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Why a new election law sparked protests in Qatar

A move to allow direct participation in government has excluded significant numbers of the Qatar citizenry.

Protests in Qatar quieted over the weekend. Unrest had followed Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani’s approval on July 29 of a new election law to govern Qatar’s first elections for its legislative body, the Shura Council. The protesters expressed outrage that the law would bar certain Qataris from voting in the elections or from running as candidates. Discontent came in particular from members of the al-Murra tribe, one of the largest in the country.

The Qatari government’s ability to quell the protests likely signals that the first Shura Council elections should proceed as planned for October, but the unrest demonstrates the challenges inherent in implementing political reforms. The election law limits voting rights to citizens whose family resided in Qatar before 1930, while naturalized citizens are ineligible to run for office. 

The controversy centers on the question of who counts as a full Qatari, as the country takes tentative steps toward democratization. The new election law allows eligible Qataris to elect 30 out of the 45-member Shura Council; the emir previously appointed all 45. The 30 members will represent 30 electoral districts, each based on a tribe’s place of residence in the 1930s as recorded by officials under the authority of the British protectorate almost a century ago.

Protests gained momentum in part as a result of videos posted by Hazza al-Marri, a member of the Al-Murra tribe living in Umm al-Zabar, west of Doha. The lawyer’s prominence rose after he posted impassioned speeches on behalf of his rights and those of his tribespeople on social media. He was detained by security forces on August 9: his last tweet stated, “I have the criminal investigation in my majlis (receiving room) now, asking me to go with them.” Members of his tribe later gathered outside the public prosecutor’s office to demand his release.

There were concerns that other Qatari tribes might also join the protests, including the Bani Yafa tribe. The government seems to have reached out to its elders preemptively to address their concerns. In a video with the trending hashtag “Qatar is our tribe,” the emir’s younger brother Khalifa al-Thani visited the Bani Yafa majlis. Videos and images posted to social media on Sunday showed a meeting between al-Murra member Abdullah bin Fahd bin Ghorab Al Marri and members of the Bani Yafa tribe. 

Some Qataris scolded the protesters for taking to the streets rather than following legal procedures, such as submitting their complaints to the Grievances Committee. Others have pointed out that the first democratically elected members of the Shura Council will have the power to amend the election law to grant full rights to all citizens. A nationwide referendum in 2003 approved the Qatari constitution, which laid out eligibility for participation in elections to Qatar’s legislative body. Approximately 20 to 25 percent of Qatari citizens are already ineligible to vote under the current law. Citizens account for only about 10 percent of the nearly three million people who live there, the vast majority of whom are expat workers who lack most rights despite labor reforms implemented last year.

The difficulty of establishing who “counts” as fully Qatari, and thus eligible to vote, is complicated by the fact that before the discovery of oil and the establishment of modern state systems in the Arabian Peninsula, many inhabitants were at least partly nomadic due to the region’s harsh environmental conditions. In addition, the collapse of the pearling industry by the 1930s forced many inhabitants to leave the Qatari peninsula in search of new livelihoods. Establishing 1930 as the cut-off year for the right to vote may partly reflect acknowledgment of those inhabitants who stayed in Qatar throughout the lean years. The development of fossil fuel resources started to improve the quality of life in Qatar by the 1950s and was generating real wealth by the 1970s: Qatari citizens now enjoy one of the highest GDP per capita rates in the world.

Members of the al-Murra tribe live throughout the Arabian Peninsula, as citizens of other GCC countries, and some only acquired Qatari citizenship after the cut-off year of 1930. The Al-Murra already had a somewhat fraught relationship with the Qatari state. The al-Ghafra branch of the tribe was accused of disloyalty as a result of certain members’ involvement in the 1996 countercoup, which sought to reinstate the grandfather of the current emir who had been deposed by his son in 1995. Allegedly, this led to approximately 5,000 members of the tribe losing their Qatari citizenship in 2005, although most had their status as naturalized citizens restored the following year. The Qatari government maintains that the decision reflected the fact that these individuals held dual citizenship with Saudi Arabia. Following the 2017 blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain, some al-Murra were accused of aligning with Riyadh. In 2017, approximately 50 al-Murra were deprived of their Qatari citizenship. 

The most recent unrest highlighted ongoing tensions within the GCC, in particular the lasting hostility to Qatar from three blockading Gulf neighbors. Indeed, Qatari Twitter users expressed concern that the unrest over the law had been amplified by those most threatened by Qatar’s electoral reforms; namely Bahrain, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have led the counterrevolution against the pro-democracy “Arab Spring” movement across the greater Middle East and North Africa region since its birth in Tunisia in early 2011.

In the GCC, Kuwait is the country that allows its citizens the most direct role in government. While the Kuwaiti ruling family is unelected, Kuwait’s parliament enjoys real power, making Kuwait the only constitutional monarchy in the GCC; the rest are absolute monarchies. Qatar’s efforts to allow its citizens to directly elect members of the Shura Council are more threatening than Kuwait’s, however, because Kuwait’s relatively empowered parliament dates back several decades, while Qatar’s reforms could enhance public pressure on the rest of the GCC monarchs to follow suit.

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