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Qatar’s 7th Municipal Elections: What to Expect for the Political Culture and Women Participation

There are intricate dynamics in Qatari politics, specifically the evolving participation of women in the country’s municipal elections and the societal challenges women face in their journey. One candidate, Khadeja Ahmad Albuhaliqa, reflects on the shifting cultural norms, the impact of social media on campaigning, and the significant role of female representation in shaping Qatar’s rapid development and fostering inclusive policymaking.

Qatar’s upcoming municipal elections, which will see new representatives take office at the Central Municipal Council (CMC), face a scarcity of female participation despite laws that ensure gender equality in electoral opportunities. Qatar’s electoral system is also unique, as districts are redrawn based on population mobility and urban development, the prohibition of political parties and associations, and the dominant influence of tribalism on candidate selection. As a result, there is a relative lack of enthusiasm for the municipal elections compared to the previous Shura Council elections in 2021. The municipal elections, which will be held on June 22nd, will only have four women listed amongst the 110 certified candidates. These elections will designate leaders across 29 constituencies in the nation’s eight municipalities—Doha, Al Rayyan, Al Sheehaniya, Al Shamal, Al Daayen, Al Wakrah, Al Khor and Dakhira, and Umm Salal.

The elected will find their place in the CMC, Qatar’s only fully elected national body, which primarily advises the Ministry of Municipalities on local concerns. As Professor Luciano Zaccara from Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University clarifies, the CMC holds neither executive nor legislative powers, and its “role is limited to advising the Ministry of Municipalities on problems that arise in every municipality of the country.” There is limited female participation, despite the country’s electoral law that provides equal opportunities to Qatari citizens, regardless of gender, reflecting a societal hindrance rather than a legal one.

Gender Disparity and Elections Dynamics

Contrary to the significant public interest and extensive media attention that characterized the first Shura Council elections in October 2021, the municipal elections usually generate less enthusiasm or attraction. Registration has been low for both the electoral roll and voter turnout for municipal elections until the Shura Council elections, in which the participation in the voting experiment was 63.5% among all Qatari constituents.

The first elections for the CMC were held on March 1999 and were the first municipal elections conducted in a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) country. The Qatari electoral law designed in 2005 provides equal opportunities to men and women who are original Qatari citizens. The borderline in the law is not gender-oriented but distinguishes between original and naturalized Qatari citizens who don’t hold electoral rights.

The electoral system is designed with “the formula first-past-the-post, which as a concept means that candidates who obtain a simple majority of votes win a seat.” However, the boundaries of these 29 election districts are fluid and changing according to the number of registered voters residing in these municipalities. Put differently, the dynamic mobility of population and rapid urban development in Qatar influences electoral districts. The authorities redraw districts, and citizens are required to register their right to vote for every municipal election according to newly formed districts. As Zaccara states, this method aims to balance the number of voters for each district. The electoral law also bans political parties, associations, and collective decisions taken by the tribes to determine candidates. Yet, the impact of tribalism on the candidates still exists.

Women’s Political Representation in Qatar’s Municipal Elections

There is an ongoing struggle and effort by women in Qatar to gain equal representation in Qatar’s political landscape. This is exemplified by the case of Khadeja Ahmad Albuhaliqa is running in the upcoming municipal elections. Despite cultural and societal barriers that limit women’s political participation, such as the norm of seeking the husband’s approval to vote and the traditionally male-oriented Majlis meetings where candidates meet constituents to promote their program, Albuhaliqa and other women candidates persist in their endeavors. Using modern tools like social media, they aim to overcome these barriers and influence societal norms while bearing the high financial costs of election campaigns.

According to research conducted by Dr. Kaltham Al-Ghanim from Qatar University, about 47% of respondents strongly agreed that, “a woman should have her husband’s permission when she intends to vote in elections,” and women were more likely than men to agree with this statement (65% versus 59%, respectively). However, among the 110 candidates, four Qatari women are contesting for various constituencies. Asmaa al-Badr is running for Constituency 10, Rawda Omran al-Qubaisi for Constituency 15, Fatima al-Ghzal for Constituency 3, and Khadeja Ahmad Albuhaliqa for Constituency 9. These four women are set to challenge their respective competitors.

Notably, Constituency 9 is renowned for its successful female representative, Sheikha Al Jufairi. She first secured her seat in 2003 and has been re-elected four times since, as Zaccara points out. In 2011, she entered the race against another woman candidate, Fatima Al Kuwari, in district 9, yet in 2015, when the district boundaries were redefined, the two once again contended, but in different districts—Al Jufairi in district 8 and Al Kuwari in district 9. Both secured seats in their respective districts. Al Jufairi was the most favored candidate in both 2011 and 2015, garnering 803 votes with 92% of total votes and 852 votes with 63.5% of votes cast. In 2019, Al Jufairi secured 910 votes, significantly outpacing her only competitor, who received just 57 votes.

For this election, district 9, now known as Al Thumama, has been labeled as “the Gate of Qatar” by Khadeja Ahmad Albuhaliqa due to its proximity to the airport: “If we can elevate the standard for Al Thumama, it can serve as an exemplary model for the rest of the municipalities in Qatar. We already perceive West Bay as an embodiment of Qatar; why not introduce another innovative and visionary representation from Al Thumama? This neighborhood is the gateway to Doha from the airport.”

Albuhaliqa, a mother of two, holds a bachelor’s degree in international studies from the United States and a master’s degree in public policy and is currently a Ph.D. student. Her deep interest in public policy and policy-making is further underscored by her role as Vice President of the Youth Advisory Committee for the Minister of Culture and Sports. Albuhaliqa has been committed to serving her community since age 16, providing creative and innovative solutions to empower and develop the youth. While this is her first run for municipal office, she has previous election experience from her college days and post-graduation tenure on the Youth Advisory Committee.

In an interview with the author, Albuhaliqa stated that her interest in policymaking emerged from her childhood, specifically saying that this started with support from her family since childhood: “I came from a house where my parents treated me and my brothers equally as long as we were in the scope of our religion and the values of our culture. They were always open to hearing my choices and supporting me. This is a blessing from Allah.”

Underlining the impact of fair opportunities for men and women, Zaccara stresses that the number of female candidates is still limited, despite a relative rise in each election. Albuhaliqa also emphasizes the societal aspects and the lack of women’s participation in political campaigns:

“Most of the women simply think that it is not nice to have your photos all around Doha, but for me, I look from a different angle [perspective] focusing more on the solutions for the problems we have. If I see anything that goes wrong around me, my point of responsibility, I feel an urge to do it myself.”

Albuhaliqa emphasizes the significance of public figures such as Hend Al-Muftah, Shaikha AlJufairi, and Fatima al Kuwari, whose political careers serve as inspiration. Her main objective is “to create a societal impact and be an exemplary figure for those who wish to contribute to their community but may feel inhibited for any reason.”

When asked about the challenges female candidates face, Albuhaliqa’s first point of discussion was the role of the Majlis (council) in electoral campaigns. Majlis meetings are crucial for elections across GCC states. However, this poses a significant hurdle for women candidates as the concept of the Majlis traditionally leans towards male participation. To circumvent this, women politicians have started organizing their Majlis meetings to widen their reach, or they send male relatives to attend other Majlis meetings to lobby. Albuhaliqa points out that hosting a majlis can be expensive and doesn’t guarantee political gains. Yet, if candidates connect with voters via social media, it allows them to disseminate their views more quickly and broadly:

“In our tradition, agreements are often concluded in the Majlis, which is an important custom. However, it also means that a candidate has to devote a significant amount of time to attending various Majlis or hosting people in their own all day. But with social media, we can ‘enter’ people’s homes. More thoughtful investment in social media should be needed to deliver our message to the people.”

Albuhaliqa actively shares her viewpoints and activities through several videos on Instagram, Snapchat, and various WhatsApp groups in Qatar.

In general, in the GCC, election campaigns are costly when compared to elections in most of the world. Albuhaliqa interprets this increased economic cost for campaigning in Qatar: “The candidates in Qatar pay almost as much as a candidate in elections in America, this is so costly here, but the campaigns are not advanced. I want to be an example for organizing a campaign. I want to encourage other youth and females with my candidacy campaign to show them it is possible to make it better. They can see a good example of a political campaign using creative marketing.”

Approaching Inclusivity Despite Tribal Role

A new and easy-to-reach political campaign with fewer costs to the candidates can make the election process more reachable for women and youth in Qatar. Although pre-election tribal arrangements are forbidden by law, no one can ignore the impact of tribal networks on the elections in Qatar. When tribalism is the central question in examining its impact on the elections, the tribal network is more critical to determining the winner in the Shura Council elections than in the municipal elections.

Albuhaliqa says that she approaches the impact of tribes from a positive perspective, as she defines the role of a tribe “as a way to work with the community like the influence in the Western political culture. You already need more support in the election, and you can have this courage from your tribe because you connect with them emotionally.”

In a similar and locally genuine approach, Albuhaliqa defines the political culture in Qatar as “a traditionally conveyed connection between the society and the leader who can sail the ship and always consult with his society as the Islamic tradition suggests doing so.”

As Albuhaliqa also underlines in her interview, Qatar is growing rapidly, and the municipal elections and women’s political participation are central elements in this rapid development to ensure inclusive and society-oriented policymaking. The results of the elections will show how many of these women will represent their communities at the Central Municipal Council.

As the upcoming municipal elections in Qatar approach, the country approaches a pivotal moment in its political culture. Despite the Central Municipal Council’s advisory role and the relative lack of enthusiasm compared to the Shura Council elections, these municipal elections hold the potential to continue breaking down societal barriers and contribute to a more inclusive political landscape. Women candidates like Khadeja Ahmad Albuhaliqa lead this change, leveraging modern tools and strategies to overcome traditional obstacles. The Qatari political culture is evolving, albeit slowly, towards recognizing and accommodating women’s equal rights in the political arena. However, progress cannot stop at the legal level; there must be an earnest societal shift toward embracing women’s political participation. The path forward requires both perseverance from female candidates and support from a society that understands the value and necessity of diverse representation. As these elections unfold, Qatar’s constituents should expect a reflection of the current political culture and a glimpse into a future where equal representation becomes the norm, fostering a more inclusive and progressive society.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Politics & Governance
Country: Qatar

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