The legislative body adopted key laws since coming to office a year ago, with room for further developments in the country.
October 2 marks one year since Qatari voters took to the polls to elect the Shura Council for the first time in the country’s legislative history.
The elections marked a historic moment for the Gulf state and was described by many as a major step towards democracy. The polls saw a voter turnout of 63.5% across 30 districts.
“The council is an idea, an idea that the people be represented and their views can be shared with an elected body of their peers, and that this can coexist with various forms of government,” Zaid Al-Hamdan, Chairman-Armasite Group, told Doha News.
While excitement and hope emerged across polling stations on October 2 last year, disappointment quickly became a common theme as election results failed to secure seats for women and younger candidates.
Some Twitter users linked the results to a “deeper belief system in society” while others pointed to the senior vote being “stronger” overall.
This was soon rectified with appointments by Qatar’s Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who included two women—Hamda Al Sulaiti and Sheikha Al Jufairi- as part of the remaining 15 members of the council.
Al Hamdan noted that the idea of the legislative body “stems from the earliest days of Islam”, referencing a verse from the Quran stating, ‘Their affairs are based on consultation among them.’
The influential Qatari said: “[Shura is] an idea that stems from the earliest days of Islam…major decisions and ideas are debated among representatives of various walks of society.”
Views over the Shura Council have remained divided a year on, with members of the public and the the legislative body itself saying there is more to be accomplished.
In July, Nasser bin Hassan Al Kubaisi, a Shura Council member, tweeted that after the end of the first legislative term, the council “did not take a single step forward.
“We did not achieve 1% of the aspirations of the voters, and the reasons are as follows: there is no internal bylaw commensurate with the nature of the elected council,” said Al Kubaisi.
Outside of the Shura Council, some Qatari citizens see that the council has yet to address issues that actually concern the local society.
An example raised by one concerned citizen is the regular discussions on issues concerning high marriage costs.
“We only heard the majlis commenting on minor issues such as marriage costs. I’m not even sure how society’s behaviour on spending too much on marriages falls under their authority,” the citizen told Doha News.
Earlier this year, the Shura Council formed a “Special Committee Studying Aspects Associated with Marriage” and held its first meeting in January.
“I was disappointed when i heard they had a full session about it…then it was announced that the government will start handing out ‘marriage loans’,” said the citizen.
Some of the main points discussed by the newly-formed committee included high wedding expenditure that could hinder the ability to get married, pointing towards high financial expectations.
Social experts locally had previously said high wedding costs and dowry payments further impact marriages as they leave behind the burden of debt on the newly-weds.
In April, the Civil Service and Governmental Development Bureau announced an increase in the marriage advance for employees from QAR 100,000 to QAR 300,000 in an effort to help ease the social burdens of marriage.
The elections a year ago were at the time expected to trigger change in the Gulf state.
This was seen in March this year when Qatari citizens took to social media to express their frustration over what they described as “confusing” retirement laws.
The laws were approved on 14 February and stated that the minimum retirement pension shall not be less than QAR 15,000 and not exceed QAR100,000 – the highest cap in the region.
However, the laws were seen as confusing with some clauses described as contradictory.
“Is this reasonable? The law guarantees the expatriate worker an end-of-service gratuity without restriction or condition. For the citizen, there are terms and conditions that hinder or prevent the entitlement of the end-of-service gratuity,” said a Twitter user at the time.
Meanwhile, Qatari citizens on social media have questioned the delay of the enforcement of the law. The demands later received a response, with Qatar’s amir issuing two new retirement laws.
Qataris applauded the amir’s decision to enhance retiree pensions in addition to the enactment of military retirement and social insurance regulations.
Despite this, a Qatari citizen said he hopes that the Shura Council would still be involved in such major issues.
“They say that they ‘discussed’ the matter in a press release without going into details. How would I know which candidate is doing his job so I re-elect them or not,” said the Qatari citizen.
Months into taking office, the Shura Council was able to adopt long-delayed laws that further benefit the country’s society.
“The Shura council since election has debated major policy including temporary repossession of private property for public benefit, retirement ages, inflation and other issues,” said Al Hamdan.
This came after Qatar’s Cabinet approved the draft law as part of its efforts in keeping “pace with global developments” with regards to accessing information.
While no further details were provided on the draft law, it is seen as a key step in potentially bumping up Qatar’s position in terms of media freedom, as it would enable professionals in the sector to perform their jobs with fewer obstacles.
Freedom of information, as per the UN’s definition, stipulates “that the fundamental right of freedom of expression encompasses the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.
The rise in Qatar’s ranking came a month after the Cabinet approved the draft law on right to access information.
During the inauguration of the opening session for the first-ever elected Shura Council last year, the amir stressed the need to promote equal Qatari citizenship.
The amir had instructed the Council of Ministers to work on preparing legal amendments in order to establish equality among the citizens to be later presented to the Shura Council for approval.
“Nevertheless, it is known that citizenship is not just a legal issue, but a civilisational issue before that and a loyalty and belonging, and a matter of duties and not just rights,” said Sheikh Tamim on 14 October last year.
This came after the electoral law was criticised for its exclusion of some members of Qatari society, triggering online debates and small-scale protests that calmly came to a halt.
The current electoral law stipulates that Qatari nationals wishing to vote must be 18 by the time the final electoral lists are announced. Those who have been nationalised are only eligible if their paternal grandfather was born in Qatar by a specific date.
Candidates must also be “native” Qatari and aged 30 and above by the closing date of the nomination. As per a referendum voted in by Qataris in 2003.
“This negative aspect of tribalism took us all by surprise recently when some of its negative manifestations reminded us of its existence. Although our enlightened society swiftly overcame it, we cannot ignore the disease for mere disappearance of its symptoms,” said Sheikh Tamim.
Qatari laws can only be changed by the Shura Council, which was unable to do so until its inauguration into office.
While there have been no updates on changes in the electoral law, hope for change remains in place for the next Shura Council elections. The legislative body’s term lasts for four calendar years starting from the date of the first meeting.
Televising Shura Council
Shortly after the Shura Council elections concluded, a key demand among Qatari citizens was the ability to get an inside view of meetings that take place between the body’s members.
Qatari social media users at the time had called for the live broadcast of the Shura Counci’s meetings in hope of being able to further engage in the meetings and understand suggestions brought forth to the council.
“I wish for the sessions to be televised…that’s a priority,” said a Qatari citizen.
Some had also noted that Article 98 of the permanent constitution stipulates that the legislative body’s meetings “shall be public and may be held in secret upon the request of one-third” of its members or at the request of the Council of Ministers.
According to the Explanatory Memorandum to the Permanent Constitution, as shared on Qatar’s legal portal “Al Meezan”, the sessions can be publicised in the sense that the citizens and media are able to attend, though it dismisses broadcasting as an option.
It explains that the reason why the sessions are not televised is due to the “seriousness of the issues presented to the Council, unless two thirds agree Council members to broadcast some of the sessions”.
In March, the Shura Council appeared to respond to the people’s demands. Shura Council member Ali Al Attiyah tweeted that he presented members of the body with a proposal to freely communicate with the general public and the media.
“Today, in my speech during the discussion of the media plan, I called for providing the opportunity for media professionals and public figures to attend Shura Council sessions,” tweeted Al Attiyah at the time.
As of now, the Shura Council sessions are not broadcast—unlike Kuwait’s Constituent Assembly, or Majlis Al Umma—with the public regularly updated on the decisions made by the legislative body.
While there has been criticism, the elections were seen as a room for change in Doha and an experience to prepare for the next elections once the term of the current Shura Council ends.
“It [the Shura Council] remains vital to find suitable execution methods, and create stronger connections with electorates to ensure there are no barriers between voters and decision makers,” said Al Hamdan.