Balancing democracy and monarchy in Qatar

28 November 2011

Qatar’s push for political reforms abroad has boosted its international image, but plans to hold elections to the Shura Council in 2013 will test its intentions at home

Key fact

Elections for the Shura Council will be held in 2013 – 30 places will be elected with 15 others appointed

Source: MEED

The Qatari government has played a prominent role during the 2011 Arab uprisings, despite the country not experiencing any protests itself.

It has tried to mediate between conflicting parties in Yemen and Syria, and has supplied fighter jets to provide air cover to Libyan rebel forces under attack from the Gaddafi regime.

For a such small Gulf country, choosing to side with opposition forces and openly calling for democratic reforms is a risky foreign policy strategy to pursue. The risk seems to have paid off, with many Western governments now seeing Qatar as a perfect go-between for any political issues relating to the Middle East and North Africa region.

Yet, some political analysts say it is hypocritical for an absolute monarchy to advocate democracy. Political parties are illegal in Qatar and other than small municipal elections, no genuine suffrage is available to nationals.

Reform in Qatar

“The Qatari ruling family have recently managed to maintain an illusion that makes them look forward-thinking and receptive to the outside world, but who in reality have absolute control over every aspect of life in the country,” says an expatriate working for a large public company in Qatar. “That it is some feat.”

The Al-Thani family has ruled Qatar since the 19th century and along the way has learned much about expedient governance.

Perhaps mindful of being accused of double standards, Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani in October announced that elections for the country’s advisory council, the Shura Council, would be held in 2013.

“We know that all these steps are necessary to build the modern State of Qatar and the Qatari citizen, who is capable of dealing with the challenges of the time and building the country,” said the emir, making the announcement. “We are confident that you would be capable of shouldering the responsibility.”

The elections will be open to all Qatari men and women over the age of 18. A total of 30 council places will be available, with another 15 appointed. At present, all members are selected by the emir.

As with many councils put in place to advise an absolute monarchy, it is only as powerful as its members. The Shura Council does have a relatively wide-reaching mandate in accordance with the 2003 constitution, but its effectiveness depends on how far the 45 members are prepared to push their powers.

The council can propose and draft new laws, approve budgets and issue no-confidence votes against government ministers, but not against senior members of the ruling family, especially the emir.

“After some delays, the emir and political leadership think the time is now right for elections,” says Mehran Kamrava, a Doha-based senior academic from the US’ Georgetown University.

“It certainly wasn’t due to public demand for elections because that has been conspicuous in its absence.” 

It will be important to see who actually stands for election and under what criteria. Another key issue is what voters will look for in their elected representation. As the country with the world’s highest per capita income, will they be looking for iconoclasts who will question the status quo or someone who maintains the current hegemony?

Whether the move is the beginning of democracy for Qatar, or an empty gesture aimed at fending off accusations of hypocrisy by the country’s critics, is open for debate.

“In Doha, most people think it is a positive step, but no one really thinks that it is going to change anything,” says the expatriate. “Most people think it is to give credibility to its foreign policy decision-making.”

Global recognition for Qatar

The gas-rich state has been thrust into the global spotlight over the past few years, beginning with its emergence as a major supplier of hydrocarbons to the world. 

A decade ago, few people outside the Middle East would have heard of Qatar. Even fewer would have been able to locate the small peninsula country on the Gulf coast on a map. Today, it is the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas and plays a vital role as an international mediator between East and West.

Even before the Arab uprisings, Qatar had become increasingly active in its foreign dealings, making several key alliances in the past few years.

Its defensive partnership with the US has made it one of the most secure states in the Gulf. Since the early 2000s, the US Air Force has used the Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar to house the planes it uses for missions in the Middle East. About 2,000 US forces personnel are stationed there.

The facility cost $1bn to build, has the longest runway in the Gulf at 4.5 kilometres and can accommodate a total of 100 aircraft, rather more than the 12 fighters Qatar owns. 

This has given Doha a platform from which it feels secure enough to take a more prominent role in global political affairs. Having thousands of US forces staff close to hand helps Qatar protect both its sovereignty and its huge hydrocarbons reserves.

Most people think [elections are] a positive step, but no one really thinks that it is going to change anything

Qatar-based foreign expatriate

Despite such close ties with the US, Doha also has a surprisingly warm relationship with Tehran. Qatar and Iran share a major gas field and senior political figures have met to discuss economic and security issues this year. The meetings took place amid accusations from GCC states that Iran was trying to unsettle Bahrain’s Shia population in early 2011.  

Qatar has also called upon Iran to enter talks with the US and other nations over its nuclear programme in a bid to find a peaceful solution.

Qatar’s diplomacy record

In a paper, Mediation and Qatar Foreign Policy, Kamrava says Doha’s recent successful diplomacy record stems from two key points.

He writes that Qatar’s small size coupled with its considerable wealth has allowed it to be viewed as an impartial observer.

Kamrava also says larger, more powerful Arab countries, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are less likely to be trusted by countries seeking mediation, as they are perceived as always have an underlying agenda.

Nations could also be open to Qatar’s mediation because Doha has a history of supporting diplomacy with hard cash. This comes as either a direct payment or through investment in the country’s economy.

Qatar’s prominence as a well-respected mediator in both the Arab world and beyond started in 2008, when it stepped in to help Sudan end the humanitarian crisis in Darfur.

Now Qatar’s diplomacy is becoming more sought after following its efforts in Libya, when rebel forces decided to take on the incumbent Gaddafi regime in March. The late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was disliked by most GCC governments, but Qatar was quick to react to his forces bombing civilians by offering both air support to rebel forces and the option of marketing Libyan oil for the rebel forces.

Doha has also pledged financial aid, as well as food and medical supplies. In addition, it is helping the new Libyan regime create a television channel via its own Al-Jazeera news service. 

Not every arbitration Qatar offers is either accepted or successful. In May, Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh resisted Doha’s attempts to force conciliatory talks with opposition parties. Qatar eventually withdrew its offer after Saleh repeatedly delayed signing the proposed agreement.

Syria also rebuffed Qatar’s approaches although President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on dissident protesters has drawn widespread condemnation from across the Arab world.

Doha’s overt condemnation of Syria’s continued killing of protesters led to its embassy in Damascus being attacked by pro-Al-Assad supporters. However, the move has been praised by Syrian expatriates, who are calling for humanitarian assistance for the beleaguered opposition.

What is most surprising about the lack of engagement with Syria is that formerly relations between the two countries were good, with both leaders making several state visits to each other’s respective countries over the past few years.

Qatar’s relationship with its largest neighbour, Saudi Arabia, however has been strained since the kingdom blocked a gas pipeline deal with Kuwait in 2006. Since then, the frostiness has abated slightly, although political observers still say Riyadh does not wholly trust Doha’s diplomatic motives, especially with Iran.

Key role in diplomacy

What is clear is that Qatar’s expert juggling of diplomatic interests has been to its immense benefit over the past three years.

Due to its size and geographical location, it has had to be extremely creative in its alliances and has also had to back its words with investment. Because of its deft manoeuvring Doha has managed to find itself in the extremely unlikely position of being trusted by East and West as well as most of its neighbours.

Kamrava believes this mediator role has allowed Qatar to create a place for itself at the leading table in global politics, a seat a country of its size could not normally access. This has contributed heavily to its decision to hold elections and engage in the democratic process.  

“One of the primary purposes of this increased diplomacy is to convey an image to the world of Qatar being highly developed, advanced and modern,” says Kamrava. “The absence of elections contradicts that image, so now is the right time for the country to instigate them.”

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