the world. Qatar had previously been banned from applying for one of two Muslim religious charters, with the number of women pilgrims strictly controlled.

Qatar has hosted major humanitarian aid from Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia in response to its neighbour, Yemen, suffering one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

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