Expert Speak Energy News Monitor
Published on Nov 10, 2021
Qatar has taken a step towards a more inclusive political system. Is this a revolutionary shift or more of an image building exercise?
Political reform in Qatar: Misplaced optimism?

The recently conducted elections in Qatar for a 45-member Shura council, which was mandated by the 2004 Constitution but was repeatedly delayed in the “national interest”, were finally held on the 2nd of October. There was a lot of hype and optimism associated with these elections, both within and outside Qatar. The official position is that it will be a significant step towards establishing democracy in the country. It also represents Qatar’s ambition to be seen as a progressive and forward-looking nation amongst other Arab nations in the region. The reforms will be a ‘new experiment’ said the Deputy Prime Minister of Qatar, Sheikh Abdulrahman al Thani. The elections are the first of its kind in the tiny Gulf state but the sundry restrictions on voters and council members will limit its near-term policy impact.

At the outset, it is premature to expect that successful elections for merely an advisory body will not make any substantial difference, unless and until the political structure is overhauled. The ruling house, which is extremely leery of political participation that could threaten their control, can’t see a deathblow to their own monopoly. Over the decades, they have developed a ‘resilience strategy’ to consolidate their power, which has resulted in their emergence as a ruling oligarchy that consists of the Emir and his family members. It is, therefore, not clear whether the reforms will lead to any meaningful political participation and representation. Earlier reforms didn’t really address the central issue of equal representation of all Qataris. Thus, democracy will remain a façade unless the main levers of power open up.

The Shura council

The Shura council was established in 1970s and, hence, isn’t a new creation. At its inception, it constituted only 15 members selected from Sheikh family itself. It has been expanded to 45 members now, 30 out of the total 45 were to be elected by Qatari citizens. The other 15 members will be appointed by the Emir himself after the elections for the “Public interest” not specified by any legislation, not even by the Constitution itself.

It is premature to expect that successful elections for merely an advisory body will not make any substantial difference, unless and until the political structure is overhauled.

The Arbitrary voter disenfranchisement dilutes the principle of political participation. This stirred domestic and international debate about electoral inclusion and citizenship at the time of announcement of the elections. The Al Murrah tribe has strongly protested against the citizenship law as it disenfranchised some of their members.

The substance of these reforms is not groundbreaking in the Arab world given the fact that earlier reforms have not led to any meaningful conclusion. The reforms are mere eyewash, which has more to do with hosting the Fifa world cup next year. This is an exercise of image building at the global level, as a progressive and liberal western ally in the region. Hence, the reforms will have marginal impact on the internal dynamics of the state.

Political reforms have happened in other gulf countries also, but the region still remains highly centralised and the dominance of tribal politics remains in place. Oman also has broadened its political participation; Saudi Arabia has been on the path of political reformation. Kuwait has a parliament in operation, with a more vibrant civil society functioning. Qatar has joined the race quite late and the recent reforms are seen in line to catch up with other GCC members. The institutional depth and diversification in these countries is much greater than in Qatar.

The plank of reforms to widen political participation will be tested by societal and cultural pulls that emerge from traditions vs. modernism on the one hand and political reformation versus structural makeup of the state on the other. With the challenges of balancing tradition, money, and modernity, Qatar is yet to witness a change in its political structure. These reforms don’t seem to be headed in the direction that could potentially challenge the existing political structure and politics of the day.

Political reforms have happened in other gulf countries also, but the region still remains highly centralised and the dominance of tribal politics remains in place.

While the intent of reforms is to expand the Shura council for wider representation, the centralisation of power and political marginalisation raise questions about how much these reforms will live up to their stated intent. The council is advisory in its nature and the Emir retains the veto to quash any suggestion that may upset the status quo.

The citizenship act which is applied in Qatar, is the lifeline of the ruling establishment because this ‘strategic marginalisation’ helps it to restrict the economic incentives to a small pool of people, i.e., the ruling family itself. It also helps in keeping the state institutions within the family control, which enjoy the privileges that include no taxation, free healthcare, subsidies, and education. The ‘civic myth’ that legitimises the regime and its actions, enhances the scepticism about the impact of these reforms.

The other question is whether the expansion will lead to inclusion of new forces to set a new democratic template. It has been seen that any reform carried out earlier has resulted in expansion of the royal family alone and not political participation per se. Despite ending government censorship, conducting successful municipal elections, women empowerment, creating supreme judicial council for judicial independence, framing the Constitution, proposing creation of a parliament by initiating political reforms to widen Shura council, there hasn’t been any erosion in the absolute powers of the ruler. Some analysts credit this to the lack of public demand for reforms with apolitical masses remaining the reality in which the state conducts its affairs.

Qatar has had a Constitution since 2005, but Sharia law still is the main source of legislation. The Constitution is weak from the standpoint of civil and political rights. It doesn’t permit formation of political parties. The latest reform initiative is silent on the proposed establishment of a parliament since 2007 as mentioned in the Constitution.

The reforms aren’t going to place any constraints on executive power. The Emir retains the power to appoint the cabinet and he controls the agenda. He has the power to block and implement laws by decree and, above all, he can dissolve the Shura council at will.

The recent reforms also ignore the plight of the expat community, especially workers. Labour laws, though reformed from time to time, still fall short of holding the basic rights of migrant workers, though the Kafala system has been scrapped (2018) in principle, after backlash from human rights organisations and policy watchdogs. But harsh penalties for ‘absconding’ still exist and labour reforms haven’t decriminalised ‘absconding’. This system remains intact and continues to facilitate the abuse and exploitation of the country’s migrant workforce. The recent reforms are silent on labour rights, and, therefore, adds to the pessimism around their success. Vani Saraswathi, Director of Projects of Migrant Rights, argues reforms in this direction haven’t changed anything significantly because they enable forced labour to be more palatable.

The presence of a large expatriate community in Qatar and an imported labour force is challenging the demographics of the state.

These reforms were carried out amidst the challenges Qatar faces for its poor record of civil liberties, labour discriminations, and tribal sensitivities. The presence of a large expatriate community in Qatar and an imported labour force is challenging the demographics of the state. That is creating tensions along socio-economic and cultural lines. The tiny minority of citizens that constitutes mostly ‘original Qataris’ still controls state institutions, comprises the ruling elite and staffs the bureaucracy. There are no political parties and no trade unions despite large number of labour force from other countries.


The process of political reform will remain stunted if political parties remain outlawed. Given the discriminatory citizenship law in Qatar, political participation will remain a fantasy. The goal of these reforms isn’t so much democracy, as it is a palatable authoritarian system which also helps to ward off any criticism from rest of the world. The reality, therefore, is that Qatar has a system in which the government elects voters and not the other way round.

Qatar presently doesn’t face any internal threat nor is there any threat in its immediate neighborhood. The ruling establishment seems to be fine with the status quo within Qatar and in its foreign policy. The real intent is not to democratise the country but end the long-delayed poll promise and conduct a face-saving exercise to awash criticism. Therefore, these reforms are not going to become a democratic template for the region unless there is a complete overhaul of the ruling structure. Without such a transformative change, Qatar will only see incremental political reform which is unlikely to impress its neighbours.

Mehraj Bhat is a research intern, ORF.

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