On November 3, as the United States anxiously watched democracy at work, Qatar announced forthcoming democratic processes as well, a welcome move for the Gulf and Middle Eastern countries which have generally shied away from democratic governance, something that many believe fuels feelings of injustice and voicelessness – grievances upon which terrorist groups in the region are happy to capitalize. In a bold move toward democracy, Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, announced last week before Qatar’s highest legislative body, the Shura Council, that the first Shura Council elections would occur in October 2021. The move comes shortly before Qatar is set to host the 2022 World Cup, but nearly two decades after the Qatari constitution was ratified, calling for greater legislative power for the Shura Council in addition to elections. Currently, all 45 of the Shura Council members are selected by Qatari rulers, but beginning next October, 30 of the 45 will be elected by the public.
— MOFA – Qatar (@MofaQatar_EN) November 3, 2020
This step is relatively unique in the region and was praised by international leaders, such as members of the EU Parliament Marc Tarabella and Klemen Groselj, as well as United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
The Emir of #Qatar just announced that elections for the Shura Council will be held for the first time in October 2021.Developing such a legislative process through a wider democratic participation of citizens represents always an important positive step,particularly in the Gulf! pic.twitter.com/X6cHl9MYOJ
— Marc Tarabella (@marctarabella) November 3, 2020
Some positive news coming from the Gulf region. Qatar to held first ever elections. Despite all tensions in the region, things could move in right direction.https://t.co/Pz8rYSoxma
— Klemen Groselj (@KGroselj) November 3, 2020
While Kuwait and Bahrain also both have elected parliaments, the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have staunchly rejected popular democracy, claiming that their systems of government have allowed their people to stay prosperous and satisfied. While this may be true, wealth has come at the cost of personal liberty for many of Qatar’s neighbors. In fact, while the World Population Review ranked the Gulf countries relatively highly on economic freedom, they fell near the bottom of the list for personal freedom. Qatar’s Shura Council elections are likely to advance personal freedom in the country. Indeed, after the elections, the Shura Council’s power is expected to be expanded in accordance with the constitution, including the power to dismiss ministers, approve the national budget, and propose legislation. While wealth is distributed among Qatari citizens throughout the country, this is less true for many of its neighboring Gulf states, leaving some with serious grievances regarding wealth inequality, which groups like the Muslim Brotherhood are eager to use for their own purposes. In that regard, many of Qatar’s neighboring Gulf countries fear holding popular elections that would be likely to result in demands for major changes, primarily through the election of political Islamists such as members of the Muslim Brotherhood, whom the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have gone so far as to have labeled as terrorists. In contrast, the ruling elite in Qatar do not have those same fears, trusting that their general citizenry will engage in voting to moderately change the political environment as needed. However, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani noted in his speech that the Qatari governing system “is not a multiparty system, but rather an amirate system based on well-established traditions of fair and rational governance which is connected with the people through the pledge of allegiance, loyal relations, mutual trust and direct communication,” suggesting that the Muslim Brotherhood is not likely to play an official role in the elections as an established political party, as it does in Kuwait and Bahrain.
In speaking about the blockade, the Qatari emir also stated that “despite the continued unjust blockade for more than three years, Qatar’s international status is being strengthened by the intensification of our activity on issues of concern to the international community.” These activities include Qatar’s strong support for international counterterrorism efforts, promotion of free speech throughout and about the region through Al Jazeera, and certainly the announcement of the upcoming elections. Thus far, it is unclear what the eligibility requirements will be to vote in Qatar’s election, though it is notable that women were appointed to the Shura Council for the first time in 2017, and women have also been directly elected to the country’s central municipal council. Interestingly, Qatari citizens account for only about ten percent of the country’s population, or around 300,000 people, with the rest being migrant workers.
With all of these factors at play, it will be interesting to see what impact the upcoming Qatari Shura Council elections has on the political climate of the region. Expansions of personal freedoms, especially the election of women to the country’s highest legislative body, are likely to enhance Qatar’s standing on the world stage, as will continued strong counterterrorism efforts without persecuting nonviolent political Islamists, many of whom advocate for more economic opportunity and justice for all in their Islamic-leaning platforms. These elections are unlikely to heal the rift between Qatar and its nearest neighbors, however, leading to continued necessary trade engagement with Iran and Turkey, the latter of which has moved away from democracy and toward authoritarianism in recent years; the former has long stood in opposition to democracy and personal freedom. It is worth mentioning, however, that Turkey has stronger trade relationships with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and Iran also trades extensively with the United Arab Emirates. The recent Abraham Accords also open up new trade opportunities for the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain with Israel, but Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani’s statement of commitment to “the establishment of [a Palestinian] independent state on the basis of 1967 borders” signals a lack of animosity toward Israel that would allow for plenty of economic and security benefits for Qatar as well, without formal diplomatic ties. President Trump has staunchly allied himself personally with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, with an associated cooler, although still strong, relationship with Qatar. In contrast, President-elect Biden is expected to take a stronger stance against Saudi Arabia’s more nefarious actions, particularly in Yemen, the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as against the blockade. The Shura Council elections, as a symbol of commitment to democracy and personal liberty, may add to a positive view of Qatar by a Biden administration.
In a time fraught by concerns over the stability and reliability of democratic institutions, it is promising to see democracy burgeoning in Qatar. Wider participation in government by the citizens, inclusion of women in positions of political power, as well as greater powers for elected leaders, are sure to foster greater personal freedom for Qataris, and hopefully for non-citizens living in Qatar, in addition to raising Qatar’s profile as a proponent of liberty globally.
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