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.