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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Scotland's huge deficit is an obstacle to independence

The country's borrowing level (9.5 per cent) is now double that of the UK. 

Ever since Brexit, and indeed before it, the possibility of a second Scottish independence referendum has loomed. But today's public spending figures are one reason why the SNP will proceed with caution. They show that Scotland's deficit has risen to £14.8bn (9.5 per cent of GDP) even when a geographic share of North Sea revenue is included. That is more than double the UK's borrowing level, which last year fell from 5 per cent of GDP to 4 per cent. 

The "oil bonus" that nationalists once boasted of has become almost non-existent. North Sea revenue last year fell from £1.8bn to a mere £60m. Total public sector revenue was £400 per person lower than for the UK, while expenditure was £1,200 higher.  

Nicola Sturgeon pre-empted the figures by warning of the cost to the Scottish economy of Brexit (which her government estimated at between £1.7bn and £11.2.bn a year by 2030). But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose considerable austerity. 

Nor would EU membership provide a panacea. Scotland would likely be forced to wait years to join owing to the scepticism of Spain and others facing their own secessionist movements. At present, two-thirds of the country's exports go to the UK, compared to just 15 per cent to other EU states.

The SNP will only demand a second referendum when it is convinced it can win. At present, that is far from certain. Though support for independence rose following the Brexit vote, a recent YouGov survey last month gave the No side a four-point lead (45-40). Until the nationalists enjoy sustained poll leads (as they have never done before), the SNP will avoid rejoining battle. Today's figures are a considerable obstacle to doing so. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.