After a long delay, Qatar is expected to hold its first parliamentary election in October. By the end of last month, the Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani had approved the laws governing the election of two-thirds of the advisory Shura Council. A third of the council will still be appointed by the emir as has been the case hitherto.
The new laws give the partly-elected council legislative authority and powers to approve general state policies and the budget. It will also exercise executive control over all but defence, security, economic and investment policy bodies.
The six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ban political parties, although they hold municipal elections and legislative polls of one kind or another. The GCC includes Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and the Sultanate of Oman.
Kuwait is the only GCC member that gives substantial powers to an elected parliament, which can block laws and question ministers. But ultimate decision-making rests with the ruler, as is the case in neighbouring states. Bahrain and Oman have polls for one house of their bicameral parliaments. Saudi Arabia’s advisory body is appointed. The UAE selects half the members of its advisory council by vote.
The emir of Qatar has appointed members of the advisory council since it was established in 1972. They used to be 20 members and have now increased to 45. The new laws allow citizens voting to select 30 members while the emir appoints 15 members.
The election of the council was first introduced in 2003 as part of Qatar’s first constitution, passed by referendum. The constitution stipulated that two thirds of an expanded 45-member council would be directly elected. In 2006, the government announced that elections would be held in 2007, but postponed to 2010, the election still did not occur.
In 2011, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani announced that the elections would take place in 2013, but his abdication that year in favour of his son, Tamim, delayed them again. In 2017, Tamim appointed the first four women to the council. Then came the Qatar crisis when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt boycotted Doha for its support of militant and terrorist groups — which Qatar denied any such support. So plans to hold the delayed polls were postponed again and elections were pushed to 2019 when, instead of following through on the polls, Tamim appointed an organising committee. Finally, Tamim pledged last year that the elections would take place in 2021. That is the year before the World Cup tournament takes place in Doha.
Ironically, all those delays and postponements did not stir any public opposition, while the decision to finally hold the vote this year led to heated debate over eligibility as well as a flurry of online commentary.
Seven people were arrested and referred to the public prosecutor’s office for posting criticism of the election law. Those included lawyer Hazaa bin Ali Al-Marri who posted an appeal to the emir on YouTube and on his Twitter account criticising the law and calling for changing its provisions. According to the new law, you need to be a descendent of pre-1930 citizens rather than naturalised to be eligible to vote or run as a candidate. Members of one of the largest tribes in Qatar, Al-Murra, have been blocked out due to this.
Some families belonging to the tribe arrived in Qatar after 1930, making their members ineligible to vote. In 2005, approximately five thousand members of the Al-Ghafra branch of the tribe were stripped of their Qatari citizenship. It was rumoured that the Al-Ghafrans participated in a failed countercoup in 1996 to reinstate Tamim’s grandfather, Sheikh Khalifa, whom Tamim’s father Sheikh Hamad had deposed in a palace coup the previous year. But the Qatari authorities said that those stripped of citizenship held Saudi citizenship and dual citizenship is not permitted under Qatari law. Some of those got back their citizenship later, but as naturalised citizens did not meet the provisions of the new election law.
Last week the American scholar Annelle Sheline wrote in the World Politics review that the Qatari authorities were aware of the implications of the new law on the internal fabric of society. A research fellow for the Middle East at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft who writes extensively about the Gulf, she concludes, “Even if the Qatari government amends the law to restore full citizenship to affected members of the Al-Murra tribe, the decision to allow Qataris to vote for their own representatives may heighten domestic strife in general, in particular pertaining to the salience of tribal identities.
At present, the Qatari state distributes largesse relatively equally to its citizens: A member of a smaller or less powerful tribe enjoys similar benefits as a member of a more powerful tribe. By introducing political competition, more populous tribes will likely win more seats in the Shura Council and therefore hold greater sway over the policymaking process. Allowing Qataris to vote for their representatives could sharpen tribal as well as other internal divisions and undermine the stability of the country”.
Other observers see no dramatic fallout, and note that the delays of the elections were actually intended to avoid any possible internal issues. Even provisions regarding eligibility are not unprecedented in the GCC. For example, Kuwait has “Bidoons” who are part of the populations but not full-fledged citizens, while the UAE selects those citizens eligible to vote for the advisory body, the Federal National Council.
As for the issue of those not eligible to run or vote, there could be a possible compromise under which representatives of a family or tribe excluded by the electoral law might instead be appointed directly by the emir.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly