The Individual vs. Institutions
In Qatar, there is basically one tier of citizenship—being Qatari. Institutions have largely been created by this citizenry in the past 50 years in order to bolster their own power, welfare, and status beyond the constraints of the realities of history and the nation’s past. In Cairo, citizenship is stratified into the high elite and the common people. Institutions were created by the elite in order to consolidate their status, but acted as a trapping mechanism for both groups. This is seen in the thesis of Stephen Cook’s book Struggle for Egypt, as well as in the struggle for Egyptians to navigate their individual lives amidst an unfair and overbearing corrupt bureaucratic regime, as seen in the novel Final Exit.
Citizenship in Qatar has basically one tier: that of being a full Qatari citizen, privilege to all the benefits that come with it: guaranteed wages of up to $7,000 a month as well as free land and almost guaranteed job opportunities. These citizens are the elite of the country, enjoying a status superior to that of people born in Qatar without Qatari blood and the 80% of the population who are expatriate laborers and enjoy very limited rights. Qataris alone have political rights such as voting, and are guaranteed the benefits of Qatar’s pearl and later oil-based rentier economy. Egyptian citizenship has much different dynamics. There are two tiers: the elite minority and the poor majority. The majority of citizens are in this lower class, and rights are severely constricted by a corrupt government bureaucracy dominated by the elite and restrictive of freedoms.
Formal institutions in Qatar are used to bolster the power of the citizen-elite, as shown by the treatment of this group by the government, the main formal institution of Qatar. This is seen in the many benefits citizens garner, as described above.
Cook defines formal institutions in Cairo as those created following the 1952 Free Officers’ Coup, led by the future “Big 3” leaders: Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak. Nasser established the institutions that would shape Egyptian history until the present day, including “state security” courts, student and trade unions infested with government spies, ineffective security agencies and a national propaganda apparatus. These institutions are the antagonistic force in Final Exit, in which the author illustrates the plight of hard-working parents and their educated children. Their struggle is almost tragic as they find themselves hopeless to overcome the obstacles of a corrupt, bureaucratic, tyrannical regime that robs them of any possibility for a stable and happy life beyond that of a few pounds a day. These formal institutions did more than hinder the lower class of citizenry, however. They also trapped the nation and its political elite into a lack of self-realization and made them victim to imperialist forces, locking Egypt into a perpetual struggle to develop a national and cultural identity, and preventing it from moving forward in the way Qatar has. But the negative impact of formal institutions on Qatari citizens should not be ignored. Though they are freed by it, they are also limited by it, in the sense that citizenship is so prized it is vulnerable. Marriage to a non-Qatari man for example, makes a woman lose her Qatari citizenship rights. In addition, the formality of Qatar’s rentier economy, which creates the danger of becoming too dependent on oil and allowing the decline of other industries, a phenomenon called “Dutch Disease.” Qatar is trying to avoid this by transitioning to its massive natural gas bed for income and by making investments abroad. In addition, Qatar struggles to make Qataris marketable to the rest of the world because they depend on these formal institutions instead of paving their own paths for lives. It tries to make up for this through investment in education (seen in Education City and the under-construction Qatar University). It is understandable that Qataris would struggle to find job opportunities in the rest of the world, because their lives are made comfortable by the government without any work of their own.
However, unlike Egypt, Qatar was largely immune to imperialist forces and their negative impact on citizenry. Unlike countries, where Britain had a strong presence (militarily, politically, etc.), Qatar retained much of its sense of independence and cultural identity. Rather than a culture or lack thereof being the result of imperial forces, it is constructed by the Al-Thani ruling family to bolster the power of the citizen elite.
The main informal institution in Qatar is its culture. The irony is that it is an artificial construct, created by the formal government institutions of Qatar. Thus, Qatar formalizes its informal institutions to move past the realities of Qatari history and shepherd the country into a new age that is seen as advantageous and prosperous for its citizen elite. Informal institutions allow both Qataris and Egyptians to chafe through the constraints of their reality as well as the realities of formal institutions. In Qatar, informal institutions are defined by the culture constructed by the Qatari citizen elite to bolster their own power much beyond what it was 50 or 100 years ago. Qatar arguably had a more genuine form of culture in the past when its economy was based on pearl-diving. However, this was made obsolete by the discovery massive oil beds at the end of the 20th century. Qatar aims to garner the advantages from this wealth without losing the loyalty and power of its citizen elite. It does so by creating a cultural myth, constructed by the Al-Thani ruling family. Aspects of this cultural myth include national holidays such as Qatari cultural day, robot-powered camel races, and replicas of pearl-fishing boats, bringing people closer to Qatari culture and the Al-Thani family.
The main drawback of this cultural myth is the phenomenon of anomie. The impact and reality of this force is contestable, because it is largely rooted in a biased Western tradition. However, it is the focal point of Fromherz’s analysis, which describes the phenomenon as changes in social; environments and post-modernism in response to rapid economic growth. This phenomenon applies to most industrializing countries, including many in the Arab world. The reason it does not seem to be occurring in Qatar is puzzling. The current Sheikha states that the main problem facing Qatar is a lack of post-modernism and introspection about the rapid economic growth and its impact on culture. But because anomie is a Western intellectual notion, its absence in Qatar can be explained through an analysis of unique features of Qatar’s government and society, especially through the lens of genuine (non-artificial or constructed) institutions. Indeed, Qatar has other informal institutions that largely affect the fate of its citizenry. These include religious tradition and family lineages, both of which have organic roots in the individual and the realities of Qatari history. They are not artificially constructed, and have broad-reaching impacts on Qatar’s regional and international influence, as well as on the high standard of livelihood of its citizens. Examples of these organic cultural aspects include the role of mediation in Qatar’s regional and international influence, largely rooted in Islamic tradition. In addition, tribes and family lineage play a huge role in Qatari culture. This form of informal institution serves as a stratifying agent, dividing the main tier of Qatari citizens into smaller tiers depending on how close one’s family is to the Al Thani ruling family.
In Egypt, informal institutions are almost completely organic (deriving from the people), and are used as the only counterweight to the overbearing oppression of its formal institutions. These informal networks are largely religious in nature, as seen in groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition, a growing base of civil society, especially after the Arab Spring, allows Egyptians to transcend the rigid constraints on their livelihood. The strength of the Arab spring itself should be noted, in terms of its actual impact in breaking down the institutions and bureaucracy created by Nasser. Its reach is contestable, given the number of officials from the old regime still in power, as well as the tension-producing power of the army over the populace in the current vulnerable political transition period.