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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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