In October of last year, 2021, general elections for a national legislative body were held in Qatar for the first time. The legislature (romanized from Arabic as Majlis as-Shura) is called the Shura Council. However, despite the introduction of national legislative elections, there is no real change in the democratic quality of Qatar’s governance. While containing some limited legislative authority, the Shura Council serves a mostly advisory role and provides a minimal functional check on the emir, with whom ultimate decision-making power still rests. The legislature’s establishment, in part, probably serves the already-autocratic emirate’s gilding purpose of appearing partially democratic without really being democratic.
Qatar’s system of government is officially a constitutional monarchy with the emir as its head of state and government. The current emir is Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani (Sheikh is an honorary title), who was handed power by his father in 2013; the hereditary al-Thani dynasty has effectively ruled Qatar since the mid-1800s. The Shura Council has, as the legislative body, 45 members in total: 30 elected and 15 appointed by Qatar’s emir (monarch).
The emir is functionally an autocrat that wields absolute political power, able to appoint and remove all top positions of government. This includes the prime minister, second-most powerful official of Qatar’s government, and all ministers of the cabinet (together forming the Council of Ministers, the national executive authority below the emir), as well as the emir’s heir. The emir holds supreme executive and legislative authority and also effectively controls the judiciary. Political and civil liberties are severely limited: government criticism and political parties are banned, both independent and organized protesting and demonstrating is severely limited, and everyone running for any elected position (such as municipal elections) must run as independents. This makes Qatar’s “constitutional” monarchy closer to an absolute monarchy in practice.
The country’s partially-elected legislature, the Shura Council, is also mandated by the constitution, which was adopted via popular referendum in 2003. While the Advisory Council was first established in 1972 (starting with 20 members), only the 2003 constitution established that two-thirds of its members would be elected. However, general elections were postponed at several intervals until October of 2021, just last year. Prior to then, the emir appointed all of the Council’s members.
The Shura Council now sits with two-thirds (30) elected and one-third (15) appointed members. The body holds authority in the form of voting on legislation drafted by both itself and the Council of Ministers and monitoring certain areas of the executive, such as certain ministries. The Shura also approves the government budget and can “forward proposals relative to public matters to the government. If the government is unable to comply with such aspirations, it must give its reasons”, which the Shura Council can comment on, but “only once”. Additionally, the Shura can “question” the prime minister’s policies via a two-thirds majority vote of no confidence.
Despite this authority, even with some measures of accountability against the executive installed, multiple factors realize constraints on the Shura Council’s authority such that it has minimal ability to balance out the emir’s political power. The emir retains veto power of any proposal or legislation passed by the Shura. The two-thirds legislative majority required to ask for a vote of no confidence on, i.e., to “question” the policies of the prime minister, who serves at the pleasure of the emir, is made difficult (to organize realize) given the one-third appointed by the emir. Furthermore, the Shura Council can question only the prime minister and not the emir.
Giving the legislature limited authority is presumably, in part, meant to boost the reputation of Qatar and the al-Thani family absent political drawbacks. This is done as a part of Qatar’s stated “ambition to develop its legislative process with wider citizen participation” without actually constraining the emir’s executive power. Allowing the Shura Council to comment on the government’s decisions not to adopt proposals passed by the Shura is something minor that lends to the Shura’s intended appearance of legitimacy (if not independence) but does not check operationally the emir’s power.
This is ironically reminiscent of Ozan O. Varol’s characterization of stealth authoritarianism in the Iowa Law Review – the use of legal means or avenues for antidemocratic ends. In Qatar’s case, it is less that democratic erosion is occurring than it is that antidemocratic political control is being maintained, with the institution of a politically toothless legislature that serves and acts largely at the whim of the monarchical executive. This one purpose for the Shura Council is to lend a democratic air, especially through citizen civic participation, to the Qatari emirate. The legislature is thus no indication of actual democratization in Qatar.
Rather than implementing democratization, and besides tarnishing a democratic image, the Shura Council seems to be a stone that kills multiple other birds with its establishment by the emirate. Several of its neighbors, such as Oman and Bahrain, already had governmental bodies (“consultative assemblies”) similar to the Shura Council. The Shura Council may thus be Qatar playing catch up as much as it is an “organic development of the institutional political life in” the country. The Shura may well be established in part to tackle social and economic issues while significant political issues and power are kept out of its hands. However, due to the unchanged state of the emir’s power and Qatar’s lack of political and civil liberties, the extent to which the Shura’s institution is an organic political development is also limited.
Another potential reason for the Shura along stealth-authoritarian lines is to use it to render unpopular political decisions that might otherwise reflect badly on the Qatari emirate. One example is the restriction of access to the independent English-language website Doha News in 2016; access was restored in 2020 following international criticism. Using the veneer of the Shura Council’s partial independence, or softening the negative impact of unpopular decisions by issuing them through the legislature, may be the emirate’s goal. The emirate’s stated desire for regional stability and security presumably extends to a desire for regime stability as well.
In conclusion, the Shura Council presumably serves the emir and emirate’s political purposes for boosting Qatar’s domestic and international reputation by lending it a partially democratic air without actually limiting the executive’s power. Maintaining authoritarian control is in the al-Thani dynasty’s interest in terms of both regime security and stability.