Qatar’s future parliamentarians will have legislative powers, the right of veto over the budget and be able to scrutinise ministers — but only two-thirds will be elected, under the proposed new Constitution.
One-third of the 45-member Legislative Council — probably including ministers — will be nominated by Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, who will decide when the Constitution is put into effect, probably by early in 2003.
The 150-clause draft entrenches basic human rights, confirming judicial independence and Qataris’ right to freedom of expression and association. It states that Qatar is an Arab and Islamic state in which Sharia is the basis for law, but also confirms the right to freedom of religious practice. All Qataris over 18 will be allowed to vote and run for office.
However, government power remains concentrated in the hands of the Emir and his ministers. The Council will be able to initiate legislation; but the Emir will have the power to dissolve it prematurely and he will continue to select the Cabinet.
The Council will be elected for a four-year term and, as in municipal elections, women will have the right to vote and stand for office. The new arrangements, drafted by a committee chaired by University of Qatar head Abdullah Bin Saleh Al-Kholeifi, thus perpetuate the pattern of “topdown” democratic development — “enlightened despotism” in the words of one observer — seen since Sheikh Hamad took power in 1995 and began the process of political liberalisation.
Reform has found a ready welcome in Qatar, but it has been led from the top rather than fuelled by pressure from below. The new Constitution met with a positive reception — if not with any great enthusiasm or relief — partly because Qataris have got used to the idea that Sheikh Hamad keeps his promises; it had been known for some time that the document would be produced this July.
The Council’s effectiveness as a means of holding government to account and setting legislative priorities will lie less in the formal shape of the proposed new political structures than in how they work in practice.
On paper, the new Constitution bears similarities with those in the Gulf’s other emergent democracies, combining elections and appointment in a single structure. Experience in these countries and in Kuwait’s established democracy, suggests that local circumstances, rather than formal rules, are decisive.
Oman’s parliament lacks the formal power to initiate legislation but in practice has a big say in shaping new laws. In Bahrain, the nominated assembly will have as many seats as the elected one — a fact that has provoked opposition anger.
In Kuwait, as is proposed for Qatar, the National Assembly contains a bloc of nominated members (although these are all ministers), but this has not stopped its evolution into one of the most combative elected bodies in the Arab world. In the more consensual Qatar, confrontation appears unlikely. With a national population that is almost entirely Sunni Muslim, and gas reserves that ensure ample funding for public projects, the new Council is likely to give the government a fairly easy ride at first.
The elected or appointed members are almost certain to include representatives of merchant families, such as the Darwish and Al-Fardan clans, that have traditionally acted as a source of mild criticism and liberal ideas, in counterpoint to the traditional government servants like the Al-Attiyahs and Al-Misnads.
Figures from civil society will also make an appearance and several women are likely to stand for election. Mooza Al-Malki, a journalist who irritated some voters in the municipal poll by wearing Western dress, is determined to run.
Whether she or other women actually win seats will depend on the design of the voting system and constituency boundaries. Doha’s social geography creates some potential liberal middle class seats, but tribal factors will also influence boundaries.
Government power will remain firmly concentrated in the hands of Sheikh Hamad and his inner circle. The Constitutional Commission was strongly influenced by the French model of a powerful executive presidency, where the role of Parliament is clearly circumscribed as one of legislation and scrutiny.
There is nothing to suggest that Sheikh Hamad envisages Parliament as a means of counterbalancing or curbing the role of his ministerial team; he will do nothing to circumscribe the role of the powerful Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jaber Al-Thani.
On 2 July, Sheikh Hamad ordered a minor Cabinet reshuffle. Minister of State for Cabinet Affairs Ali Bin Saad Al-Qawari moved to Municipal Affairs and Agriculture, where he replaced Ali Bin Mohammad Al-Khater. Mohammad Bin Issa Hamad Al-Mehannadi, formerly Director of Administrative and Financial Affairs in the Emir’s office, took Cabinet Affairs.