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The blockade of Qatar has made Qataris more supportive of free speech

- February 12, 2019
A couple walk by the sea with the city skyline of Doha, Qatar, the background. (Kamran Jebreili/AP)

In June 2017, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates initiated a blockade against fellow Gulf Cooperation Council member Qatar. The 20-month old blockade has significantly disrupted the GCC and reverberated across regional politics. The impact on Qatar itself is less dramatic. The ruling family in Qatar is the same. The country still has good relations with the United States, Turkey and most of the world. The World Bank predicts Qatar’s economy will grow by 3 percent in both 2019 and 2020.

The blockade triggered significant changes in Qatari public opinion, however. Two surveys which other researchers and I conducted shortly before the blockade and a year after show clear inflection points on a wide range of political attitudes. In particular, Qataris have become more outspoken about politics and more open to public criticism of the government and other institutions.

Survey data results

One of the most striking findings is that the blockade appears to have encouraged Qataris to be more open on matters of free speech. In 2017, before the blockade, our survey found that few Qataris felt comfortable speaking about politics (1 in 4), that people should be free to criticize governments online (1 in 5), or that on the Internet it’s safe to say what one thinks about politics (1 in 8). Few Qataris were inclined to talk about politics, and they weren’t much supportive of other people doing so, either.

But by August-September 2018, when the most recent data was collected in Qatar, all of those responses skyrocketed. Most Qataris now said they felt comfortable discussing politics (72 percent in 2018, up from 23 percent in 2017) and about half said people should be able to criticize governments online (48 percent in 2018, up from 19 percent the year before).

The surveys are part of “Media Use in the Middle East, 2018,” a study of media habits and political attitudes among people in seven Arab countries conducted by researchers at Northwestern University in Qatar, in collaboration with the Harris Poll. We surveyed 7,635 adults in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the UAE (more than 1,000 per country). The complete method report is here.

In Qatar, 1,185 respondents participated, among whom 466 were nationals, with a response rate of 58 percent. Respondents completed the survey via telephone in Arabic or English.

Changes are unique to Qatar

This represents a significant shift from 2017 to 2018 in Qataris’ responses on several variables about freedom of speech, both with regard to what Qataris’ feel safe saying and what they think others should be allowed to say. Qataris are now more likely than nationals in the other six countries to say people should be able to express themselves online even if their ideas are unpopular — 68 percent of Qataris agreed in 2018, up from just 35 percent the year before, when Qataris ranked fifth on this variable among the same seven countries.

Notably, the same measures in four other countries surveyed in the same study changed little in the same time period, on average (Egypt and Jordan didn’t approve several questions).

Not only do Qataris seem to be outspoken on the blockade, there also seems to be more public discussion of Qatar’s internal social and economic conditions. This is significant, as many Qataris are typically private people, reluctant to share much online, much less their take on politics. Many Qataris, typically women but also some men, do not post pictures of themselves on social media, and instead use non-personal avatars, and many do not use their own names in social media handles. More private platforms such as Snapchat (which 55 percent of Qataris use) and WhatsApp (82 percent) are more popular than the comparatively more open Instagram (50 percent) and Facebook (just 9 percent).

For some Qataris, however, the blockade seems to have provided space online to publicly discuss, first, issues facing their country, and, subsequently, concerns within their communities.

Qataris have a modest Twitter presence — 31 percent of nationals use that platform, though that’s higher than all countries surveyed except Saudi Arabia and UAE — but Twitter is now a place where many Qataris openly discuss the country’s domestic matters.

“Qataris are definitely more vocal about local politics than ever before,” Dima Khatib, managing director of AJ+, an Al Jazeera news entity, said in a phone interview. “On governance, on local and regional politics, Qataris are more open.”

Issues that Qataris once discussed only in the majlis, a semiformal social and political forum often taking place in a home, are now openly discussed online, Khatib said.

Qatari nationalism, but also openness

There appears to be a few downsides in the blockade’s impact on public opinion in Qatar. In 2018, 88 percent of Qataris surveyed said that they see media in their country as credible, more than the share of nationals in any other country surveyed who said the same; in 2017, Qataris were more skeptical of their national media, as a more earthly 62 percent of nationals said Qatari media were credible (57 percent said the same in 2013). This is probably due to a surge in nationalism in Qatar since the blockade began, with Qataris rallying around their peninsula.

Nearly every Qatari we surveyed in 2018 (99 percent) said they think their country is headed in the right direction. The percentage of Qataris before the blockade who said their country was headed in the right direction, however, was also high: 95 percent in 2017. Qatar is often listed as the richest country in the world by gross domestic product per capita, and Qataris are well taken care of; they get free health care, mostly free education, and some nationals receive direct monthly cash payments from the government. But even for the wealthiest of countries, a 99 percent vote of confidence likely outpaces reality.

Yet Qataris’ attitudinal responses to the Saudi-led blockade are, in many ways, also a departure from the norm. Historically, countries threatened by outside forces often forget all about tolerance, scale back free speech protections and seek to shut other people and ideas out. One of Qatar’s first major responses to the blockade was to waive entry visa requirements for citizens of 80 countries. Qatar is now more open to holders of different passports, and Qataris themselves are more open to holders of different ideas.

Justin D. Martin is an associate professor in the Journalism and Strategic Communication Program at Northwestern University in Qatar, and a principal investigator of Media Use in the Middle East.