Qatar should transform its political system from a monarchy to a democracy to liberate itself from the isolation imposed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
For many years, the state of Qatar, a small oil rich state located in the Arabian Gulf, lived peacefully with its Gulf State neighbors, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman. But on June 5, the world woke up to a new reality. In an attempt to isolate Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Bahrain pulled out their diplomatic representatives and imposed an economic blockade on Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism—an accusation viewed as hypocritical by many, especially coming from Saudi Arabia.
In response, Turkey, which at the time had less than 200 troops stationed in Qatar for military and security cooperation, countered the tension by accelerating a resolution which would expedite the deployment of additional troops in Qatar, a request made by Doha in an earlier bilateral agreement. This move, though not anticipated by many regional states like the UAE and Bahrain, came as an unexpected blow, especially to Saudi Arabia, which has long sought regional supremacy.
But the question remains, even if Saudi Arabia acquiesces to Turkish troops stationed there and restores relations with Qatar, will that liberate Doha from future Saudi Arabia interference into its domestic politics?
The simple answer is no. So long as the two states share the same political system, a unicameral monarch, Saudi Arabia will not allow a smaller, hence monarchic, neighboring state maintain an equally wider political preponderance in regional competition.
Bassima Alghussein and Jeffrey A. Stacey wrote in Foreign Affairs that
“Qatar is viewed as having outsized ambitions and is perceived to regularly undermine Saudi predominance.” Like it does to Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE, and Oman, given the occasion, Saudi Arabia will make sure to grasp every opportunity to make Qatar succumb to its regional supremacy.
However, while many view Saudi Arabia’s isolation of Qatar as a tragic moment, it may instead be that a moment of opportunity has presented itself to Doha. It is time for the Qataris to transform their current monarchial political system into a constitutional parliamentary monarchy.
By incorporating this political model, Qatar will break away from the influence of its monarchial neighboring Saudi Arabia and receive support and sympathy from the broader democratic world. In addition, unlike its neighbors, Qatar possesses an essentially highly literate and significantly wealthy society, as well as respected professional journalism that could play an extremely vital role in catalyzing its democratic consolidation.
Way Forward Towards Democracy
Doha now operates under a full monarchy. Its current legislative branch, the Advisory Council (known locally as Majlis Al Shura) consists of 45 members, of which 30 are publicly elected (though election dates have been delayed for unknown reasons multiple times) and 15 are appointed by the monarch. Qatar’s executive branch consists of Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani, Prime Minister Abdallah bin Nasir bin Khalifa Al Thani, and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad bin Abdallah al-Mahmud. The Council of Ministers, or Majlis Al-Wuzara’, are all appointed by the monarch. Political parties are currently banned in Qatar.
As a starting point, Qatar can lift the ban on political parties and regulate a multiparty political system. This move can be promulgated by amending the existing permanent Qatari constitution. The new constitution must be crafted by an independent committee, consisting of academics, judges, traditional sheikhs, international experts, and world class constitutional scholars. A universal referendum must then be called for, in which Qatari citizens would vote to approve or disapprove the new constitution. Also, under this new constitution, Qatar could transform its sole legislative branch from a unicameral into a bicameral one, delegate more power to the Prime Minister, and reform its judiciary.
In pursuing this political framework, Qatar can introduce a separate Senatorial Council equally powerful as the existing Advisory Council to expand the scope of its citizens’ democratic participation. Qatar should draw an example from the United Kingdom, which is a “constitutional parliamentary monarch.” In the UK, the legislative branch consists of two principle houses, the House of Commons and the House of Lords. While the House of Commons is term-limited, members of the House of Lords serve a lifetime career and are appointed by the Queen. Qatar should implement a similar approach to demonstrate its willingness to reform its long-existing political structure (this system existed since 1972) for a more liberal, broadminded, and democratic one. Qatar’s current Municipal Council, which acts primarily as a semi-oversight committee on laws and regulations implementation must be left intact.
Similarly to the UK’s, for starters, Qatar’s new Senatorial members must be appointed by the King, and should play a significant role in advising the Prime Minister. By giving the King the power to appoint Senators, unlike a snap power grab, it cushions the shift of power of the royal family beyond democratic transition, which will increase their inclination to accept the democratic transformation with more alacrity. In terms of the Senatorial Council’s party affiliations, its member should be equally divided between the existing political parties, and in case of a deadlock, the King should be given the authority to break it. In this case, the King, unlike the Prime Minister or his deputy, is assumed to be free from all ideological influence, which will permit him to play a neutral, and impartial role between the political parties.
Some might view this as a counterintuitive type democracy, where the people maintain limited control over their democratic process, but let’s not forget that sudden democratic transition in the past have bred ethnic rivalry, and proven to kill democracy in its infancy. New democracies are often described as infants, before they are able to walk, they have to sit, and before they sit, they have to crawl. In democracy, before democratic institutions are able to fully consolidate their transition, they need training on how to practice democracy. Nevertheless, it is a proven history that nationalist movements often take advantage of the newly born democracies’ press proliferation to incite ethnic hatred towards their political opponents. Thus the new Qatari constitution should clearly articulate the difference between freedom of speech, and inciting violence. Also, transitioning leaders have demonstrated to relentlessly falter democracy, especially when they found no prospect of potential incentive after the transition. In order to avoid a similar epic failure, democratic transformation, and institutional consolidation must be gradual and systematic, not swift and chaotic.
Second, the King can delegate some of his executive power like forming the government, running the country’s affairs, regulating the market, and signing treaties to the Prime Minister, who will be elected on an internally agreed terms by the winning party of the Advisory Council. Then he/she would occasionally seek monarchic council on matters of national security. As the elected party runs the affairs of the country, its role must encompass a mere proposal of bills, it must have the authority to pass bills, it must also seek Senatorial endorsement when passing bills before sending them to the King for final approval. In this way, the King would remain a powerful player rather than an abstract arbiter of last resort, which will strengthen the separation of power. In return, respect between the legislative and monarchic branches of the government must be reciprocal, based on mutually agreeable terms and traditions, as in the UK.
For the judiciary branch, it is important to note that appointment of judges must meet certain criteria, significantly different than that of the West, especially the United States. In most of the Western world, the judges are appointed by the executive branch of the government, then confirmed by the legislative branch. In Qatar, it would be the opposite, where both councils of the legislative branch first appoint the judges, who then must be confirmed by the King. Letting the King confirm judges, still keeps him in play, and is part of the gradual transition of the democratic process.
Additionally, Qatar’s supreme court, or locally known as the Judiciary Supreme Council mandates a non-ideological stance on all judges. This practice must remain in place. The JSC must be free from ideological divide, and judges should uphold apolitical posture before they are being nominated. This particular process is beneficial for one major reason. By requiring the judges to be free of any political affiliation, their decision making, and determination will be devout and devoid of all political influence, which will enhance the impartiality and the credibility of the judiciary branch. In case the King refuses to confirm an appointed judge, the legislative branch should be given the power to override his decision by obtaining a vote of two-third of the combined Senatorial and Advisory councils. In this political structure, the separation of power will be divided not among three branches of the government, but among four, that of the King (Monarch/Semi-Executive), Advisory/Senatorial Council (Legislative), the Prime Minister (Executive), and the JSC (Judiciary).
Finally, Qatar’s vibrantly educated and wealthy society combined with its outstanding professional journalistic machine may catalyze its democratic transformation. This is not to argue that societies must have these elements as prerequisites for their democracy to succeed.
In 2015, UNESCO reported that the literacy rate in Qatar hovers over 97 percent. The CIA’s World Factbook ranks Qatar second in the world in terms of per capita income, and Qatar has one of the most transparent and professional journalistic corporations in the Arab world. Aljazeera news network was established in 1996 and has ever since paved the way for a proliferated, transparent, and heated political debate, never seen before in the Arab world. Although Aljazeera is cautious about airing debates that critique the flaws of the Qatari political system, this liberalization process would present it an opportunity to open up the door for constructive criticisms with respect to the strategic policies of Qatar’s foreign and domestic affairs.
Of course, one should not be naïve to ignore the failed trial of democracies, and the bitter historical background of foreign powers’ attempt to establish democracy at a gunpoint in the Middle East. For instance, in Iraq, the Bush administration shifted strategies, and desperately attempted to establish not indeed a democracy, but a semi democratic United States’ friendly government in 2003. The aftermath of such a tragedy continues its wrath in Iraq today. When the Arab Spring occurred in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Egypt in 2011, (even though some would argue that the intent of the Arab Spring revolution was not based on demands for democratic regime change,) the environment over there was not ripe for a democratic transformation, because unlike Qatar they had a fundamentally different political framework, riddled with asymmetrical government structure, not to mention the abysmal military institutions that ceaselessly meddled itself in politics. For those who assert that Qatar will fail to consolidate its democratic transformation like the rest of the Arab world, it is worth noting that the democratic change this time in Qatar would come from the monarchy, not from the people; the people are not demanding the system be overthrown, but the system itself would be demanding reform.
Qatar currently shares with liberal democratic countries a relationship based on financial interest and transaction, often dictated by the existing international rule of law. In other words, the Western countries deal with Qatar as they deal more or less with Saudi Arabia, not based on a special interest per say, like that one between the US and UK. That is why a democratic transformation in Qatar , though Saudi Arabia had already severed their relationship, will escalate tension in the short term, but will open up the door for Doha to forge stronger multilateral relationships with the liberal world; not only a relationship based on economic interest, but also on liberal values, such as respect of the government for the individual rights of its citizens, judicial equality, enhanced means of communications, improved transparency and political accountability, and respect for human rights, which will give Qatar an edge in the West vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia. What would keep Saudi Arabia at bay from Qatar is not Turkish Troops at its borders, but a functioning democracy, the best weapon Qatar can utilize to win the lottery for an everlasting independence.
Mohamed Mahad D. Darar is an associate professor of Political Science, Comparative Politics, and International Relations at Aims Community College, in Colorado. He is the former CEO of the American Institute in Djibouti, East Africa. Mr. Darar’s research and studies focus on Middle East and East Africa.
* The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not
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