Critics of Qatar’s support of democratic movements have accused Doha of double standards, advocating for regional democratic movements but failing to support democracy at home. If Doha holds genuinely free and fair elections in October, it could weaken these criticisms, while adhering to its stated principles and giving its citizens an outlet to substantively engage in public affairs.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is not known for the prominent role of its democratic institutions. With the exception of Kuwait, which has maintained a relatively competitive parliament for six decades, elected bodies in the Arabian Peninsula’s oil-rich monarchies are either non-existent or stripped of any meaningful authority. Yet with the upcoming elections to Qatar’s Shura Council, the country’s consultative and legislative body, planned for October 2021, the Qataris could be on the verge of entering a new phase in their history, shaped by greater citizen participation in the national legislative and oversight processes.
Discussions about opening up Qatar’s Shura Council to elections are not new. Article 77 of Qatar’s 2003 constitution stipulates that two-thirds of the seats in the country’s 45-member Shura Council should be elected, with the final third appointed by the Qatari monarch. To date, however, the country’s emir has appointed all 45 members.
A Positive Step Toward Political Reform
Qatar has made prior attempts at holding national elections in the past. In November 2011, Qatar announced its decision to proceed with elections to the Shura Council in 2013. The regional context of the Arab Spring, in which citizens across the Arab world demanded democratic reforms, was critical to that announcement’s timing. “[The Qataris] were, to use a phrase, ahead of the curve,” wrote Dr. Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, at the time. “Despite few domestic demands for democratic reform and virtually no visible opposition, the Qatari leadership decided to ‘preempt’ and take the initiative before anyone thought to ask,” Hamid said.
The country’s leadership had previously committed to holding elections in 2007 and 2010, and repeated its pledge for a contest in 2017—none of which ultimately took place. One of the reasons for the delay was Doha’s concern of influence on one of the elected Shura Council members by a neighboring country, and the lack of popular pressure to turn the Shura Council into an elected body.
Despite the delays, in November 2020, Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, ordered the formation of a committee responsible for organizing elections to the Shura Council, albeit without specifying a date. On May 20, 2021, the cabinet in Qatar approved a draft law on elections to the Shura Council. On July 11, 2021, Qatar’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa Abdulaziz Al Thani, issued his decision to establish the necessary committees for arranging the elections.
Additionally, the Shura Council will take on the powers of a legislative body following this year’s planned elections. From 2021 onward, the Shura Council will have the power to dismiss ministers, propose laws, and approve or reject the country’s national budget. Laying the legal groundwork for the election, on July 29, 2021, Sheikh Tamim approved an electoral law for the country’s first legislative polls, scheduling them to take place in October 2021, a full year before Qatar hosts the 2022 World Cup.
Qatar’s Shura Council election will mark a major step forward in terms of democratizing the country’s political system. Qatar has previously held elections for its Central Municipal Council (CMC)—a process that began in 1999 and has since reliably taken place every four years. Although the powers of the CMC are limited, it set a positive trend for national and regional democratization; its first election, which took place in 1999, was hailed by the U.S. Congress as the first election in the Gulf to be free, fair, and based on universal suffrage. (Kuwaiti women gained the right to vote in 2005.)
The Elections Beyond Qatar
When Qatar holds its first Shura Council elections in October, it will be important to see the reaction from the other GCC states. As the Gulf region moves closer to the post-hydrocarbon era, and state largesse inevitably declines, the social contracts in the Arab Gulf countries will become more fragile and require adjustments. This is already happening across the sub-region, which has suffered economically from both low oil prices and the COVID-19 pandemic, through the sporadic introduction of income and value-added taxes. Thus, public demands for elections to major legislative bodies in other GCC states could become more pronounced in the years to come, especially as more taxation is introduced amid a period of austerity.
Compared to the other Arab Gulf states, there is relatively less pressure on the Qatari government to hold elections. Qatar’s small population, great mineral wealth (in natural gas, a relatively clean fossil fuel, as well as oil), and the absence of any genuine or visible political opposition in Doha, have reassured Qatar’s leadership that a foray into popular representation will not represent any serious challenge. This is in sharp contrast to Bahrain, Qatar’s neighbor, where opposition by the Shia majority prompted the Sunni authorities in Manama to dissolve al-Wefaq, the main Shia opposition party, and other political organizations in the post-2011 period. In Kuwait, the most liberal of the Gulf states, the role of the Parliament is changing, and there is a longstanding clash between the cabinet and the legislators that has delayed the process of development and complicated the country’s economic problems. In Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, the Shura Council is entirely appointed by the Saudi authorities, while in the United Arab Emirates, an individual’s right to vote and run in an election is subject to government approval.
Nonetheless, the elections in Qatar will still raise important questions about the country’s social structure. Some of these questions pertain to the lack of guarantees of female representation, and equal protection of all Qataris’ right to run for election or vote, irrespective of their conditions as naturalized or original citizens. This will remain a concern of equal representation, considering that the current election law restricts the right to vote to citizens whose grandfathers were born in Qatar, and stipulates that a candidate’s family must have resided in Qatar before the year 1930, effectively barring naturalized citizens both from voting and from holding office.
Although a handful of women have won the election to the Central Municipal Council, no Qatari women were appointed to the Shura Council for the forty-five years after Qatar’s independence. In 2017, by decree of Sheikh Tamim, four women were included: Dr. Hessa Al Jaber, Dr. Aisha Al-Mannai, Dr. Hind Al-Muftah, and Mrs. Reem Al-Mansoori.
Tribes will inevitably have a key role in Qatari elections. Tribal loyalty, particularly in Qatar’s rural areas, has remained very strong, to the extent that there are worries that tribesmen will simply vote for their tribe’s candidates on the basis of their affiliation, rather than their policies or proposed agenda.
This has been a recurring problem elsewhere in the region. In Kuwait, which has many similarities to Qatari society, studies have shown the dominance of tribal, clan and sectarian loyalties over the policy preferences of voters. Importantly, the elections are not affected only by tribal or sectarian factors, but themselves provide a risk of increasing tribalization by giving highly organized tribes greater power than broader political movements.
The Qatari Shura Council will not be the first such council with de jure legislative authority in the Gulf. However, when the elected legislatures in other Gulf states, such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, are examined, they are substantially controlled by the country’s ruling families in practice, if not necessarily in principle, and lack a real mandate to govern, with government appointments being the prerogative of the rulers.
While such major questions must still be addressed, Qatar holding elections this year would mark a continuation of Doha’s keenness to present itself as a forward-thinking Arab powerhouse that projects soft power by advancing principles of inclusivity, human rights, and democracy in the wider Arab region. Critics of Qatar’s support of democratic movements have accused Doha of double standards, advocating for regional democratic movements but failing to support democracy at home. If Doha holds genuinely free and fair elections in October, it could weaken these criticisms, while adhering to its stated principles and giving its citizens an outlet to substantively engage in public affairs.
Dr. Khalid al-Jaber is the Director of MENA Center in Washington D.C. Previously, he served at al-Sharq Studies & Research Center and as Editor-in-Chief of The Peninsula, Qatar’s leading English language daily newspaper.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.