The Middle East Channel

Qatar's ambivalent democratization

In an unexpected move, Qatar will hold its first-ever parliamentary elections in the second half of 2013. According to the plan announced Tuesday by Qatar's Emir Hamid bin Khalifah Al Thani, two-thirds of the country's advisory Shura Council will be up for vote, while the rest will remain appointed. But in contrast to similar reform initiatives undertaken by Arab governments made nervous -- or challenged directly -- over the course of the previous ten months, Qatar's decision is an entirely proactive one. Indeed, as indicated by the results of several recent, scientific public opinion surveys, its citizens are quite pleased with their current political system -- and have little interest in changing it any time soon.

Qatar may be one of the only Arab countries that wouldn't mind reliving 2011. It has taken an ever more leading role in regional politics, while avoiding even a hint of the political discontent that spread to some degree to each of its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) neighbors. Qatar has long been best known for its state-owned Al Jazeera satellite television network, which broadcasts from Doha and has played a central role in shaping the course of the Arab Spring. More generally, Qatar has used the impetus of the Arab Spring to put its trademark international activism into overdrive, attempting to mediate peaceful transitions in Syria and Yemen, sending $500 million in foreign aid to Egypt alone, and playing a significant role in joint military action in Libya and, to a much lesser extent, in Bahrain. Despite the hopes of its rivals, however, Qatar has seen no signs of the popular political mobilization witnessed elsewhere in the region.

Certainly, the economic affluence of its citizens may be expected to have some dampening effect on aspirations for change. Qatar has benefited from the successful culmination of a two-decade long program of oil and natural gas investment that is projected to boost GDP this year alone by some 15 percent. Yet even the similarly wealthy United Arab Emirates witnessed a call for increased accountability in the form of a petition for an elected parliament signed by 133 intellectuals and activists in March. Could ordinary Qataris really have occupied such a front-row seat to the Arab Spring, as it were, without being at all inspired themselves?

The answer, when one asks them, appears to be that yes, yes they could. Separate, nationally-representative public opinion polls conducted by Qatar University's Social and Economic Survey Research Institute (SESRI) reveal that, in the six tumultuous months spanning December 2010 and June 2011, support for democracy and interest in political participation has dropped markedly among Qatari citizens. The proportion of survey respondents who report being "interested" or "very interested" in politics decreased by almost 20 percent over this period, while the proportion of Qataris who say that living in a democratic country is "very important" to them dropped from 74 percent to 65 percent, a relative decrease of 12 percent.

At the same time, confidence in existing government institutions -- the judiciary, the Shura Council, and the government itself, among others -- all saw jumps ranging from 8 to 18 percent. In other words, not only has support for and interest in democratic governance in Qatar not increased since the onset of the Arab Spring, but in fact Qataris seem to have drawn the opposite lesson from the upheavals witnessed from afar -- namely, a renewed appreciation for the relative security and prosperity afforded by their own political system, democracy or no democracy.

Yet this is only half the story. Conspicuous in the backdrop of the internal Arab conflicts of 2011 has been the larger geopolitical struggle for influence involving Iran, Saudi Arabia, and their respective client states, a so-called "New Middle East Cold War" being fought nowhere more fiercely than in the Gulf region. Bahrain's failed uprising in particular has served as a volatile flashpoint, with Iran decrying the GCC's crushing military intervention in March as a sectarian-motivated massacre and the latter dismissing the entire episode as an elaborate Iranian conspiracy to overthrow the Gulf monarchies.

As with other Gulf Arabs, this sustained media focus on the regional threat posed by Iran has not been lost on ordinary Qataris. In a SESRI survey administered in the summer of 2010, Qataris were asked to name the country most threatening to the Gulf region as well as to Qatar itself. At the time, less than a third of respondents identified Iran -- a country with which Qatar has long maintained good relations -- as the biggest threat to the GCC, and just 17 percent said it was the greatest threat to Qatar. Indeed, a near-majority (44 percent) of Qataris answered that no state threatened them.

By June, however, these perceptions had shifted dramatically. Now, 57 percent of Qataris believed that Iran posed the greatest threat to the GCC -- a relative increase of 84 percent -- with the second most frequent answer, Israel, receiving just 14 percent of responses. Even more marked was the change in opinion regarding the threat to Qatar itself. No longer were most Qataris confident in their external security: now only a quarter replied that no country posed a threat to the nation, while the proportion identifying Iran as the greatest threat increased by almost 125 percent to more than one in three citizens. No other nation accounted for more than 8 percent of responses.

Hence, for many Qataris, and perhaps for other Gulf Arabs in similar socio-economic and political circumstances, the primary message of the Arab Spring seems to comprise of two reinforcing elements, neither of which is the intrinsic importance of popular government. It is a message that Gulf governments have done their best to drive home, not least via up-to-the-minute coverage of the chaos and bloodshed experienced by those who chose to ignore it. The lesson: don't try to fix what isn't broken, for others will see to it that you wind up with something much worse.

Sure, some two-thirds of Qataris still consider it "very important" to live in a country that is governed democratically, at least as of June. But when asked to decide Qatar's most pressing national priority over the next 10 years, a mere 13 percent of these same respondents replied that it was "giving people more say over important government decisions." By contrast, a combined 82 percent of Qataris identified either "maintaining order in the nation" or "fighting inflation." In a society in which citizens are guaranteed many luxuries, democracy, it seems, is one they can do without.

Far from an attempt to deflate domestic political pressure, therefore, Qatar's surprise election announcement is almost certainly aimed to help counter the growing observation that it has supported democratic movements abroad while avoiding political reform at home.  Perhaps for the first time in history, a Middle East regime may need to convince its own citizens of the merits of increased political participation.

Justin Gengler recently received his Ph.D. in political Science from the University of Michigan.  He now works for the Social and Economic Survey Research Institute in Doha.


The Middle East Channel

The U.S. cuts funding to UNESCO after Palestinians granted full membership

The U.S. cuts funding to UNESCO after Palestinians granted full membership

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted overwhelmingly in favor of granting full membership to the Palestinian Authority, with 104 votes for, 14 against, and 52 abstaining. While it is merely a step toward the goal of Palestinian statehood, it is seen as an important symbolic victory as Palestinians wait for an uncertain decision from the U.N. Security Council on their bid for full membership status in the United Nations that could come in November. Palestinian Authority official Yasser Abed-Rabbo said, "It means that the majority of the world supports Palestinians' right to become an independent state and a member of the international community." Just hours after the announcement, the United States said it would block a payment of $60 million to UNESCO in compliance with a law from the early 1990s that barred congress from providing funding for any U.N. body that offers state status to the Palestinian territories. If the U.S. follows through, it will reduce UNESCO's funding by 22 percent. UNESCO has survived without U.S. funds in the past when the United States pulled out of the body under President Ronal Reagan and only re-entered under President Bush in 2003. Regardless, the policy could have serious ramifications for the United States, especially as the Palestinians continue seeking recognition at other international bodies -- such as the World Trade Organization and the International Criminal Court.


  • As NATO ends its operation in Libya, the NTC elected a little known wealthy businessman and professor of electrical engineering, Abdel Rahim al-Keib, as the new interim prime minister.
  • As violence continues in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has failed to respond to the Arab League plan to end the conflict and NATO ruled out a military intervention.
  • According to an Egyptian official, after days of clashes with Gaza, Israel will delay further military action to give Egypt time to broker another ceasefire.
  • The trial of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been postponed until December 28, amid calls by alleged victims for the replacement of the presiding judge, Ahmed Refax.

Daily Snapshot

Muslim piligrims walk around the holy Kaaba inside Mecca's Grand Mosque on October 31, 2011, as more than 1.5 million Muslims have arrived in Saudi Arabia for the hajj pilgrimage to the shrine city, the world's largest annual human assembly which peaks on November 5, according to local state media (FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images). 

Arguments & Analysis

'Why contain Iran when it own aims will do just that?' (Vali Nasr, Bloomberg)

"Iran expects greater influence in Iraq and Afghanistan once U.S. troops leave, but with that will come greater burdens. Once absent, America can no longer be the focus of opposition in both places. Instead, Iran may replace the U.S. as the target of popular anger, blamed for the failure of government to meet people's needs. Iran may prove no more able to pacify Iraq and Afghanistan than the U.S. has been. Iran is adept at causing security headaches in the region but is untested when it comes to resolving them. Failure on that front would leave Iran, rather than the U.S., in the middle of renewed civil conflict in Iraq or Afghanistan. It also would have direct implications for Iran domestically. Renewed chaos in either country would send refugees flooding into Iran and increase drug trafficking and violence in the border areas. Iran may come to remember fondly the period when the U.S. military absorbed resentments in the region."

'Armies and civilians in the Arab Spring' (Yezid Sayigh, The Daily Star)

"Arab militaries responded to 2011's popular uprisings in various ways, but always with one of two consequences. In Tunisia and Egypt, the decision of regime-loyalist commanders to abandon their presidents allowed quick transfers of power and cut short bloodshed. Conversely, in Libya, Yemen and Syria, militaries fragmented, moved to the sidelines, or remained loyal, thus enabling incumbents to fight for their power. The Tunisian and Egyptian responses were largely shaped by the officer corps' considerable institutional autonomy and professionally formed cohesion; the latter by the intermeshing of the military-government hierarchy with social groups: family, tribe, region or sect. The immediate implications are relatively straightforward -- if stark. In Libya, Yemen and Syria, the renegotiation of civil-military relations will focus on the fundamental purpose of the national armed forces: Is it to defend the borders against external foes, or to preserve the political power of particular domestic parties?"

'There aren't protets in Qatar -- so why did the King just announce elections?' (Shadi Hamid, The Atlantic)

"In a region of stodgy, unimaginative leaders, these sorts of moves entailed a degree of risk for Qatar. But, Qatar's leaders, particularly the Emir, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, and the prime minister, Hamad bin Jassem, seemed to take pleasure in Qatar's scrappiness and, increasingly, the recognition it received as a key player in the Arab spring. They were, to use a phrase, ahead of the curve. And they may be adopting a similar model at home. Despite few domestic demands for democratic reform and virtually no visible opposition, the Qatari leadership decided to "preempt" and take the initiative before anyone thought to ask. It has now become even more difficult than it already was to envision a critical mass of Qataris attacking the government for ignoring internal reform. Top-down reforms are most effective in absorbing dissent the earlier they come. But to what end?"