The Saudi-led blockade can lead Qatar to pursue ambitions it had previously suppressed under pressure from Riyadh. Holding elections for its Shura Council might be the first indication of these ambitions.

On November 14, Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani announced that in 2019 Qatar will hold elections for the Shura Council (Consultative Assembly of Qatar) for the first time in the Arabian emirate’s history. Speaking before the Shura Council’s opening session, Emir Tamim stated that officials in Doha are “drafting legislative measures necessary to ensure that these elections are conducted perfectly well.” 

Running these elections would be significant for Qatar not only in terms of its internal dynamics, but also the Gulf state’s image before the region and the world at large. Moreover, such a top-down opening of the country’s political system would signal Doha’s enhanced confidence in escaping Saudi Arabia’s orbit of influence nearly six months into the lingering Qatar crisis.

A Gradual Opening

It's useful to interpret Emir Tamim’s recent announcement within the appropriate historical context. Under the directives of the ruler’s father/predecessor—Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani—Qatar eased censorship of its press during the second half of the 1990s. Law No. 5 of 1998 abolished the Ministry of Information, making Qatar the only Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member without such a ministry. 

Undoubtedly, the launch of al-Jazeera in 1996 significantly shifted the nature of Arab media, which was previously under the control of ruling authorities and not permitted to air divergent viewpoints.

In 1999, Qatar held its first election for the 29-member Central Municipal Council, currently Qatar’s only elected body. The election was historic in making Qatar the first GCC country to hold a direct, free, and fair election based on universal suffrage. Four years later, through a referendum, Qatar adopted a constitution that established the 45-member Shura Council, which is made up of thirty members elected by popular vote and 15 appointed by Qatar’s ruler. A woman was appointed as secretary, which was an unprecedented moment in GCC history. These openings marketed Qatar’s image as a modern, if maverick, Arab/GCC country.

In 2007, Qatar announced that the state would hold elections to the legislative body, yet authorities in Doha postponed them. Then, in 2010 Qatar planned an election, which was not held. Again, in 2011, Emir Hamad declared that the first elections to the Shura Council would take place in 2013 although that year passed without elections to the emirate’s legislative body. 

To date, why have there been no elections to the Shura Council? Should we expect the Qatari ruler’s announcement this month to be more than symbolic unlike the 2007, 2010, and 2011 announcements?

Escaping Riyadh’s Orbit of Influence

A major factor that contributed to the postponing of elections since the 2003 constitutional referendum was pressure from Riyadh. Outside of Qatar, the impact of the emirate’s Shura Council proving successful could possibly be felt in Saudi Arabia—an absolute monarchy which, unlike Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman, does not have a legislative body that is at least partially composed of elected members—and other GCC states, and perhaps beyond the Gulf. 

As a pillar of Qatar’s regional policy prior to the GCC crisis’ outbreak was making Doha indispensable to both Riyadh and Tehran, the Qatari leadership was keen to avoid excessively aggravating Saudi officials, especially after the Council’s 2014 spat.

Yet almost six months into the Gulf dispute, Qatar is prepared to chart a foreign policy course with allies and partners that do not include the blockading Arab states, accelerating Doha’s escape from the ‘Saudi shadow’. 

To be sure, greater assertion of Qatari independence from the ‘Saudi consensus’ began in the 1990s, yet since June 5 this quest for greater autonomy from the GCC’s powerhouse has taken on an entirely new meaning and been pursued with unprecedented urgency.

As Doha has backed causes linked with social justice, democracy, equality, and human rights across the Arab world—especially since the 2011 uprisings—the Qataris are now viewing the GCC crisis as an opportunity to make internal reforms consistent with its regional and international positions. 

Since June 5, Qatar’s migrant labor reforms, legislation granting permanent residency to some of the country’s expats and other rights afforded to Qatari citizens, and the ruler’s appointment of four women to the Shura Council highlight how the Gulf dispute is playing out in the emirate. 

The bitter diplomatic row and blockade have made Qatar’s authorities more confident about pushing ahead with internal reforms which they were more hesitant to advance prior to six months ago when Doha considered Riyadh an ally. This appears to be a silver lining of the otherwise unfortunate GCC crisis.

If Qatar holds elections for two-thirds of the Shura Council members in 2019, such a development would mark a watershed political opening in the emirate. Such elections would constitute not so much a “revolution” but more of an “evolution” that signals how the demands for democratic reform throughout the Arab world cannot be ignored by any government despite a common narrative that the “Arab Spring” is “dead”.

It was long contradictory for Qatar to be a member of the GCC—initially a Saudi-led initiative that backed a conservative Western-backed regional order—while supporting revolutionary, democratic, and grassroots-driven Islamist groups, movements and causes across the Arab world that challenged the Middle East’s status quo. 

Looking ahead, as Qatar’s identity evolves amid the Gulf crisis with the GCC’s future appearing bleak, Emir Tamim sees the time as opportune for opening the emirate’s internal system in line with democratic practices that Qatar has promoted throughout the Middle East. 

Now without Saudi pressure, chances are higher that Qatar’s leadership will commit to holding elections to the Shura Council than on past occasions.

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