With the government and political system in Qatar being significantly different to what expats are likely used to in their home country, they may experience something of a culture shock when moving there.
With this in mind, it is important to get to grips with how Qatari politics work, including the structure of the government, the electoral system, and voting rights. This guide includes the following:
- Government and political system in Qatar
- The Qatari Emir and Prime Minister: who is currently in power?
- The electoral system in Qatar
- Voting in Qatar
- The political history of Qatar
- Judiciary system in Qatar
- Recent political reforms in Qatar
- Political tensions in Qatar
- The state of the economy in Qatar
- Useful resources
Government and political system in Qatar
Qatar has come a long way from its roots as a British protectorate to become the wealthy state it is today. It has made the most of the substantial proceeds of its oil and gas industries to gain a reputation on the world stage.
Qatar is technically a constitutional monarchy, but in reality, the ruler (the Emir) possesses executive power to approve or reject the legislation. The Emir appoints his own Prime Minister (which is usually a family member) and the members of legislative bodies. Ultimately, he has the final say on any laws that are drafted.
Qatar doesn’t hold elections to select the Emir or Prime Minister, but the public instead takes to the polls to vote for the members of the Central Municipal Council (CMC). This 29-strong council (one member for each constituency in the state) can advise the authorities on local affairs but doesn’t possess any legislative powers.
The Qatari Emir and Prime Minister: who is currently in power?
The Al-Thani family has been in power in Qatar since the 1800s. Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani was named Emir of Qatar in 2014, when his father, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifah Al-Thani, stepped down from the role. Tamim was educated in Britain and attended Sandhurst, the famous military academy.
The Emir’s role is wide-ranging, from convening the Council of Ministers and appointing diplomatic personnel to ratifying laws and granting pardons. In reality, the Prime Minister instead oversees some of this day-to-day work.
Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa al-Thani is the current Prime Minister of Qatar. The Prime Minister’s main function is to preside over the sessions of the Council of Ministers, with the aim of achieving unity between the key departments of government. It is the Prime Minister who signs decisions on behalf of the council. He then submits these to the Emir for approval.
The role of Prime Minister of Qatar can be a perilous one, with the Emir having the power to sack and replace ministers as he pleases.
The electoral system in Qatar
Since 1999, Qatari citizens have been allowed to vote in municipal elections for members of the CMC. The elections are open to all citizens aged 18 or over, with the exception of members of the police and armed forces.
The most recent polls took place in April 2019, marking the first public vote since the diplomatic crisis of 2017, when neighboring states launched a blockade on Qatar.
To run as a candidate in the CMC elections, you must either be a Qatari citizen or a direct descendant of a citizen. You’ll also need to be at least 30 years old and not have been convicted of any criminal acts.
Shura Council elections
Residents of Qatar are also theoretically allowed to vote in the elections for the Advisory Council (also known as the Shura Council). The council, established in 1972, has legislative powers and is responsible for determining the budget.
In theory, members of the public should vote for 30 of the 45 members via a secret ballot. However, to date, this has never happened. The first general election was scheduled for 2013, before being delayed to 2016, then 2019. In June 2019 the Emir issued a decree to delay this process until at least June 2021. In the constitutional text, the Emir is allowed to delay the elections if he considers that doing so is ‘in the interests of the people’.
Voting in Qatar
The CMC vote takes place every four years, allowing residents to choose their local representatives. These representatives can lobby on their behalf to federal representatives.
The 2019 elections saw 29 representatives elected from an initial pool of 94 candidates (89 male and five female).
The CMC vote is seen as a significant part of both Qatar’s internal system and in promoting the state’s image as a progressive country within the region and beyond.
The political history of Qatar
Bahrain once controlled Qatar, but after a war in 1867, the British instead installed Muhammad ibn Thani al-Thani as the region’s ruler. This resulted in an unbroken run of Al-Thani family members that continues today.
The Emir successfully defended Qatar against the Ottoman Turks in 1893. Surprisingly, however, he agreed to allow Qatar to become a British protectorate in 1916.
The most significant change came with the discovery of vast stocks of oil in the 1940s. This brought unprecedented wealth to the country. To date, around 85% of the state’s export income comes from oil. The result? One of the highest income per capita levels in the world.
In the early 1970s, Qatar was slated to join neighboring states in becoming part of the United Arab Emirates. However, along with Bahrain, it rejected this opportunity and instead formed an independent state.
A big moment of upheaval came in 1995 when Crown Prince Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father. Afterward, he brought in a series of more progressive reforms. These included introducing democratic elections in 1999 and allowing women to vote.
In 2005, Qatar introduced a constitution for the first time, promising freedom of expression and religion for its citizens.
Judiciary system in Qatar
The judicial system in Qatar consists of three types of court – Shariah courts, criminal courts, and civil courts.
Sharia courts have jurisdiction over all family law matters. Civil courts instead oversee civil, commercial, banking and maritime matters. Civil courts work slightly differently to some other countries. Written evidence is provided, but oral arguments usually aren’t allowed.
In recent years, the Qatari legal system has come under criticism. In 2015, a UN rapporteur published a report criticizing the lack of judges of Qatari nationality, with expat judges facing the prospect of dismissal at any time.
Recent political reforms in Qatar
In recent years, some of Qatar’s political practices have become increasingly modernized and aligned with the western world. The state is attempting to use a diplomatic approach towards resolving its various border disputes. At home, The Emir has focused on trying to diversify the economy and improve infrastructure.
In recent years, Qatar has increasingly become a player on the world stage. It will host the football World Cup in 2022 (a move that has sparked criticism over the rights of migrant workers). It also recently hosted the inaugural Fashion Trust Arabia event.
The World Cup preparations have seen Qatar look to build its way to further economic success. The new city of Lusail, located near Doha, lies at the heart of the changes. The city will eventually accommodate as many as 200,000 people at the heart of a $200 billion infrastructure development program.
Despite indications of a more tolerant attitude, the government keeps a stronghold over TV and the internet. The state-owned broadcaster Al-Jazeera avoids any criticism of the state or government.
Internet filters block any pornographic material or material deemed to be offensive to Islam. In the 2019 Worldwide Press Freedom Index by Reporters without Borders, Qatar came 128th out of 180 countries.
There are signs that public attitudes towards politics in Qatar are changing. A study on media use in the Middle East shows that more residents now feel able to discuss politics and criticize the government since the blockade on Qatar began in 2017.
Political tensions and politics in Qatar
Despite its economic success at home and on the world stage, Qatar is currently undergoing one of the biggest crises of its history. In June 2017, four of its neighbors – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the UAE – launched a blockade on Qatar. Behind the blockade stand accusations that the country was sympathetic towards what they considered to be terrorist groups.
The blockade is significant in that around 60% of Qatar’s imports came from countries that are now refusing to trade with the state. The blockade especially affects key commercial routes – with a fifth of routes serviced by Qatar Airways now out of action. The crisis has had a personal cost too, with the ejection of Qatari citizens from neighboring countries.
More than two years after the blockade started, Qatar has continued to refuse the demands set by its neighbors. These demands include closing down Al Jazeera.
In a time of great conflict with its neighbors, Qatar has focused strongly on continuing to strengthen its relationship with the United States, which it considers a great ally. In recent years, Qatar has funded various overseas interests, from American businesses to European football clubs.
Aside from these regional issues, Qatar has faced criticism on the national stage over its poor treatment of migrant workers. This sits awkwardly in a country that harbors an all-encompassing welfare state for most of its residents.
After at least 10 workers died building the World Cup stadiums in 2018, the chair of the organizing committee admitted the ‘high number’ of deaths. He even admitted that while Qatar is progressing, there is still a long way to go.
The state of the economy in Qatar
Since gaining full independence in 1971, Qatar has become one of the world’s richest countries because of its substantial oil and natural gas reserves. The Emir has focused on improvements in infrastructure, health care, and education. He has also aimed at expanding Qatar’s manufacturing, construction, and financial services sectors.
There’s no doubt that local tensions have harmed Qatar’s economic prospects and business sentiment. However, the economy should see a boost from the continued investment and the upcoming football world cup.
After a period of stagnation during the early stages of the blockade, Qatar’s economy grew by around 2% in 2018. The country expects this growth to continue in the next few years. Analysts estimate that economic growth could reach 3% by 2021 ahead of the 2022 football world cup.
The 2019 Index of Economic Freedom ranks Qatar 28th freest in the world, with high scores for government integrity and monetary freedom, but lower scores for property rights and government spending.