Qatar Announces Democratic Elections for its Shura Council
President-elect Joe Biden’s foreign policy will be anchored on the traditional pursuit of America’s international role and interests. Based upon his lengthy career in the Senate, including having served as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, his tenure as vice president, and his many speeches and comments, Biden’s outlook is predicated upon support for democratic values in this country and around the world.
Biden explained his passionate belief in democracy when he addressed the Copenhagen Democracy Summit on June 22, 2018. He clearly stated that “As citizens, it is our duty to defend our democratic values and freedoms.”
Biden praised those nations “when everyone gets a say; when every voice is heard and weighed equally in the public debate, when citizens are empowered.” Adding: “We have to loudly and unwaveringly defend our shared values.”
He concluded: “If we do not stand up for our democratic values, and our democratic future—no one else will.”
On November 3, the same day when Biden was elected as America’s 46th president, Qatar announced forthcoming democratic processes as well. In addition to furthering democracy in the region, this move is particularly important to the United States as Qatar hosts the Al Udeid Air Base, which is the largest American military base in the Middle East. It serves as a logistics, command, and basing hub for U.S. operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East.
In his address to the opening session of the Shura Council, Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani proclaimed that the Gulf state would hold elections for its advisory Shura Council in October 2021. The Emir declared: “This is an important step towards strengthening Qatari advisory traditions and developing the legislative process with wider citizen participation.”
Currently, all 45 members of the Shura Council are selected by Qatari rulers, but as a consequence of the Emir’s pronouncement, beginning next October, 30 of the 45 will be elected by the public. After the elections, the Shura Council’s power is expected to be expanded in accordance with the constitution, including the power to dismiss ministers, approve the national budget, and propose legislation.
It is also worth noting that in addition to the announcement of the upcoming elections, the Emir also spoke about Qatar’s strong support for international counterterrorism efforts, as well as the promotion of free speech throughout the region, especially through the Al Jazeera news network.
The Emir’s speech generated intense interest among Qataris and others in the Gulf region, leading to a lively debate in the media on the meaning of democracy and the democratic process. The elections will likely receive great international attention as they will take place shortly before Qatar hosts the 2022 World Cup.
While the Qatari elections will change the political life of the country, it also might impact other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, especially if they choose to follow Qatar’s lead.
At first glance, the Emir’s comments appeared to be relatively spontaneous, but in reality, this had been planned for nearly two decades. Elections to the Shura Council as well as greater legislative power for the Shura Council were required under the country’s 2004 constitution.
These changes have been developed, especially after Sheikh Tamim came to power in 2013. Under his leadership, Qatar has undergone a number of reforms, including on such matters as workers’ rights and the representation of women. To set the stage for the recent announcement, last year Sheikh Tamim ordered a committee be established to organize the election process.
October’s vote would be Qatar’s first national election, although Qataris have previously been able to cast ballots on constitutional reforms and in elections to a nationwide municipal council.
The Emir’s announcement has been praised by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who stated “We understand that preparations are underway and that the government of Qatar will take all necessary measures to allow for inclusive, participatory measures. Obviously, any move to give people a voice in how they govern themselves is to be encouraged.”
Marc Tarabella, a Belgian Member of the European Union Parliament, stated that “Developing such a legislative process through a wider democratic participation of citizens represents an important positive step, particularly in the Gulf.”
At a time when there are concerns about the stability and reliability of democratic institutions around the world, the Emir’s announcement is a welcome event. Transforming the statement into political reality will increase public participation in government by the citizens, inclusion of women in positions of political power, and lead to greater powers for elected leaders.
In sum, establishing elections for the Shura Council is a commitment to democracy and personal liberty which should add to a positive view of Qatar by the Biden administration.