The bloodless Arab Spring

Qatar provides a lesson for all as it moves from oligarchy to democracy.

The Emir of Qatar has taken the unprecedented step of announcing that his country will hold national elections in 2013. In this year of the Arab Spring -- where autocratic leaders across the Middle East either continue to violently hold onto power or have been successfully toppled through mass protests as their people now demand democratic change, equality and transparency -- Qatar's ruling monarchy has chosen to move towards democracy voluntarily.

No Qataris took to the streets to demand the overthrow of their monarchy or that they be replaced by democratically elected leaders, and thankfully no blood has been spilled. So, why do it? This bold move suggests that the Emir and ruling Al Thani family have astutely "taken the temperature" of the region and gauged that it is now time to move Qatar from ruling monarchy to a democracy. Still, it takes a visionary and strong leader to voluntarily concede or agree to share power, particularly when the country you reside over is the richest in the world, per capita.

Though its geography and population are small, this tiny GCC country has shown us within only a few years how wide-ranging and positive its influence has been, and how the transition to strong economy and society, and now democracy need not take months and years of violent protests. And it shows -- crucially -- that power can indeed be given, not taken.

Qatar has wisely used its oil and gas wealth domestically and internationally through investing heavily in its economy and its people, and bursting onto the regional and global political stage through showing strong leadership in the Arab league and standing with NATO in providing financial and military support for the Arab Spring. Qataris have rejoiced that their ruling family has been so vocal in supporting the demands for democracy by their Arab neighbours and for the creation of a Palestinian state.

Now, Qatar must prepare its people for the political and cultural transformation from "people living in a rentier state" to "participant citizens in a democracy who will hold their leaders to account". Education and awareness-raising programmes of the values and strengths of democracy and democratic process will need to be implemented. Giving all Qataris -- male and female -- eighteen and over the right to vote in 2013, is a good start. The country's Advisory Council will have 30 elected members and 15 appointed. The objective of the Council will be to create a modern independent state.

No one should underestimate the significance of this incredible move by the Emir of Qatar. Indeed, despotic Arab leaders still clinging onto power should take note: history will judge you not because of what you were forced to do but also on that which you did voluntarily, for the good of your people.

I wrote some months back of how the rise of Qatar should not go unnoticed. Voluntarily announcing democratic national elections for all in the richest country in the world is noted, loud and clear.

Zamila Bunglawala is a former Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.

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Emmanuel Macron can win - but so can Marine Le Pen

Macron is the frontrunner, but he remains vulnerable to an upset. 

French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron is campaigning in the sixth largest French city aka London today. He’s feeling buoyed by polls showing not only that he is consolidating his second place but that the voters who have put him there are increasingly comfortable in their choice

But he’ll also be getting nervous that those same polls show Marine Le Pen increasing her second round performance a little against both him and François Fillon, the troubled centre-right candidate. Her slight increase, coming off the back of riots after the brutal arrest of a 22-year-old black man and Macron’s critical comments about the French empire in Algeria is a reminder of two things: firstly the potential for domestic crisis or terror attack to hand Le Pen a late and decisive advantage.  Secondly that Macron has not been doing politics all that long and the chance of a late implosion on his part cannot be ruled out either.

That many of his voters are former supporters of either Fillon or the Socialist Party “on holiday” means that he is vulnerable should Fillon discover a sense of shame – highly unlikely but not impossible either – and quit in favour of a centre-right candidate not mired in scandal. And if Benoît Hamon does a deal with Jean-Luc Mélenchon – slightly more likely that Fillon developing a sense of shame but still unlikely – then he could be shut out of the second round entirely.

What does that all mean? As far as Britain is concerned, a Macron or Fillon presidency means the same thing: a French government that will not be keen on an easy exit for the UK and one that is considerably less anti-Russian than François Hollande’s. But the real disruption may be in the PR battle as far as who gets the blame if Theresa May muffs Brexit is concerned.

As I’ve written before, the PM doesn’t like to feed the beast as far as the British news cycle and the press is concerned. She hasn’t cultivated many friends in the press and much of the traditional rightwing echo chamber, from the press to big business, is hostile to her. While Labour is led from its leftmost flank, that doesn’t much matter. But if in the blame game for Brexit, May is facing against an attractive, international centrist who shares much of the prejudices of May’s British critics, the hope that the blame for a bad deal will be placed solely on the shoulders of the EU27 may turn out to be a thin hope indeed.

Implausible? Don’t forget that people already think that Germany is led by a tough operator who gets what she wants, and think less of David Cameron for being regularly outmanoeuvered by her – at least, that’s how they see it. Don’t rule out difficulties for May if she is seen to be victim to the same thing from a resurgent France.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.