Last Saturday, thousands of Qataris went to the ballot boxes to choose their representatives on the nation’s Shura Council, in the first parliamentary elections in Qatar’s history. Turnout was estimated to be high, bolstering the idea that the elections represented a positive historical step in the country’s development. Qatar’s democratic image, made especially relevant by the Gulf’s geopolitical situation, has been carefully studied and discussed, both by international and local scholars. A debate within Qatari society has accompanied the election process, questioning the validity and extent of its newfound democracy – a normal process for any country’s first elections.
Controversy has arisen after some Qataris publicly disagreed over the way the democratic process was formulated. The country’s new election law controversially divided Qatari citizens into two groups: those with deep historical Qatari origins, who could vote, and “naturalized” citizens whose parents had immigrated to the country more recently, who could not. Some found that depriving some citizens of voting rights would lead to long-term grievances, although other Qataris welcomed the election despite its shortcomings, considering it as a step forward. In all countries, the idea is that democracy is never perfect, because different societies have the ability to set their own conditions. Elections are impacted by historical and societal factors, and in Qatar’s case, the experiences of its surrounding countries have most likely been part of the government’s decisions on how to conduct the election.
Keeping Up With the Neighbors
For instance, in Oman, election laws and regulations have gone through different stages before reaching their current form. The current Omani parliament is divided evenly between appointed seats and elected ones. While this system is by definition undemocratic, it appears to be suitable for the Omani community, as there has not been any significant pushback against it yet. Omanis, by and large, have been content with the stability of their system and do not appear anxious to change it.
The second experience in Qatar’s surroundings is Kuwait, which has the freest parliament in the Gulf. Kuwait’s experience in parliamentary government, however, has led to considerable turbulence and even absurd situations. In some senses, Kuwait’s experience has become a cautionary example, showing that more democracy could lead to chaos and giving ammunition to decision-makers in the Gulf who oppose democratic reforms. It is important to mention that much of the blame for Kuwait’s system should be placed on the Kuwaiti elite, due to their strategic use of sectarianism, tribalism, and even bribery to hinder the success of the Kuwaiti parliament in implementing reforms.
Some view the difficulties facing the democratic process in Kuwait as stemming from a lack of community awareness of this issue, and the retreat of civil society’s role in promoting democracy and weakening tribalism and sectarianism. However, while this is theoretical, every time Kuwaitis vote, the results are reflective of the community itself. For this reason, democracy must be accepted as it is, since it is a reflection of what a society is, rather than what idealists think it should be. If a society is tribal, as most Gulf countries are, it is foolish to expect that its parliament will not be.
Going back to the Qatari experience, it is important to note that many of the candidates were young and educated, a result of Qatar’s excellent education system that was able to present candidates with good backgrounds. Some of the candidates have openly asked their tribes to vote for them because of tribal ties, while others have implicitly rejected tribalism, presenting a broad, non-tribal agenda related to popular issues like education and health. Some candidates even went as far as criticizing some of the laws that limit freedoms in Qatar. However, one other positive consequence of the election campaign has been the community discussions that it helped to initiate. These discussions have been led by Qatari elites, who were not running for office, but who nonetheless used the opportunity to start a wider discussion about ideas they wanted to implement.
One of the main anxieties of Qatar’s ruling authorities was what kind of representatives would be elected as a result of the process. The satisfying answer was clear in the results: a high-percentage turnout led to the election of well-qualified and educated Qataris, most of whom had tribal connections. Practically speaking, although the tribal nature of the incoming Shura Council is not ideal, this is nonetheless the best result that any electoral process in the Gulf could hope to achieve.
This is not to suggest that the election was perfect. One major shortcoming has been the embarrassing failure to elect any women to parliament, and some other tribes were excluded from the final results as well. Herein lies the advantage of the Qatari royal family’s involvement; although it could be described as undemocratic, it has the prerogative to appoint fifteen members after the results, allowing it to appoint representatives of societal groups who lost out in the vote count and helping to create a balance. The failure of the election to bring women into office was unfortunate, but considering the nature of Qatar as a conservative society, we should not be entirely surprised that they were not able to win seats. Under the appointment system, the Emir now has the authority to appoint fifteen women, to increase representation.
It should be clear by now that the Qataris’ brief experience in representative democracy is not without flaws. At the same time, though, it is a suitable beginning to a process of moving forward towards a better and more representative society. Qatar’s election marks an addition to the GCC states’ experiences that helps each learn how to evolve into a better representation in the Shura Council. Hopefully one day in the future, a better social contract in the Gulf will be reached, taking into consideration the gradual increase of democratic reforms, and bringing unity and prosperity to the region.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.