Last month Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani handed over power to his son and Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim. The move became an instant headline grabber with various publications and officials praising the Emir. The Economist called him “remarkable” and “a hard act to follow” while British Foreign Secretary William Hague hailed it as a “historic day”.
In fact it has been quite a year for abdications. Just last April Dutch Queen Beatrix abdicated in favour of her son, and more recently Belgium’s King Albert II announced his abdication in favour of his. Little known is an incident that took place a month before the Qatari abdication in neighbouring Saudi when the leader of the Al Sager clan, the “115 year old” Sheikh Haif Bin Saleem abdicated in favour of his son after eighty years as chief of Sarat Obaida, in Asir province.
Although at face value these abdications may seem similar there is in fact quite a significant difference. Unlike fellow monarchies Belgium and the Netherlands, Qatar does not have a legislative council or an independently elected government. As in its fellow Arab Gulf States, the monarchy solely holds the reins of policy and governance.
In an article last September I explored the possibility of a “Black Swan” event that could jolt the Arab Gulf States into introducing serious and much needed political reforms - from the fall of one of the Arab monarchies to the militarization of the opposition. The last of my hypothetical points revolved around Qatar and whether this unpredictable Gulf State will surprise us yet again. “The wildcard here,” I wrote,“could be maverick Qatar introducing major political reforms instead of the announced cosmetic advisory council elections next year, encouraging others to follow suite.” A few months later initial reports of a possible abdication emerged.
Today there is a six-decade difference between the youngest and the eldest of the Arab Gulf leaders. Qatar media has been reporting on the awkward cables of congratulations that were sent from the Gulf monarchs to their 33-year-old “brother”. One of the highlights of the next Gulf Cooperation Council leaders summit in Kuwait will be to witness the interaction between the young Sheikh Tamim and the other Gulf leaders who are at least twice his age.
The prospect of elections
Many viewed the recent events in Qatar as a positive development, but there is one caveat that should be highlighted. Back in November 2011 the former Emir Sheikh Hamad delivered a speech in which he announced that Qatar would be holding its first legislative council elections in the second half of 2013. “These steps are necessary,” the Emir said in an address to the appointed Shoura Council “to build the modern state of Qatar”. At around the time of the abdication Qataris were expecting to learn more about the previously announced legislative elections, such as who qualifies to stand as a candidate and how many elected MPs will there be? However, a day before abdicating, Qatar’s Emir issued a decree that extended the Shoura Council by an additional three years yet again. According to Doha News the current advisory council’s term was previously extended in 2010.
This is not the first time legislative elections have been postponed. Back in the 1970’s the Shoura Council term was extended repeatedly. More recently, a popular referendum was held in April 2003 that included a clause to elect a legislative council. The elections were first postponed until 2008 and continuously pushed back. In February 2011 Qatar’s Prime Minister said that legislative polls would be held in the “near future”. I asked for clarification from an appointed member of Qatar’s Shoura Council active on Twitter and he informed me that just under half of the members of the Shoura Council were changed back in 2004.
Early in 1992, 53 Qataris petitioned the then Emir Sheikh Khalifa Bin Hamad (who was deposed by his son Sheikh Hamad in 1995) to hold legislative elections. In what seems to be a Gulf political tradition some of those who signed the petition were called into the police for questioning, detained or arrested while others were banned from travelling according to the New York Times.
That is not to say that Qatar hasn’t held any elections. In fact Qatar has successfully held four municipal elections, something I have been calling for my own country, the UAE, to hold for years. Elsewhere in the Gulf, Kuwait and Bahrain were the only two states with active elected parliaments. Sadly today both countries’ parliaments, as well as their wider politics, have fallen into disarray and are used as an example to warn Gulf citizens of the “dangers” of politics.
Today the Gulf States have reached a political stalemate. Political Islam, playing right into the hands of the governments, has caused damage to the cause of secular reformists throughout the region. Gulf reformists are desperately in need of a post-Arab uprisings political breakthrough in the region. Qatar’s young Emir has a golden chance to usher in a new age of political development in the Gulf. Releasing the jailed poet Mohammed al-Ajami, advancing the legislative elections for a change and giving citizens a say in running their country would truly be a Black Swan event.