Note: This article is from the Guardian.
The Gulf state of Qatar is to hold its first national election for a royal advisory body – another sign that the upheavals of the Arab spring are prompting defensive reactions across the region.
The announcement, by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, signals an important, if largely symbolic, advance for a tiny country whose great wealth has allowed it to punch above its weight internationally, but without so far adopting the democratic standards it advocates for others.
Elections to the country’s Shura (consultative) council are to be held in the second half of 2013, though it is unclear whether it will be given legislative powers. Under Qatar’s 2003 constitution, 30 of the council’s 45 members will be elected and the remaining 15 appointed.
“We know that all these steps are necessary to build the modern state of Qatar and the Qatari citizen who is capable of dealing with the challenges of the time and building the country,” the emir told the council. “We are confident that you would be capable of shouldering the responsibility.”
Qatar has played a big role supporting the Arab uprisings of the last year, especially in Libya, where it was the first foreign government to recognise the Benghazi-based rebels and sent money, weapons and troops to help them.
Al-Jazeera, the Doha-based satellite TV channel that Qatar owns, has acted as a cheerleader for revolutions from Tunisia to Syria while the domestic politics of Qatar have remained more or less off-limits. Until now it has only held municipal elections.
But Qatar’s room for manoeuvre is also constrained by its powerful neighbour Saudi Arabia. Qatar took part in the Saudi-led intervention that crushed pro-democracy protests in Bahrain earlier this year. Bahrain and Kuwait both have relatively developed parliamentary systems.
“The Qataris are making concessions – either because they are genuinely nervous or because they feel they need to make a gesture,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Gulf expert at the London School of Economics. “There is no pressure from Qatari citizens for a participatory opening. But the emir may feel he does not want to be outflanked by other Gulf countries and he thinks this a safe enough way to respond to the zeitgeist of the Arab spring.”
The official Qatar news agency quoted the emir as saying: “We must not only congratulate ourselves on our achievements, but we have to check whether our visions and aspirations are compatible with the expectations and hopes of our peoples.”
Qatar is attuned to its international image, especially after winning the bid to host the World Cup in 2022.
The country’s natural gas riches allow its population of just 350,000 nationals out of a resident population of 1.7 million to enjoy the world’s highest income per head, currently ,721 (£47,000) – and a comfortable cushion against unrest. Even so, in September, the government raised salaries, pensions and benefits for state and military employees by 60%, a move widely seen as an attempt to preserve stability.
Qatar’s responses mirror recent moves by other Arab monarchies to stave off popular unrest. The Saudis have invested billions of dollars in social welfare and job creation schemes while the king of Jordan has sacked two prime ministers and promised more reforms. Morocco is drawing up constitutional amendments to entrench democratic institutions and rights.
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