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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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