What to know about the upcoming elections in Qatar?

Qatar’s long awaited Advisory Council (Majlis-al Shura) elections will be held in Qatar tomorrow, on October 2, 2021. Thirty members of the council, out of fourth-five sits, will be elected first time in Qatar’s history after delay of elections since 2003. Over 200 candidates are competing for 30 sits for 30 electorate districts in Qatar conducting their election campaign since September 15. The election represents an essential dimension of Qatar’s unique path to democratization, as well as a critical experience for a GCC monarchy. While it is unlikely to transform Qatar’s political culture overnight, political engagement is likely to have long-term effects on Qatari society.

What is the Advisory Council? 

Qatar’s Shura Council has been functioning as an advisory body in the monarchy’s governance since its establishment in 1972. In the early stage of statehood, the Amended Provisional Basic Law of Rule in the State of Qatar defined the Shura Council’s role as assisting the Emir and the Council of Ministers. While the Shura council was part of the institutionalization of a newly established state, it was not new or unfamiliar to the Gulf’s political culture. Consultation and advisement are long standing rituals in the rule of tribes, merchants, and families in the Arabian Peninsula and in Islamic tradition. Thus, not only in Qatar but in other GCC monarchies as well, Shura councils were attached to the new state mechanisms in various ways such as in Kuwait, UAE and Oman.

Originally the council had 20 appointed members, however, in the current version 45 members sit in this advisory body, with 30 of them elected and 15 of them appointed.

Article 61 of the constitution states that “the Legislative Power is exercised by the Advisory Council in the manner specified in the constitution,” whereas the executive power is exercised by the Emir with the assistance of the council of ministers.  Article 68 adds that “the Prince concludes the treaties and agreements by a decree and refers them to the Advisory Council with appropriate notice.” However, this does not include the treaties pertaining to the state’s territory or sovereignty, which must be issued by law. Also in emergency conditions, the Emir, as the constitution states, may take urgent measures and issue the law without the advisory council’s approval, who may later hold a session to discuss the new law.

What is crucial in the Shura council’s potential impact on Qatar’s policies is its role in approving budget and forwarding proposals. The Article 76 states that “the Advisory Council assumes the Legislative Power, approves the State’s public budget and exercises the function of “watchdog” over the Executive Power.” However, the top-security policies including defence, security, economic, and investment policy will remain under the Emir’s authority, despite the council’s advisory role.

According to the constitution, the Council elects a President and a Vice-President from amongst its members. Although political parties, blocs and sectarian politics are forbidden in Qatar by law, a unique type of networking including tribal alliances and general family ties may work to function as an alternative to parties to negotiate over these positions. Also, an absolute majority of the attending members is required to issue any decisions in the Council. The Emir has the right to dissolve the council by decree. If one-third of the members of the Advisory council votes in support, along with the Emir’s support, they have the right to ask for the amendment of one or more articles of the constitution. The term of the council is four years and after the term’s end, elections for the new council occur within ninety days.

The Electoral Law

Seats may only be applied for by native Qataris, above 30 years old, who are fluent in the Arabic language, do not have any criminal record, and are registered in the electorate district they want to run in. However, the current electoral law limits the right to vote and to be elected for citizens whose paternal grandfather was born in Qatar by a specific date. Thus, there are some tribes or sub-divisions of tribes who arrived in Qatar after the date stipulated by law and are not included such as the Al Marra tribe and the Bani Yafei tribes. Stirring unrest and domestic critique over the declared criteria, the Emir’s brother Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani visited the Bani Yafei Majlis to contain the protests. Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani also said that the electoral law may be amended once the new council comes to power.

The current Amiri decree stating the electoral law in Qatar (Amiri Decree No. 37 of 2021) divides the country into 30 electoral districts, each of which will elect one representative.

The election campaign started on the 15th of September and will continue until the 1st of October. There is a limit for each candidate’s expenditure during the campaigns (up to two million Qatari riyals). Considering the fact that this is the very first Shura council experience of an election in Qatar, the candidates faced difficulties due to the short campaigning period. As Zaid Al-Hamdan, Shura Council Campaign Advisor states in his comments to Doha News, the candidates worked on their social media accounts and websites to reach more people in this short period. Suad Ahmed, who is the campaign manager for her mother, also adds that while campaigning on digital platforms is important, considering the elderly people in the community who are not active one social media, their campaign also targeted newspapers and traditional means of communication. Thus, the gap in Qatari society among young and elderly voters is a challenge for the candidates to manage in the limited period of campaigning. Therefore, hundreds of candidate posters have sprouted up over various districts and roundabouts, which is a familiar scenery during the Qatar’s municipal elections.

Although the campaigning period is quite short, over 200 candidates applied for 30 seats, among them 28 women. While women are allowed to take part in political processes by law, until 2017, no women were included in the Shura Council. Emir Tamim appointed four women to the legislative body, Hind Abdul Rahman Al-Muftah, Hessa Sultan al-Jaber, Reem al-Mansoori and Aisha Yousef al-Mannai, which was a milestone for Qatar’s political culture.

What can we expect for Qatar’s political culture?

Qatar is a resource rich country with a local population of less than a half million. As a monarchy surrounded by other oil monarchies, the very first election of the Advisory council could be significant not only for Qatar’s domestic politics as an empowerment of state-society relations, but also form a regional step to political reforms. In my visits to the Shura Councils of Bahrain and Oman, I have witnessed firsthand the importance of these minor steps for citizens’ political participation in these monarchies. Thus, as former Shura Council Member Dr Hind Al-Muftah remarks, the process of democratization in Qatar needs to be elaborated in its unique conditions and traditions.

As Gilla Camden and I explained in a previous study, Qatar’s political culture can be characterized as a subject political culture based on an accepted level of obedience to the ruler. Similar to the political culture in other monarchies, Qatari society as a subject is aware of specialized governmental authority and considers the Emir as the first leader among equal leaders. However, in the constitution, the political system is defined as democratic: “Qatar is an independent sovereign Arab State. Its religion is Islam and Shari’a law shall be a main source of its legislations. Its political system is democratic.”  Datasets such as the CIA World Factbook, however, categorize Qatar as an absolute monarchy. In a similar vein, Cihat Battaloglu states in his book on Qatar’s democratization process that Qatar is in a political “Grey Zone” located between authoritarianism and democracy. Battaloglu underlines that while regional changes after Arab uprisings in 2011 have led to a regression in country’s democratization, the overall experience of political reform has not been terminated. The societal changes after the GCC Crisis of 2017 in support of Emir Tamim’s policies and the unity of Qatari tribes against the ongoing siege and potential foreign intervention may have been a motivating factor for the political elite to proceed with the elections. The siege has also raised awareness among young Qataris of the new political dimensions and challenges to their extremely comfortable lives.

To conclude, the upcoming elections will not turn Qatar into a western style democracy or a constitutional monarchy. However, the overall experience of political campaigning, elections, voting, and political participation may contribute to Qatar’s political culture through raising awareness on pluralism and strengthened governance. The political culture embedded in the Arabian Peninsula is mostly built on informal channels of political engagement and participation. It is unclear if these unique mechanisms of state-society relations may contribute to the evolving political reforms as a collective social capital or may prevent any further democratization.  However, state and society’s expectations of one other in a rentier system will not change any time soon. Rather, in this hierarchical political participation model, the elections may be a good start for long standing political paradigm changes.