This op-ed by Máté Szalai considers the three key narratives that observers and analysts use when discussing the historic elections held in Qatar this October. The first and most traditional narrative highlights the elections as a vital milestone in the slow process of democratization, the second notes the importance of identity politics and voting rights, and the final and most pessimistic narrative opines that the elections were a PR stunt to help bolster Qatar’s public image.
Qatar held the first general election to its Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council) on the 2nd of October, during which voters were able to elect 30 members of the 45-seat legislative body. The long-awaited event took place in a delicate period: the Gulf rift (in which Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates tried to isolate Qatar) just ended nine months ago, and the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. Nevertheless, due to extensive but thorough preparatory process, the implementation was smooth with a relatively high turnout (63.5%). Thirty individuals were elected by the first-past-the-post voting system in single constituencies to represent one of the thirty districts in the country.
While nobody questioned the historical nature of the election, observers and analysts framed its importance in various ways. In the following, three separate narratives will be presented which interpret the role of the legislative vote in the context of various political dynamics. While these narratives are inter-connected and overlapping, they put the emphasis on different aspects and they differ in terms of the main consequences of the election, as well as its importance in the evolution of the Qatari political system.
Narrative one: A very slow process of democratization
The most traditional narrative considers the Qatari legislative election as an important milestone in a slow process of political modernization and democratization. Similar to the other monarchies of the Persian Gulf, the emirate has been independent since 1971 with a centralized and authoritarian structure. The Qatari political system has never been based on popular sovereignty, but on tribal traditions, the prominence of the Thani family, and the facilitation of oil and gas production. Such a political constellation was a direct consequence of the “trucial system” put in place by the British empire. In this legal framework, London signed an agreement with local leaders to secure its influence overseas in exchange for supporting their rule over a piece of land.
These documents did not only strengthen the role of one family or tribe over the others but – as they constituted the foundation of Westphalian territoriality and sovereignty in the region – irreversibly connected statehood to the rule of a single individual and his dynasty.
In such a centralized political system, legislative powers remained in the hands of the emir. Nevertheless, on the basis of tribal traditions, an Advisory or Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shura) was created in 1972 with 30 members appointed by the emir.
This body did not serve neither representative nor legislative purposes but, as its name suggests, was rather a council of trusted individuals who advised the ruler on various issues.
The political system of Qatar did not change in any meaningful way until the second half of the 1990s. This period represented an era of political liberalization in the Gulf when all monarchies implemented some steps towards accountability and inclusion. Reasons behind this phenomenon include the political effects of the occupation of Kuwait (which questioned the existing social contract between citizens and the state that was supposed to protect them) and economic challenges caused by oil price fluctuations and demographic growth. In Qatar, an additional factor was the coup of Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani in 1995, in which he removed his father from the throne. At the beginning of his reign, the new ruler – who transformed Qatari foreign policy from a passive voice to a textbook case of innovative small state strategy – proposed a public discussion regarding the modernization of the political system. This process resulted in the first election of the municipal council in 1999 and the creation of the permanent constitution of the country (supported by a public vote) in 2004. This document reformed the Majlis in several ways: it gave more legislative powers to the body and enlarged and transformed its composition. From then on, two-thirds of its members (30 out of 45 seats) were to be elected by a public vote and the remaining one-third were to still be appointed by the emir.
Notwithstanding, the implementation of these rules lagged behind as the Qatari government constantly postponed the election. In 2011, effected by the atmosphere of the “Arab Spring”, Emir Hamad set 2013 as the date of the elections. Little did he know that 2013 would become memorable not as the year of the first public vote, but rather as the year of his resignation and transferal of power to his son, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. The young emir did not put much emphasis on organizing the elections. He only touched the topic in 2017 when he predicted that the election could take place in 2019. The event was postponed yet again (supposedly due to the Gulf rift), but for the last time, in November 2020. Emir Tamim set October 2021 as the final and, as it turned out, the actual date of the first election of the Shura Council, the most important milestone yet in the democratization of the political structure of Qatar.
While this narrative certainly has explanatory value (especially given the relatively high turnout), it has two major limitations.
democracy and democratization – similarly to nationhood or modern statehood – aren’t concepts rooted in Western political thoughts which are automatically applicable to the Middle Eastern concept. Due to the tribal structure, unique traditions, and overall small size of the citizenry (less than 300,000 people), holding elections is not the primary channel of either participation nor popular support.
Second, even if we disregard such theoretical reservations, we should not think that the election transforms the Qatari political system into a classic democracy.
Fifteen members of the Council are still appointed by the emir, and even if the institution has some legislative powers, it is not a traditional parliament or national assembly. It is still mostly an advisory body which has its roots in the old tribal traditions related to consultation.
The Shura Council is responsible mostly for social and cultural issues and some economic questions, including the state budget or labor law, but it does not have a say in strategic portfolios like foreign and security policy, or major economic and investment questions. The emir’s power will not be curtailed in any way or form. When it comes to the election itself, strict rules limited free speech during the campaign period, which ruled out using any rhetoric by the candidates that would undermine national unity, traditions, or culture, strengthen tribal or sectarian conflict, or endanger the security of the society. Consequently,
liberalization or political modernization might be a more fitting term than democratization.
Narrative two: the more the marrier? Identity politics and Qatari elections
As elections are important exercises in the constant reconstruction of the political community, a second narrative emerged which puts the emphasis on identity politics. Decisions regarding who gets to run or vote shape not just the way of governance but also group dynamics and self-perception. The regulations regarding active and passive voting rights are not just technicalities but important tools in shaping the boundaries of a political community, the distinction between who is in and who is out. This phenomenon is especially crucial because a nation’s first election set a precedent for future elections.
In the Persian Gulf context, identity politics and the setting up of political communities’ boundaries has always been sensitive.
First of all, lacking a homogeneous and unique national community, small Gulf states had to separate themselves from each other. As tribal and family ties transcend political boundaries, the question of who is a Qatari, an Emirati, or an Omani had to be constructed as clearly as possible in order to avoid conflicting loyalties. Second, after gaining independence, the small Gulf states had to define their nations vis-á-vis their larger neighbors, namely Iran and Saudi Arabia, two states which were far ahead in nation-building. Moreover, both Tehran and Riyadh have sought to represent the transnational Shia and Sunni community which could easily contradict national interests. Third, in order to sustain their economy, Gulf states imported foreign labor on an enormous scale, which led to a situation in which foreigners represent the majority in many of the states. This is especially crucial for Qatar, where Qatari citizens make up only about 11% of the ~2.5 million population.
Due to these features of the political system, the elections were interesting also in the context of constructing the Qatari political community through voting rights and regulations. From this perspective, three major conclusions can be drawn. First, the Qatari government practically acknowledged and accepted the dominance of tribal loyalty over national belonging. Voting districts and their constituencies were formed not on the basis of actual residency but on “permanent residency”, which practically meant family or tribal belonging. This allowed lineage to dominate political sympathies and voting behavior instead of political questions related to specific cities or districts.
Second, the Qatari state decided to slightly extend voting rights compared to previous laws. The 2005 update of the Nationality Law (first adopted in 1961) gave voting right to “original Qataris”, namely those “residents of Qatar who have been resident in the country since 1930, and who maintained regular legal residence in the country until the enforcement date of the [Nationality] Law no. 2. of 1961”. Based on this legal framework, the ~2.5 million residents of the country who do not have citizenship and are based there as foreign workers remained excluded from the political community. That being said, in July 2021, Emir Tamim approved the specific election law focusing on the Shula elections, which included an additional exception to the “original citizenship condition” for naturalized citizens, as long as their grandfather was Qatari and was born in the country.
Despite this slight expansion, debates were spurred, especially in connection with the Al Murra tribe, who were thus excluded from taking part in the election. This tribe, whose members are scattered mostly in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, had a tense relationship with the Qatari state already, as they are usually seen as being more loyal to Saudi Arabia. The question became politicized after the 1995 coup when the pro-Saudi leader Sheikh Khalifa was overthrown by Sheikh Hamad, who wanted to get more independence from Riyadh. According to the Qatari regime, members of the Al Murra tribe participated in a subsequent coup attempt which aimed at restoring Sheikh Khalifa’s rule. The loyalty of Al Murra became securitized again and again (last time during the Gulf rift), especially since many members were stripped of their citizenship in the last three decades. As the new election law was published, members of the Murra tribe protested in a few locations in Qatar and on social media, which resulted in the arrest of approx. 15 people (according to Human Rights Watch). These regulations imply that exclusive loyalty to the Qatari state is set as a requirement to participate in the political life of the country.
A third question related to identity politics in which international observers were interested was the representation of women. The legal framework did not discriminate between genders. Moreover, in 2017, the Emir appointed four women to the Shura Council. Eventually, in the 2021 elections, only about 8% of all registered candidates were female (20 out of 256). In the end, all elected members of the Shura Council were men.
The lack of female representation was considered by the government to be a PR problem, as most of the international coverage (including that of Reuters, The Hill, Al-Khaleej Online, and France 24), highlighted this feature of the Qatari elections. Consequently, the Emir tried to mitigate the crisis by appointing two women to the Council (alongside thirteen men), which helped shape the related international discussion.
It is easy to see the relevance of the identity politics narrative regarding the interpretation of the Qatari elections. The importance of tribal politics, questions of loyalty, and female representation is undeniable, even if we can see a clear divide between local observers and international ones as the latter group puts emphasis on the second and third aspects, while Qataris tend to emphasize tribal dynamics.
Narrative three: Elections as a PR-stunt
The most skeptical and cynical interpretation of the elections interprets them as merely a tool of the national branding strategy of Qatar. Because it must prove itself as a valuable partner of greater states to protect its survival, Doha has been trying to create and maintain an image in international society which helps distinguish Qatar from its neighbors. Pursuing a policy which is identified as “virtual enlargement” by the small state literature, Qatar tries to project an image of good governance, political and economic potential, and as beacon of “free press” (represented by the Al Jazeera network). The Qatari brand also includes its mediating capacity, as well as its reliable ally status when it comes to various crises in the turbulent region.
While this PR-campaign has been generally quite successful, its weak points surfaced a couple of times in the last decade. Most notoriously, the management of the “Arab Spring” ultimately damaged the Qatari image, as the country actively interfered in various countries supporting its moderate Islamist allies, which angered Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and other political actors.
While eventually Qatar managed to survive these turbulent times and the subsequent blockade posed by its neighbors, the emirate got dangerously close to being left behind by the United States, whose president at the time sent confusing messages to Gulf leaders regarding the American stance.
Lagging behind in democratization even in comparison with other Gulf monarchies, the elections can be seen as a new tool in shaping the country’s image. This is especially important now as Qatar is preparing for the 2022 UEFA World Cup, when the world’s attention will focus on the tiny country for a couple of months. Eliminating the possibility of a major PR disaster, it can be argued that the Qatari leadership decided to run ahead by holding the election before international scrutiny would reach Qatari shores.
Naturally, normative political tools are used not only by Qatar but by its adversaries. Despite the conclusion of the Gulf rift, some members of the Saudi, Bahraini, and Emirati elite are still frustrated by Qatar’s foreign policy, which is why they also wanted to shape the international narratives about the country’s election. According to scholar Marc Owen Jones, there were visible attempts in the neighboring countries to influence online discussions about Qatari elections using various hashtags and calling for the boycott of the election.
While it is generally true that Qatar has to bear in mind the foreign policy implications of every domestic political development, it would be far-fetched to argue that such international political considerations were seen as utmost priorities for the Qatari regime when it organized the country’s first general election. As with every major voting event, this one had regional and international ramifications, but it would be a mistake to simplify a decades-long process into a foreign policy stunt.
In conclusion, all three narratives have huge explanatory value, and the importance and consequences of the Qatari elections of 2021 cannot be understood without any of them. The long and slow evolution of the domestic political system, identity and tribal politics, and foreign policy considerations all played a role in the timing, implementation, and legal framework, as well as the outcome of the Shura Council election, but only time will tell if any of these aspects should dominate our understanding of what is going on in Qatar.
In collaboration with Pedro Perfeito da Silva and Hannah Vos