Foreign Policy Essay

Qatar’s Domestic Agenda and the Gulf Crisis

By Kristin Smith Diwan
Sunday, February 25, 2018, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: The crisis between Qatar and its neighbors drags on, exacerbating regional instability and posing problems for U.S. policymakers. While many analysts have focused on the security and foreign policy implications of the crisis, the possible domestic ramifications are often ignored. Kristin Smith Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington assesses the state of reform in Qatar and argues that the ruling family is likely to proceed cautiously given the many sensitivities involved.

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There is mounting evidence that the Gulf crisis is far from resolution. Indeed, recent weeks offered more signs of escalation, as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates traded accusations over military violations of air space and the interception of civilian aircraft. The United States has looked to consolidate its close ties to players on both sides of the Gulf divide, as demonstrated by the the first ever Qatar-U.S. strategic dialogue in January. But while there is the prospect of the Trump Administration convening a Gulf Summit, there is little appetite for compromise on the part of the Gulf rivals. The failure of Kuwait’s mediation efforts, culminating in the abbreviated Gulf Coordination Council summit on December 5, 2017, has discouraged all but the most ardent advocates of reconciliation. Instead, key Gulf players are pursuing alternative arrangements, notably the calculated announcement of a new strategic partnership between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani’s November 14, 2017, speech before the Advisory (Shura) Council indicates a forthright acceptance of what he termed “a new phase in the relations between the Gulf states.” The challenges to Qatar posed by the Saudi-UAE-Bahrain-Egypt boycott center quite naturally on the diplomatic and economic: how to maintain key alliances and build new strategic partnerships while making critical adjustments to Qatar’s economic infrastructure and policy. Geopolitically, Qatar has worked to strengthen its close relationships and understandings with the United States and European powers, while counterbalancing the quartet boycott through closer coordination with Turkey. Notable economic initiatives include Qatar’s new industrial zone, the opening of Hamad Port, and a number of new projects to enhance food and water security.

Less discussed are the domestic social and political impacts: how the ongoing dispute and boycott affect the Qatari leadership’s relations with its citizens and residents. Two notable adjustments—the ongoing preparation for Advisory Council elections and the publication of a draft law establishing permanent residency—deserve consideration. Despite a recent report by Human Rights Watch suggesting that the crisis is spurring major progressive reforms, though, Qatar is unlikely to take risky, dramatic actions within the current crisis environment.

 

A Long-promised Electoral Opening                         

The diplomatic boycott by the quartet has been accompanied by additional actions that aim to disrupt the political balance within Qatar. Over the past year, the emirate has had to contend with initiatives that appear to target its royal and tribal unity and undercut its religious legitimacy. Saudi Arabia has been the source of most of these media-driven campaigns, which have instrumentalized the kingdom’s relations with dissident Qatari royals and cross-border tribes, along with its religious authority. The Qatari leadership has had to fend off the mediation of a royal pretender who tried to facilitate the passage of Qatari pilgrims to Mecca, and denunciation by Saudi Arabia’s leading religious family, who threatened to strip their family name from Qatar’s main mosque. And in a widely circulated video, a Qatari royal dissident denounced the Qatari emir before thousands of tribesmen assembled on the Saudi-Qatar border.

One means to insulate Qatar from these actions and strengthen the ties between Qataris and their leadership is through an expansion of political rights. Indeed, there were rumors that Qatar would finally carry out the long-discussed (and long-delayed) plan to allow elections for two-thirds of its Advisory Council. The emir’s recent speech before that body, however, stopped short of a clear declaration, instead assuring the council that the government continues to prepare for elections, including drafting legislative measures to be delivered to the council during the year.  

Implementing elections would be a bold retort to the quartet campaign, which has explicitly sought to separate the Qatari people from its leadership. Letting the public go to the polls would be an expression of confidence that the young emir has the backing of his people. But it also would be a risky move, given the doubts that appear to plague these plans for legislative empowerment and popular political participation.

The initial plan for elections was part of a package of reforms put in place by the former emir, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, after overthrowing his father in 1995.  It was a time of similar challenge and peril, and the reforms were a means to garner international attention and popular support. The promise of elections accompanied a broader opening, embracing the empowerment of women and the expansion of media freedoms, including the establishment of Al Jazeera. Once Emir Hamad’s rule was secure, though, his government’s enthusiasm for democracy waned. Elections were limited to the Municipal Council, which is solely an advisory body.

In multiple visits over the past decade to the Interior Ministry, which oversees elections, I gained insights into the issues contributing to the repeated delay of Advisory Council elections. The government has wrestled with districting—specifically, how to build constituencies that will yield a “fair” balance of tribal representation. That same concern for the political salience of tribes, especially those more distant from the ruling al-Thani family, is clear in the adoption of Qatar’s 2005 nationality law. In a telling move, the law reverses the trend of neighboring states such as Kuwait, which accelerated the political enfranchisement of naturalized tribes. Instead, Qatar’s law explicitly limits the political rights of late-arriving tribes, denying them a vote in any future elected parliament.

The differentiated political rights among citizens and the difficulty of orchestrating tribal balance both attest to the political risks of opening the emirate up to elections for a body constitutionally empowered to question ministers—especially at a moment when there are external attempts to politicize tribal membership. Qatar may choose to take the easier path of the UAE rather than Kuwait, and curate representation through appointments in the Advisory Council. In November 2017, in a first, the emir appointed four women to the council.

 

The Introduction of Qatari “Green Cards”

While Qatar continues to consider elections for its citizens, it has also been advancing plans to expand rights for a select group of the non-Qatari residents that make up over 85 percent of the population. In August 2017, Qatar passed a draft law approving the establishment of permanent residency, or, in the U.S. parlance, “green cards.” Those eligible for permanent residency include the children of Qatari mothers, those who have provided extraordinary national service, and those with special talents needed by the state. Permanent residency would entitle the holders to the full benefits of the welfare system, including education and health care, as well as priority in state hiring after Qatari nationals.

Qatar is the first Gulf country to explicitly create this new legal category, although the UAE has allowed the children of Emirati mothers to apply for citizenship and has encouraged a new visa system to attract extraordinary talents. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman also mentioned in a speech plans to introduce “green cards” in Saudi Arabia within five years. It may be that Gulf countries seeking to encourage foreign investment and deeper diversification of their economies will need to consider new methods for attracting and holding foreign contributors to the economy. Indeed, Qatari commentator Mohammed Salah al-Misfar noted that permanent residency was under discussion in Qatar well before the Gulf crisis began.

Yet the caution with which Gulf countries take this logical step speaks to its great sensitivity with Gulf nationals. Opening up citizenship to the children of Qatari mothers is a shrewd and popular move, which addresses directly the dilemma of Qatari families, a significant number of whom are intermarried with other Gulf nationals. The boycott of Qatar has tested the economic—and potentially, the political—loyalty of these Gulf families. However, while the opening of permanent residency to exceptional foreigners may strengthen ties with invested foreign residents, it may also spark disquiet with the key constituency of Qatari citizens. In Qatar, as in the other Gulf states, many nationals jealously guard the generous state benefits they receive, and worry about the impact of foreign residents on local culture and values.

 

Proceed with Caution

Qatar’s recent actions, as highlighted in the emir’s speech before the Advisory Council, demonstrate the small emirate’s determination to adjust to the altered Gulf environment by strengthening its foreign alliances, economic independence, and political foundations. Yet while the Gulf crisis may hasten a geostrategic realignment and economic restructuring, any adjustments to the sensitive social contract between Qatari ruler and citizen will proceed with caution.