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Scoring a Political Goal?
Qatar’s Shura Council Election

by Leone Radiconcini

On 2 October 2021 Qatar will hold its first-ever national elections for the Shura Council, a unicameral consultative body composed of 45 members serving in four-year terms. The Assembly was established in 1972, one year after the country gained independence from the United Kingdom. According to Article 77 of Qatar’s 2004 Constitution 30 members of the body must be elected by Qatar’s citizens and the other 15 should be appointed by the Emir. Despite the promulgation of the Constitution almost two decades ago, until now, all 45 Shura Council members have been appointed by the Emir. Now, in 2021, Qatar’s citizens will also have a say in the formation of the Shura Council through a secret and direct ballot.

The debate over the election arose in public discussions in 2009 as more international attention centred on Qatar as it bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and became an even more relevant topic after the Arab uprising of 2011, when the (then) Emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, promised to hold the polls in 2013. Nevertheless, the promise went unfulfilled, partially due to the transfer of power to the current Emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani. Four years later, in the midst of the intra-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis that put Qatar at odds with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (and Egypt), Emir Tamim bin Hamad once again announced that the first Shura Council elections would proceed. In November 2020, the Emir set the election date and the country began its preparations.

The Shura Council, as the constitutional legislative branch, has several, relevant powers, notably to propose, debate, pass or reject laws, and approve the state budget. The final approval of all laws lies with the Emir, in case he rejects a law, the Council can, according to the Constitution, overrule him by a two-thirds majority. Its members also oversee the Executive and can hold members of the government accountable through questioning the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Ministers, who can be relieved of their duty if two-thirds of the Council express no confidence. The Emir can also dismiss the consultative body, call for new elections and take over both the legislative and executive power in the meantime.

Two weeks before the election, on 15 September 2021, the final list of approved candidates was released by the authorities: it includes 284 candidates running in 30 electoral districts. Out of 40 submitted nominations, 28 women will contest to be elected—a relevant step towards a more equal representation. Interestingly, the way constituencies have been designed reflects the country’s tribal balance rather than purely territorial delineation.

According to the recently approved electoral law (Law No. 6 of 2021), every citizen aged 30 and above can be a candidate and all those 18 or older can vote in the election. There are, however, several restrictions to these provisions. Firstly, it is fundamental to highlight that of the 3 million residents in the country, only about 300,000 people are Qatari nationals. The majority are foreign workers and therefore ineligible to participate in the election. Moreover, in July, the Emir and his Cabinet  approved the creation of a committee to supervise the elections and the provisions of the Electoral Law, which stated that only ‘native’ citizens can vote. This decision raised some controversies as it excludes those ‘naturalized.’ The exclusion of clusters of citizens from participating in the election has become a main point of discussion during the electoral campaign. Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, stated that there will be the possibility to amend and/or change the Electoral Law, but only after the candidates will take office and start the everyday work of the new Shura Council, supported by the legitimacy of the popular vote. Moreover, both the Emir and one-third of the Shura Council can propose to amend the Constitution.

The differentiation between native and naturalised was already part of Qatar’s legal system: the approval of the 2005 Nationality Law defined all citizens, who cannot demonstrate that they are the descendants of Qatari citizens from 1930 as naturalised. That same law effectively excludes those that are not descendants of citizens in 1930 from participating in the elections as candidates and voters. This has been particularly problematic in relation to the Al-Murrah tribe as it harks-back to some of the more challenging chapters of Qatar’s recent history. Consider that, in 1995 Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani — son of the (then) Emir Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani — staged a coup against his father and seized power. The following year, the former Emir attempted to regain control of the country in a counter-coup, supported by several Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries together with members of the Al-Murrah tribe. When the counter-coup failed, the relationship between the government of Qatar and Al-Murrah unsurprisingly soured and was exacerbated by the approval of the 2005 Nationality Law. Members of the Al-Murrah tribe lost their citizenship and while many Al-Murrah members fled to Saudi Arabia, others remained and pushed for political detente. This, ultimately, led to the Qatari government to return citizenship to the Al-Marrah; however classified as naturalised citizens rather than native. This episode may be a cloud over the elections but it should not undermine the real democratic reforms underway in the country.

Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup — the first hosted by an Arab League state — and it’s increased international profile inevitably provides an important opportunity to rebrand the country and may even be entwined with showcasing its reform packages, in the lead-up to its 2030 National Vision, as the world’s eyes are transfixed on it. This has also been highlighted by the role Doha has played in the US withdraw and Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan. While the path to civil participation and deepening inclusion remains bumpy, Qatar’s Shura Council elections are certainly a step in the right direction.

30 September 2021