It will probably not be until early 2002 that the committee appointed by Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani to prepare a draft constitution finally produces its report. But certain principles are clear already. There will be an elected national assembly to replace the long-standing appointed Majlis Al-Shura, and Qatari women will have the vote and the right to stand for elected office — a principle already established with the present elected municipal councils.
The Emir made his reformist intentions clear almost from the moment he deposed his father in a bloodless June 1995 palace putsch. However, a balance between tradition and modernity means the committee drafting the constitution includes conservatives as well as modernisers. Reformers hope the assembly will be endowed with effective legislative powers, but they are well aware that the argument has yet to be decisively won.
Reform-minded officials seem less concerned than their counterparts in some other Gulf governments about the often fractious example set by the Kuwaiti parliament’s relations with the government. Their prime concern appears to be that the new democracy should be genuinely effective in giving people a say in governance.
Old-style paternalist absolutism in the Gulf treated responsible citizens “like children” argues one official — in an age when the proportion of nationals with higher education is often higher than in many Western industrial countries. It makes sense to introduce democracy early, before pressure for reform builds up from below; it is better to introduce change now and have the chance to shape it, rather than hang on to obsolete absolutism and find yourself forced into panic actions by the stress of events, he argues.
Reformers believe the recently established elected municipal councils are a demonstration that elected bodies can attract higher calibre office-holders than the old nominated institutions. This is paving the way for strong popular interest when the time for national election campaigns comes along.
Universal suffrage is an important element in this process. “You cannot build a society where women are deprived,” says one senior official. “They have to have votes—and they have to have the right to run for office as well.” Policy-makers are also beginning to conclude that it will make sense to accord citizenship, or at least permanent residence, to foreigners who have lived in Qatar for a long time, making a contribution to local society and often losing close touch with their original homelands.