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On October 2, for the first time, Qatar held elections for its Shura Council, or parliament. Qatar has long been accused of playing with democratic double standards. During the Arab Spring protests, Qatar played a pivotal role extolling the virtues of allowing citizens to have a say in the governance of their states, supporting grassroots populist causes ranged against aged autocrats. Meanwhile, at home, as in most Gulf states, the Qatari emir’s power was mostly unencumbered by formal democratic mechanisms that lacked real power. True, informal mechanisms like societal pressure could affect policies, reversing some occasionally, but Qatar was not and never claimed to be a democracy. Failures in 2007, 2010, and 2017 to hold elections for its Shura Council, as called for in the popularly approved 2003 constitution, further exacerbated the sense that Qatar was opportunistically interested in promoting democratic mandates abroad and not at home.
However, elections finally took place, and Qataris were able to select who will fill 30 of the 45 seats for the Shura Council, while the remaining 15 will be appointed by the emir. Of the 28 women who ran for the Shura Council, none were elected. Instead, primarily because of the tribally orientated way the state set up the elections, several former government officials and prominent businessmen were elected, and a broadly equitable tribal balance was achieved. There are few signs that the council will have the cohesion or desire to affect the strategic orientation of the state in foreign or defence policy areas, at least initially. It is more likely that it will concentrate domestically, and the government will find its reforms on workers’ rights coming under considerable scrutiny.
Qatar’s Elections: The Background
Today, Qatar is arguably shaped and ultimately defined by the small size of its population and the vast mineral wealth that makes the state the richest on Earth on a per capita basis. These factors have been key to providing Qatar with a level of political quietism that is straightforwardly unique in the Arab world. No state in the region was as untroubled by the Arab Spring ferment as Qatar, and the Global Peace Index recently ranked Qatar as the most peaceful country in the Middle East and North Africa.
The point is not that Qatari citizens are innately quiescent; listening to “Watani Al Habib Sabah Al Khair” (My Beloved Country, Good Morning) – a phone-in radio show where Qataris often vociferously critique local services and even ministers – will disabuse such a notion. Nevertheless, Qatari citizens have in recent decades rarely been moved to agitate. With this history, that there were protests in August in reaction to the announcement of the electoral laws for the October 2 elections was unusual, if not unexpected.
The electoral rules and the implementation of the elections made real long-known, but comparatively theoretical, differences among Qatari citizens. Class one Qataris are those who can trace their ancestors as present in Qatar back to 1930. Class two Qataris are those who returned or moved to Qatar after 1930. Given the profound difficulties of proving one’s lineage back to pre-1930 because of a lack of systematic documentation, it is near impossible to move “up” a class. Much of this is not new news, but this clear stratification in such a manner of different tribes’ places in society, with real implications as to who could stand or vote in the elections, instantiated the differences in a new and high-profile way. This prompted a number of small protests in Qatar, most by disenfranchised members of the Al Murrah tribe. There is nothing new about fractious relations between the government and the Al Murrah tribe. Tensions go back to at least the 1950s, and there have been myriad problems in recent years. Before the elections, informal discussions between Qatar’s leadership and prominent representatives defused tensions, and it seems likely that the new Shura Council will address this issue as a matter of priority, though it remains unclear how it can do this.
Qatar’s Approach to the Elections
Most Gulf parliamentary bodies enjoy a limited or highly limited democratic mandate, serving mostly as consultative authorities. Kuwait is an outlier with the Gulf’s most democratic parliamentary system. However, the cost of a greater degree of power invested in the parliament is persistent and debilitating gridlock. Thus, Kuwait has long acted as a harbinger of the potential downsides of widening the political enfranchisement and the perils of greater democracy. The key for Qatar is to somehow heed widespread pressure for greater democratization while avoiding Kuwait’s fate of suffering eternal struggles with an obstreperous parliament that checks the government’s power and holds back state development. Part of the problem in Kuwait has been the emergence of a range of interest-based groups, such an Islamist bloc that is frequently in conflict with the government, and a culture of “service deputies.” This latter kind of parliamentarian seeks a mandate from a small subsection of the electorate promising to focus on their material needs resolutely protecting, for example, existing subsidies and other perks. Ultimately, a climate has emerged of antagonism that has created a fractious, atomized parliament with different groups focusing on micro-interests at the expense of more strategic goals for the benefit of the whole state, a structural problem with many elective bodies but even more pronounced in Kuwait’s case.
Unlike elections being contested predominantly by political parties, which are not allowed in most Gulf states, Qatar set up its elections with tribes as the central political unit. To a degree, this makes sense, with the tribal system retaining a real resonance in Qatar at the societal level. Instead of creating electoral districts comprised of various tribal groups, candidates have to stand in districts closely linked to the origins of their tribe, harking back to 1930s data.
Results and Early Expectations
One headline of the electoral results was the failure of women to win any seats, despite 26 women running in 14 of the 30 districts. This means, of course, that women often ran against each other, as in the 22nd district, where five women ran likely taking votes from each other. Similarly, no youth-oriented candidates won. Instead, the roster of winners included an array of businessmen and individuals with government experience. For example, the former attorney general, Ali Fetais al-Marri, was elected in the 16th district. Interestingly, Merri is a member of the Al Murrah tribe, one of the key tribes, large parts of which were disenfranchised by the election law, demonstrating how tribal politics is often more complex than reported. No members of the ruling Al Thani family stood for election, as per the customary expectation.
The conservative pallor of the results is ultimately not surprising. In many ways, tribes are inherently patriarchal structures often displaying ingrained deference to age. Similarly, wider society in the Gulf is often conservative compared to the government and its policies, another reason women and younger candidates were not elected. Indeed, one common misapprehension is that governments are conservative bulwarks holding back broader public yearning for a Westernized understanding of development. While true on occasion, of course, overall, the transformative projects undertaken in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar since the 1990s, and in Saudi Arabia today under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, are top-down driven projects that cut against (sometimes strongly) mainstream local mores and proclivities.
This inherent societal conservatism is likely to be at play with Qatar’s new Shura Council. A “service deputy” culture is likely to emerge as the de facto tribally elected parliamentarians will likely go to the council to represent their tribes’ interests above all else. Moreover, lacking a formalized and broader cross-cutting mandate among parliamentarians – such as one that would have emerged from candidates adhering to a political party’s platform – it is likely that the council will focus more on tactical issues affecting their constituents. Indeed, presently, it is difficult to see how the council might begin to influence government policy regarding the key offices of state like defense and foreign affairs. Initially, at least, a deference to the state’s heretofore practices will likely pervade, whereby the so-called sovereign portfolios remain the purview of the ministers overseen by the emir and his diwan, similar to the classical view of how foreign and defense policy in France is considered the domaine reservée, or reserved domain, of the president.
However, a natural commonality of interest might emerge when strategic policies directly affect constituencies. Qatar has a history of business groups seeking to influence government decisions. For example, in the realm of the foreign workers’ rights debates related to the kafala system of contracting, local groups have opposed government attempts at reform, often successfully. According to surveys, Qataris overall tend to oppose the relaxation of labor laws. This is not surprising given that essentially all the 3 million foreigners in Qatar are ultimately under the sponsorship of a Qatari. This means that from large companies to small businesses to Qatari households that often employ several foreigners, there is a real concern surrounding any significant liberalization, which many fear could lead to upheaval. Additionally, there are economic motivations afoot, most obviously with the increasing of the minimum wage. Indeed, in February, the Shura Council floated the idea of watering down existing labor-focused changes implemented by the government. A more democratically empowered council with a natural alignment on the desire to control (and perhaps roll back some) reforms seems likely to focus on this issue.
The conservative-leaning council is likely to be altered somewhat by the appointment of the 15 members chosen by Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani who will likely prioritize women and youth representatives. Though it is unclear how their impact will play out, Qatar is no stranger to women in its political process or, indeed, in positions of significant power. In 1999, in a regional first, a woman ran for an elected position in the local elections, though ultimately she was not elected; the first female minister was appointed in 2003; and throughout the 1990s and the 2000s the second wife of the emir at the time enjoyed an immensely powerful local and international portfolio.
Neither the Qatari emir nor his government has ever said that Qatar is a democracy nor that these elections will turn it into one. The timing of the elections, just over a year away from Qatar’s hosting of the FIFA 2022 World Cup, drew cynical accusations that the elections were more a public relations exercise than anything else. There may be an element of linkage here. Yet, wheels were set in motion for these elections in the 2003 constitution, which was voted on in a near-unanimous referendum seven years before Qatar won World Cup hosting rights.
Ultimately, the new Shura Council, with the majority of its members elected, is neither a democratic wand changing Qatar’s political culture nor a pointless exercise. Instead, it is a small evolutionary step in the state’s governance in a more democratic direction. Whether further steps in this direction are taken in the future depends largely upon how the council plays out, how obstreperous or constructive a role it takes in governance, and how comfortable the government and royal family become with the role the council plays.
is non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and an associate professor in the School of Security Studies at King’s College London.
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