Qatar's emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani will in future share power with an advisory body, but he still has a veto on all important issues. Photo: Ahmad Thamer Al Kuwari. Source: Flickr.


The election in Qatar - a step towards democracy or a game for the galleries?

As next year's host nation for the World Cup, Qatar has caught the eye of the world. In early October, the country went to the polls for the first time ever - but the population's actual influence over politics is still limited.

On Saturday, October 2, Qataris were allowed to go to the polls to vote in the first nationwide election since the country's independence from Britain in 1971. 41-year-old Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani is the dictator of the country. and reviews the laws of the land. Although Qatar is not much bigger than Skåne, the monarchy has in recent years become a player to be reckoned with in global contexts - not least because they are the host nation for next year's world championships in men's football.

New election laws led to protests

It is not believed to be a coincidence that the emir chooses to hold elections just when the country is in the spotlight. But what was meant to be a display of parliamentarism came to shed light on the injustices in the country.

Of Qatar's approximately three million inhabitants, it is only just over a tenth who are actual citizens - the rest of the population is made up of migrant workers. Due to strict citizenship laws, these usually only have residence permits and are therefore not allowed to vote. In the run-up to election day, the emir also introduced a new electoral law stating that only those citizens who could prove that their ancestors were in the country in 1930 were allowed to vote - a requirement not even all Qataris with citizenship could meet.

The emir's decision spurred a peaceful protest in the capital Doha, led by members of the Bedouin family Al Murra who were particularly affected by the election change. In connection with the demonstration, 21 participants were arrested and imprisoned - something that gave the regime critics additional fuel for their anger. The restrictions on the right to vote have been heavily criticized by, among others, the international human rights organization Human Rights Watch.

"Once again, Qatar's half-hearted attempts at reform have served to illustrate how the widespread rights violations in the country are overlooked," said Adam Coogle, the organization's deputy head of the Middle East, in a statement.

Only 11 percent of Qatar's population has citizenship in the country, which means that only a fraction of the country's residents are allowed to vote. Photo: Rowen Smith. Source: Unsplash.
The emir still has the last word in politics

The purpose of the election was to appoint an advisory assembly consisting of a total of 45 members, of which two thirds were voted by the people and the rest were hand-picked by Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. When the votes had been counted, it was clear that none of the 26 female candidates managed to secure a seat in the congregation. This aroused great disappointment among the country's women, who now place their hopes in the emir himself to elect female members to the remaining fifteen seats. At present has two women received seats in the congregation, and it remains to be seen if there will be more.

Since election day, the emir has had an environment and climate change ministry formed with Faleh bin Nasser al-Thani in charge, reports Reuters. The emir has also appointed the former Minister of Trade and Industry Ali Bin Ahmad Al-Kuwari as the country's new finance minister - this after his predecessor had previously been forced to resign due to corruption allegations.

Despite the fact that the population gained some political influence as a result of the election, the real power still lies with the Al Thani family. Although the Advisory Assembly will have the right to decide on legislation as well as the state budget, the emir still has the opportunity to veto - if it is "for the good of the nation". Political parties are still banned.

- The Qatari leadership has limited the opportunities for participation and thus retained control over the political debate and its outcome, says researcher Kristin Smith Diwan at the Arab Gulf States Institute in a statement to Reuters.

Increased media focus on Qatar - but mainly on the sports pages

It should not be said that the election went unnoticed in the Swedish media. However, the reporting as well as the discussions have been sparse. One reason is that Sweden has a limited number of foreign correspondents, and that the journalists who have the task of covering Qatar are often also expected to report on the rest of the Middle East. This means that it is not always possible to have reporters in place in the center of events. As readers, turning to more local mass media for information can often be beneficial - except in the case of states where freedom of the press is low. In fact, the Arab world's largest news channel Al Jazeera is owned by the Al Thani family.

- The channel is professional and relevant in every way, but there is no criticism of the Qatari royal house, says Dagens Nyheter's Middle East correspondent Erik Ohlsson to Studio DN.

Lack of objective journalism is a problem, especially in connection with political elections. It should be added, however, that thanks to the upcoming football championship, the country has received more attention in both Swedish and international media in recent years. The fact that the situation in Qatar is being highlighted more and more can lead to the outside world opening its eyes to what is going on in the country.

A clear example of this is the intense debate which has flared up regarding the working conditions of migrant workers in Qatar. In Sweden, however, the discussion so far is mostly limited to the sports pages, and is in most cases about whether the Swedish Football Association should boycott the World Cup or not. Events that do not have an equally clear connection to the football championship get less space in the news.

It is still too early to say what consequences this first election could have for Qatar. Maybe it's a first staggering step on the road to democracy. Perhaps its sole purpose is to appease the Western world ahead of the upcoming sporting events. No matter what the development, Qatar is a country worth keeping an eye on in the future. It remains to be seen whether the media's interest in the country can be kept alive even after the World Cup.


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