Judging Qatar

‘Qatar has used its great wealth to buy in a system of justice of which I am proud — an oasis of common law in a desert of sharia. But that’s only for foreign businesses. The locals have to make do with royal decrees’

Jurisprudence Justice Middle East

It seemed strange to be discussing the rule of law in a country run by an absolute monarch who took power in a coup. And yet dozens of senior British judges and lawyers recently travelled to the Gulf state of Qatar to do just that. 

Some 450 legal luminaries from almost 90 countries — not including Israel, of course — were invited to the weekend conference at the expense of the government of Qatar. 

The hospitality was generous but Qatar can probably afford it: oil and gas revenues have given its people the highest per-capita income in the world.

The results of this wealth are impossible to miss. Viewed across the lagoon from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Doha appears as one huge building site with cranes alongside every skyscraper. Appropriately, the Gulf Times was carrying a supplement on earth-moving equipment.

Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al-Thani, Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, told the Qatar Law Forum that his country’s “vision of democracy” was defined by the policies of the Emir, who “took power” in 1995. That was when Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani replaced his father in what the Foreign Office profile describes as a bloodless coup. 

Qatar committed itself to the rule of law in a constitution that took effect in 2005. This provides for two-thirds of the seats on a 45-member legislative council to be elected, with the remainder appointed by the Emir. 

But no date has yet been set for the first elections. In an explanation that shed more darkness than light, Sheikh Hamad — the PM, not the head of state — told the conference that Qatar had “embarked on a process of ongoing review of the present legislation on the basis of the constitution in order to modernise and harmonise it with the requirements of sustainable development and progress to the level of advancement that we seek for our country”.

Still, the PM’s promise to “redress the drawbacks in legislation” was greeted enthusiastically by Qatar’s relentlessly upbeat local press. And no less a figure than Lord Woolf was on hand to argue that principles such as fairness and independence were not inconsistent with countries governed by a ruling dynasty.

“The rule of law does not necessarily require a democracy,” Lord Woolf told me. It would be possible for countries such as China and Russia to adhere to the rule of law.

And does Qatar? Woolf could not say. But what he does believe is that former senior judges from democratic countries can be a catalyst for change.

A few months after he retired as Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales in 2005, Woolf was invited to become the first president of a special court set up in Qatar to decide commercial disputes. 

He is very proud of the fact that the Emir gave the post to a prominent Jew. And Malik Dahlan, the Harvard-educated local organiser of the conference, returned the compliment by mentioning Lord Woolf in the same breath as Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon). Or rather “Maimonides of al-Andalus”, a subtle reminder that the greatest Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages was born in Muslim Cordoba during the so-called golden age of Islamic tolerance — an age, incidentally, that ended when the young Maimonides and his family were forced to flee Muslim invaders. Dahlan also praised Sir William Blair, co-convenor of the conference and now a High Court judge. He was “the Arab world’s preferred Blair”, added Dahlan, in a pointed reference to the judge’s better-known brother Tony.

The Qatar Financial Centre’s civil and commercial court is an oasis of common law in a desert of sharia, like the earlier court in Dubai on which it was modelled.

Taking jurisdiction away from the local courts is obviously good for business — international investors will be more willing to invest if they know that their disputes will be decided according to laws with which they are familiar — but it caused some initial resentment among Qatar’s judges. Still, they retain their criminal jurisdiction. Fraudsters will be tried and punished according to sharia principles.

Why am I left feeling edgy about the whole trip? Qatar has used its great wealth to buy in a system of justice of which I am proud. But that’s only for international businesses. Qataris have to make do with a system of laws based on royal decrees. And the foreign workers who outnumber Qataris as they build the country in the baking heat — what rights do they have in practice?

As I say, it seemed a strange place to hear Lord Phillips, the senior law lord, say that equality before the law is essential and access to justice must be open to all.