The Middle East Channel

Qatar’s ambivalent democratization

Qatar’s ambivalent democratization

In an unexpected move, Qatar will hold its first-ever parliamentary elections in the second half of 2013. According to the plan announced Tuesday by Qatar’s Emir Hamid bin Khalifah Al Thani, two-thirds of the country’s advisory Shura Council will be up for vote, while the rest will remain appointed. But in contrast to similar reform initiatives undertaken by Arab governments made nervous — or challenged directly — over the course of the previous ten months, Qatar’s decision is an entirely proactive one. Indeed, as indicated by the results of several recent, scientific public opinion surveys, its citizens are quite pleased with their current political system — and have little interest in changing it any time soon.

Qatar may be one of the only Arab countries that wouldn’t mind reliving 2011. It has taken an ever more leading role in regional politics, while avoiding even a hint of the political discontent that spread to some degree to each of its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) neighbors. Qatar has long been best known for its state-owned Al Jazeera satellite television network, which broadcasts from Doha and has played a central role in shaping the course of the Arab Spring. More generally, Qatar has used the impetus of the Arab Spring to put its trademark international activism into overdrive, attempting to mediate peaceful transitions in Syria and Yemen, sending $500 million in foreign aid to Egypt alone, and playing a significant role in joint military action in Libya and, to a much lesser extent, in Bahrain. Despite the hopes of its rivals, however, Qatar has seen no signs of the popular political mobilization witnessed elsewhere in the region.

Certainly, the economic affluence of its citizens may be expected to have some dampening effect on aspirations for change. Qatar has benefited from the successful culmination of a two-decade long program of oil and natural gas investment that is projected to boost GDP this year alone by some 15 percent. Yet even the similarly wealthy United Arab Emirates witnessed a call for increased accountability in the form of a petition for an elected parliament signed by 133 intellectuals and activists in March. Could ordinary Qataris really have occupied such a front-row seat to the Arab Spring, as it were, without being at all inspired themselves?

The answer, when one asks them, appears to be that yes, yes they could. Separate, nationally-representative public opinion polls conducted by Qatar University’s Social and Economic Survey Research Institute (SESRI) reveal that, in the six tumultuous months spanning December 2010 and June 2011, support for democracy and interest in political participation has dropped markedly among Qatari citizens. The proportion of survey respondents who report being "interested" or "very interested" in politics decreased by almost 20 percent over this period, while the proportion of Qataris who say that living in a democratic country is "very important" to them dropped from 74 percent to 65 percent, a relative decrease of 12 percent.

At the same time, confidence in existing government institutions — the judiciary, the Shura Council, and the government itself, among others — all saw jumps ranging from 8 to 18 percent. In other words, not only has support for and interest in democratic governance in Qatar not increased since the onset of the Arab Spring, but in fact Qataris seem to have drawn the opposite lesson from the upheavals witnessed from afar — namely, a renewed appreciation for the relative security and prosperity afforded by their own political system, democracy or no democracy.

Yet this is only half the story. Conspicuous in the backdrop of the internal Arab conflicts of 2011 has been the larger geopolitical struggle for influence involving Iran, Saudi Arabia, and their respective client states, a so-called "New Middle East Cold War" being fought nowhere more fiercely than in the Gulf region. Bahrain’s failed uprising in particular has served as a volatile flashpoint, with Iran decrying the GCC’s crushing military intervention in March as a sectarian-motivated massacre and the latter dismissing the entire episode as an elaborate Iranian conspiracy to overthrow the Gulf monarchies.

As with other Gulf Arabs, this sustained media focus on the regional threat posed by Iran has not been lost on ordinary Qataris. In a SESRI survey administered in the summer of 2010, Qataris were asked to name the country most threatening to the Gulf region as well as to Qatar itself. At the time, less than a third of respondents identified Iran — a country with which Qatar has long maintained good relations — as the biggest threat to the GCC, and just 17 percent said it was the greatest threat to Qatar. Indeed, a near-majority (44 percent) of Qataris answered that no state threatened them.

By June, however, these perceptions had shifted dramatically. Now, 57 percent of Qataris believed that Iran posed the greatest threat to the GCC — a relative increase of 84 percent — with the second most frequent answer, Israel, receiving just 14 percent of responses. Even more marked was the change in opinion regarding the threat to Qatar itself. No longer were most Qataris confident in their external security: now only a quarter replied that no country posed a threat to the nation, while the proportion identifying Iran as the greatest threat increased by almost 125 percent to more than one in three citizens. No other nation accounted for more than 8 percent of responses.

Hence, for many Qataris, and perhaps for other Gulf Arabs in similar socio-economic and political circumstances, the primary message of the Arab Spring seems to comprise of two reinforcing elements, neither of which is the intrinsic importance of popular government. It is a message that Gulf governments have done their best to drive home, not least via up-to-the-minute coverage of the chaos and bloodshed experienced by those who chose to ignore it. The lesson: don’t try to fix what isn’t broken, for others will see to it that you wind up with something much worse.

Sure, some two-thirds of Qataris still consider it "very important" to live in a country that is governed democratically, at least as of June. But when asked to decide Qatar’s most pressing national priority over the next 10 years, a mere 13 percent of these same respondents replied that it was "giving people more say over important government decisions." By contrast, a combined 82 percent of Qataris identified either "maintaining order in the nation" or "fighting inflation." In a society in which citizens are guaranteed many luxuries, democracy, it seems, is one they can do without.

Far from an attempt to deflate domestic political pressure, therefore, Qatar’s surprise election announcement is almost certainly aimed to help counter the growing observation that it has supported democratic movements abroad while avoiding political reform at home.  Perhaps for the first time in history, a Middle East regime may need to convince its own citizens of the merits of increased political participation.

Justin Gengler recently received his Ph.D. in political Science from the University of Michigan.  He now works for the Social and Economic Survey Research Institute in Doha.