Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Qatar Elections: An Identity Question, more than a Democratic One

qatar elections
Qatari candidates register to run in the country’s upcoming election as members of its top advisory panel, known as the Shura Council, in the capital Doha, on August 22, 2021. Photo by AFP.

The confusion raised by the electoral law in Qatar after announcing the Shura Council elections in early October 2021 does not appear -as it may seem- to focus on a democratic entitlement that may open the door to influence the form and details of the rule in the country. However, it is an identity conflict in a country whose population structure cannot tolerate division at all. Such a thing is vital in Qatar since its citizens constitute only 10% of its population.

This identity problem was born due to a Qatari segment refusing to categorize the population demographic into levels; Qatari, more Qatari, and pure Qatari, which is not only related to the electoral law. This law drew attention to a problem in the 2004 constitution that classified Qataris and created the originally Qatari term. Defining that term was left to the head of the executive authority, the Emir. It seems that the latter saw lots of flexibility in this term and thought that it might tolerate much political pragmatism. The non-originally Qatari citizens would be those groups whose pure affiliation to the authority was in question. They might be those whose history contained gaps in the relationship with the ruling family, thus becoming deficient in civil rights, and have no say concerning ballot boxes and elections.

The recently announced electoral law defines the characteristics of the voter and the candidate. There are three categories: a category entitled to run and vote, which contains the original Qataris who are defined as those whose families were present in Qatar before 1930, a second category entitled to vote but cannot run, which are the naturalized Qataris whose grandparents were born in Qatar, and a category that can neither run nor vote, which are the ordinary naturalized citizens whose grandparents were not born in Qatar.

These classifications and their identity and tribal dimensions made many Qataris feel resentful, especially since the announcement of the elections was supposed to be the start of democratic openness and a political shift that the country will witness according to those in charge. That categorization means denying a large group of Qataris the participation in this transition, especially those who belong to Qatari tribes that inhabited the country before its declaration as a state in 1971 and denied by law the right to run or vote. Al Murrah tribe comes atop the list of these, as its members objected to the law, accusing it of promoting discrimination in Qatar. That prompted the Qatari security authorities to launch a campaign of arrests on charges of using social media to spread fake news and inciting racial and tribal strife. The number of those referred to the Public Prosecutor reached seven individuals.

Al Murrah lives in various countries of the Gulf region. The majority of its members reside in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Members of the tribe considered that the ruling family detracts from their national affiliation by deeming them non-originally. According to them, the royal family is the one that stirs up tribal strife and discrimination among the people of the same country, not those who oppose the electoral law. This premise seems logical, especially when we know that this tribe has a history of disputes with the ruling family. Members of Al Murrah stood against the coup carried out by Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani (father of the current Emir) in 1995, in which he took power from his father, Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani. Khalifa tried to regain his authority a year after his son turned against him with the help of members of the Al Murrah tribe.

The spread of Al Murrah in other countries, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, played a role in accusing them of conspiring at the time. Therefore, the ruling family in Doha continued to view this tribe as not affiliated with Qatar. The matter reached its climax in 2005 when the authorities stripped of the Qatari citizenship of thousands of Al Murrah members. According to a report issued by Human Rights Watch in 2019, thousands of Al Murrah were marginalized and denied rights in Qatar.

The authorities accused members of the same tribe of plotting against the ruling Qatari family and their dealings with Riyadh during the years of acute crisis between the two countries that supposedly ended recently after the Saudi-Qatari peace treaty at the al-Ula GCC Summit in early 2021.

Qatar elections
Qatari candidates register to run in the country’s upcoming election as members of its top advisory panel, known as the Shura Council, in the capital Doha, on August 22, 2021. AFP

In addition to Al Marrah, thousands of naturalized Qataris will not have the right to run or vote. Those realize that this event does not bear the features of a true democracy. The reason does not only lie in excluding them from voting and restricting the electoral right to a few groups that do things at ease with the ruling family. It also lies in the fact that the Shura Council itself is restricted constitutionally in three respects. The first is its limited powers. It may handle things related to the budget and monitoring over the executive authority. However, the sovereign issues linked to foreign policy and security are in the hands of the Emir and the government formed by him. The Shura Council’s oversight over the government is constitutionally deficient if we look closely at it. Despite the council’s ability to hold the ministers accountable, it can only request clarifications from the prime minister.

The weakness of the Council’s powers reaches its peak when we read Article No. 108 of the Qatari Constitution. According to that article, “the Shura Council has the right to express wishes to the government in public matters. If the government cannot comply with these wishes, it must explain to the Shura Council the reasons for that.” Accordingly, the Shura Council has merely an advisory status. It is only an institution that expresses wishes that the government will not completely neglect. Such a thing means that the government will not reject without explaining the reason for the refusal. In other words, the strength of the Shura Council comes from not being completely neglected by the executive authority, and its capacity to make laws is curtailed, chiefly since it only advises the Emir on draft laws.

The second aspect is Article No. 104 of the constitution, which allows the Emir to dissolve the Shura Council by decree stating the reasons. The third aspect is that the elections include only two-thirds of the members, while the Emir appoints the last third. This one-third is supposed to be the guarantor of the Emir’s presence, policy, and vision in the council. That is if we assume that the elected two-thirds will not do this job in the first place. And that is assuredly unlikely as long as the candidates and voters went through a harsh filtering phase ensured by the electoral law.

The council, in which Qatar elects two-thirds, does not differ from similar councils in neighbouring countries. The experience is certainly not unique, but rather it may be an attempt to catch up with its neighbours, especially Kuwait. Although the powers of the elected council in Kuwait are much more extensive than they are in Qatar. In this context, Dr Cinzia Bianco, a research fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told DW that she sees the election of the Shura Council more in a geopolitical context and less as a push toward democracy. “Bahrain and Oman have similar consultative bodies, and Kuwait even has a fully elected assembly. So, I would rather say that Qatar is catching up with the neighbours on the one hand, and on the other, it can be seen as an organic development of the institutional political life in Qatar. There is a good chance that the council will enrich the conversation on economic and social issues. But all major political segments, like foreign policy, defence, security, and investment policy are excluded,” Bianco said.

Elections for the Shura Council were supposed to happen since the ratification of the Qatari new constitution in 2004. Postponements followed repeatedly. After that, the Emir issued an Emiri decree to organize the elections in 2019. However, this did not happen. Today, the time has come to hold these elections less than 450 days before the opening of the 2022 World Cup on Qatari soil, which undoubtedly lacks a democratic feature and a modern social-political image in front of delegations from different countries of the world who will reside in Qatar for about a month.

Players, politicians, economists, tourists, and investors of different nationalities will attend. Therefore, they should visit a new country, where citizens flock to polling stations like any normal country with a parliament and a state of separation of powers. As for the electoral process and the authorities of the elected Shura council, they are details that will be absent.  What counts is bragging about democracy in a Gulf country where political parties are banned. In such a country, few individuals lead certain political and economic bodies. They shape the general policy of the state as a whole.

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