Journal Essay

Political Reform in Qatar: Participation, Legitimacy and Security

Jennifer Lambert


Spring 2011, Volume XVIII, Number 1

In a surprising announcement in November 1995, the Qatari regime declared its intention to hold elections for the 29-seat Central Municipal Council (CMC), an advisory body attached to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Agriculture. All male Qataris over the age of 18 would be eligible to vote. Then, in an even more surprising move, a reporter with CNN asked Qatar’s emir in 1997 whether women would be allowed to vote. The emir cautiously said that he did not know, but that he saw nothing wrong with their voting.1 Later he announced that women would be allowed to vote and run as candidates. Qatar deliberately set the CMC election for March 8, 1999, International Women’s Day.

Most regimes in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region allow some form of electoral politics within their states. While many of these regimes actually use political participation to avoid democratization2 or manipulate electoral politics to reinforce authoritarian rule,3 political participation in authoritarian regimes, even when not promoting democracy, does open political space within such states. Lust-Okar and Zerhouni, for example, argue that elections in authoritarian states are often fiercely contested by domestic political actors, help lead to the formation of political associations if not actual political parties and can influence decision making. Some Arab Gulf monarchies began to institute some form of electoral politics within their states in the 1990s. Kuwait started holding regular elections in 1992. Oman initiated a Consultative Council in 1991 but only allows each district to submit three suggestions for each seat. In 2003, Oman granted universal suffrage to all Omanis; however, the sultan must still approve each representative.

The Qatari leadership followed this trend in 1995, when they decided to initiate national elections for the CMC. They also decided to take a step that none of their neighbors had yet taken by giving women the right to vote and run for office. As noted earlier, regular elections for the Kuwaiti National Assembly began in 1992.4 Until 2005, however, only Kuwaiti men were allowed to vote and run for office.5 Omani women gained the right to participate in elections in 2003, and Bahraini women only won the right to vote and run for office in 2002. While other states in the MENA region are having far more nuanced discussions about women’s political and social rights (e.g., Morocco, Tunisia), women in the Arab Gulf are only just gaining the right to participate in political life. Women in Qatar, as in most Arab Gulf monarchies, have traditionally been relegated to the domestic sphere and often avoid calling attention to themselves in public. Thus, granting women political rights legitimizes their existence outside the home in a way that is quite revolutionary for the region.

Questions remain as to why the Qatari government decided to take this bold step. Conventional explanations suggest that such reforms would only come in response to a loss of oil wealth or as a concession to domestic demands. Both explanations fail to adequately explain the regime’s decision. This article will show that the leadership decided to initiate national elections and allow women to participate in them to generate international attention for “democratic” and “modern” reforms that seem uncharacteristic in the Arab Gulf. These reforms were instrumental in bolstering the legitimacy — and, ultimately, the security — of the new Qatari regime. While Qatar allows the United States to use the Al Udeid Airbase, and its geopolitical location and liquefied natural-gas supply likely ensure a large measure of Western security guarantees, clearly the regime also feels that being liked by the international community is important.


In November 1995, Emir Hamad Al Thani, only five months after he had overthrown his father’s regime, announced that Qatar would directly elect the 29 seats in the CMC. Before Emir Hamad made his announcement, the CMC’s seats were filled by emiri appointment. His announcement “surprised almost everyone in his country and the rest of the Gulf.”6 The CMC has advisory powers and works with the Ministry for Municipal Affairs and Agriculture on issues related to city services like road construction and maintenance, water and sanitation services, and parks and recreation. The CMC makes recommendations to the ministry; in the event of disagreement, issues can be brought to the Council of Ministers for resolution.

Making the CMC an elected body was part of a broader effort to change some of Qatar’s national political institutions and leadership. The emir amended Qatar’s constitution to separate the powers of the prime minister and emir; previously, the emir had held both positions. He then named his brother, Sheikh Abdallah bin Khalifa Al Thani, as the new prime minister.7 The emir also expanded the seats in Qatar’s Consultative Council (an appointed national body) to 35, appointed new members to fill these seats and changed some cabinet ministers. The emir even appointed the first female undersecretary for education in the Gulf, Sheikha Ahmad al-Mahmoud.8 About a week later, the emir convened the new council and cabinet and stressed Qatar’s desire to be an integral part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) order, resolving disputes in a peaceful manner in accordance with international law.9 Relations with the GCC were strained when member-states hosted the emir’s ousted father and refused Qatar’s request for a meeting to discuss the discovery of a coup plot.

Then, in 1997, the emir indicated that women might be able to vote in the upcoming municipal elections. He indicated that he saw no problem himself with women’s participation in the elections.10 The minister of justice indicated that the issue of women’s voting rights was “under consideration.”11 The mere existence of this debate had an impact on political events in Kuwait. At a meeting of Kuwaiti women, the president of the faculty association of Kuwait University, Fawzia al-Roumi, said, “The state of Qatar, under the leadership of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, is taking firm steps toward the future in order to build a strong, pioneering state” and indicated that this should be “an example of how to treat Kuwaiti women, who gave their souls and blood during the Iraqi occupation.”12 An Arabic-language newspaper based in London reported that the Arab Gulf was witnessing the development of intense competition between Kuwait and Qatar over the media and “liberal and democratic orientations in general.”13

Finally, in an address to the Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shura) on November 29, 1997, the emir declared that all 29 seats in the CMC would be decided by direct election and that women would be allowed to fully participate in the process:

The formation of the Central Municipal Council through direct elections, and granting women the right of membership and voting are a major step toward boosting popular participation in both executive and legislative activities and laying the foundations of democratic practice in our country in a gradual manner until we ultimately reach the full democracy we dream of achieving.14

By the October 17, 1998, deadline to register as a candidate for the Central Municipal Council, there were 280 candidates, including eight women, for the 29 seats. Close to 45 percent of Qatari women registered to vote. Though the number of candidates shrank to 227, including six women, by the election, participation was high. Initial reports indicated that close to 95 percent of registered Qataris in Doha voted in the election, while 75 percent outside Doha participated.15 Figures released later reported the overall turnout at 79 percent of registered voters.16 Interviews with civil servants, academics and journalists indicated that the regime was frustrated that none of the women won election.17 One journalist, laughing, indicated, “It’s almost like [the Qatari leadership] thought, if we say to everyone how important it is to allow women to vote and to have them in office, everyone will say ‘sure it’s ok, let’s vote some women into office,’ and it’s done.”18 One senior Qatari official, speaking confidentially, stated, “After all [the Qatari regime] had done to convince the [Qataris] that allowing women to participate and run for office would enhance Qatar’s image, they didn’t even elect a single one!”19 According to this source, government officials, “important families” and other “important people” held meetings to try to build support for the government’s announcement that women would have the political right to vote and run for office.20 One civil servant suggested that the government was “pleased with the elections generally but disappointed that no woman was elected.”21

Even though none of the women won, the introduction of elections generated significant debate about democracy throughout the sheikhdom. Local papers ran special pages with Qataris sending in comments about what democracy meant in Qatar. Qataris attended public lectures and seminars about democracy and public participation. They began referring to the fanfare of attention and debate paid to democracy and elections as “the democracy festival.”22

Elections for the CMC led to a countrywide phenomenon of government officials replacing appointed bodies with elected ones. One of the most significant bodies to adopt the practice of direct elections was the board of the Qatar Chamber of Commerce. Elections for the board took place in April 1998; 3,700 Qatari businessmen voted by secret ballot for 17 seats.23 Previously, the emir had appointed the members of its board on recommendation of the finance minister.

This “democracy festival” even impacted schools in Qatar. In December 1998, the deputy minister for education, Sheikha Ahmad Al-Mahmoud, stated that she would apply the principle of democracy in all aspects and at all levels of her ministry.24 She instituted elected student unions in all schools.

The discussion of women in political life accompanied other significant changes for women in Qatar. The emir named his sister, Sheikha Aisha, as head of the Women’s Information Committee, which was encouraging women’s participation in the CMC elections and educating women about the virtues of democracy. The committee oversaw a large public-awareness campaign prior to the first elections and also weighed in on matters regarding constitutional and human rights.25 The first female anchor appeared on the Al Jazeera Satellite Channel in 1997. A Qatar-based women’s magazine appointed a female editor for the first time. Sheikha Moza, Emir Hamad’s second wife, led a two-hour all-female march through Doha in support of a local charity, and she continues to give speeches at public events and interviews in the media. In a particularly visible move that attracted international attention, she traveled to the United States to give speeches at two American universities and appeared in a widely televised interview on the CBS news program 60 Minutes.26 She is the first wife of a GCC ruler to appear abroad in public at a speaking engagement and appear in a televised interview. Gradually, Sheikha Moza has become known as the “first lady” of Qatar, a sobriquet that describes her functional role as the emir’s wife and how visible she has become in Qatari politics.27

Many indicators suggest that women readily embraced their new rights. The eight women who originally filed to run as candidates in the 1999 CMC election represented a rather diverse group of women. They included a civil servant, a Qatari TV and radio station employee, the director of a nursing school, a psychiatrist, and the head of the women’s section of the Qatari Red Crescent. In anticipation that the more powerful Consultative Council would become a partially elected institution in the future, one candidate, Dr. Mozza al-Malaki, even expressed greater aspirations: “My election to the Municipal Council is only a step to the coming of the Qatari Majlis [Consultative Council], as the Majlis will realize further aspirations. The Municipal Council deals only with small and local aspirations.”28 Furthermore, of the 22,225 Qataris who cast their votes in the 1999 CMC election, 45 percent were women.29

Female candidates indicated that their families were supportive, and the Qatari media voiced support for women’s political participation in the 1999 elections.30 One author noted that this supportive environment stood in stark contrast to the reception that advancements for women have received elsewhere in the Gulf: “By contrast, when Saudi Arabia allowed the opening of all-female branches of banks in 1980, the Saudi media was divided between supporters and opponents, and there were even Saudi women who criticized the idea of working women.”31 Even the spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood of Qatar supported women’s participation in the elections: “There is nothing in Islam that prevents women from participating in the elections and being a member of parliament; thus there is a role for women in all aspects of life, side by side with men.”32

Not all evidence is positive, however. Several interviews with individuals familiar with the state of media practices in Qatar indicated that the press was told to cover the issue of women’s political rights in a favorable light. Two journalists, speaking confidentially, indicated that senior Qatari officials “essentially fed stories” and “encouraged positive coverage of anything to do with women’s participation.”33 One Qatari official said the press was essentially “under orders” to portray women’s political rights positively.34 Two public employees indicated that the regime “took measures” to make sure the press knew it was “on order” to only supply positive coverage of women voting,35 although one interviewee familiar with the Qatari press indicated that the regime would not have to take extreme measures to ensure positive coverage, as “the Qatari press doesn’t critically question regime priorities anyway.”36 Failed female candidate Dr. al-Maliki, following her loss, indicated that the 1999 elections prove that Qatar remains “a male-dominated society to the bone” and suggested that women may have voted the way that their husbands told them to vote.37 Elsewhere, she suggested that women voters may be the key obstacle faced by women candidates, as she claimed that 80 percent of the female candidates’ votes came from men.38 A former Kuwaiti information minister criticized Qatar’s reform efforts in the Kuwaiti press and claimed that “traditionalists express vehement opposition to female participation, opposition that has been ruthlessly put down.”39 The Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat reported that “a group of Muslim fundamentalists” sent a memo to Qatar’s Consultative Council opposing women’s participation in state affairs.40

Municipal elections are scheduled for every four years; so far elections have taken place in 1999, 2003 and 2007. In 2003, Qatar’s first female candidate was elected to office: Sheikha Yousef Hassan al-Jufairi. She became the first woman in the Gulf region to win elected office, though she did run unopposed in her district. One Qatari official suggested that the disappointment over the failure to elect a woman in 1999 led the regime to ask men running against Sheikha Yousef in the Old Airport district to step down.41 Still, the first “election” of a woman to political office in the Arab Gulf region marked an important political event. Qatar publicized her victory in the first-ever Qatar embassy newsletter, The Pearl.42 The newsletter also announced the recent appointment of the first female cabinet minister, to the Ministry of Education.43

In another bold move, the emir officially announced that Qatar would draft a new constitution that would include a largely elected national assembly, the Advisory Council. Using the opportunity to criticize the lack of popular input in Arab states, he said that popular participation is “one of the requirements of the future” and that Arab leaders should meet to discuss its wider adoption.44 On April 23, 2003, 98 percent of Qatari voters approved the new constitution in a referendum.45 The constitution replaced the appointed Consultative Council with a 45-member largely elected Advisory Council and stipulated that 30 of the 45 Advisory Council seats be determined by direct election. The council has the power to pass laws subject to emiri approval, to question ministers and to approve state budgets. The constitution also guaranteed women the right to vote and to run for office; these rights were guaranteed previously by an emiri decree.

News of Qatar’s new constitution reached a wide international audience. The president of the European Union “welcomed” the adoption of a more democratic constitution in Qatar.46 U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell praised Qatar for attaining “significant milestones” toward the advancement of democracy.47 The secretary general of the GCC even praised the emir, the Qatari government and its people when the constitution officially became law in 2004.48

In the meantime, turnout for the CMC elections fell drastically from 79 percent in 1999 to 38 percent in 200349 amid signs of diminishing enthusiasm for the municipal election.50 Explanations for the low turnout point to concerns about the CMC’s lack of authority. One candidate called the CMC “powerless”; another report indicated an “absence of confidence in the council’s role.”51 The regime tried to bolster turnout in the 2007 election by insisting they were a “practice run” for upcoming elections to the more powerful Advisory Council.52 Another source reported that the 2007 municipal elections occurred alongside rising expectations that the emir would set a firm election date for the Advisory Council.53 Turnout increased to 51.1 percent for the 2007 elections, and they were heralded as a success in the Qatari media.54

Despite the emir’s stated commitment to increase broader participation, elections for the Advisory Council have been scheduled and postponed several times. The constitution approved by the 2003 referendum officially went into effect in 2004, and elections to the Advisory Council were originally scheduled for the following year. Currently, elections are scheduled for June 2013. A Qatari civil servant indicated that they have been postponed because some of Qatar’s major families differ as to how districts should be drawn and seats awarded.55 A foreign diplomat suggested that the Qatari elite are afraid that Advisory Council elections may suffer a similar fate to certain reform efforts in Kuwait.56 There, liberal reforms supported by the royal family have routinely met with opposition in the more conservative national parliament. For example, the Kuwaiti royal family encouraged the national parliament to recognize equal political rights for women, but two separate parliaments refused. The Kuwaiti prime minister dissolved parliament twice before a new national parliament finally awarded Kuwaiti women the right to vote and run for office in 2005. Another Qatari seemed to concur with the foreign diplomat’s observation, suggesting that the ruling elite want to make sure they have all the “necessary reforms” cemented into place as law before an elected Advisory Council takes office.57


Some explanations of current Arab Gulf reform efforts suggest that they are a response to the fiscal crisis of the 1990s. Hit by the “twin effects” of stagnating oil prices and demographic growth, many Gulf states faced economic pressures, and some initiated political reforms.58 Evidence does indicate that the combination of low oil prices and the large infrastructural expenditures necessary to access its gas reserves put pressure on Qatari government finances. The state budget for 1999 predicted that state revenue would fall by 15 percent, and state expenditures were reduced by 10 percent.59 Yet no cuts were made to spending on housing, and health and social-security spending actually rose. The spending cuts only slowed the development of Qatar’s major infrastructural projects. Furthermore, in that same year, Standard & Poor estimated that Qatar’s oil reserves would last another 95 years and that gas reserves would substantially increase Qatar’s GDP in the future.60 So, not only was the fiscal pressure rather minimal in Qatar, it also promised to be short-lived. Qatar’s ambitious political reforms do not match the rather limited fiscal pressure it faced at the time.

Other explanations view Arab Gulf reform efforts as a response to the development and growth of a more educated and sophisticated citizenry. Sager,61 for example, explains reform as a “response to domestic pressures and developments” such as “the increase in population, in particular in terms of large numbers of youth; the rise in the standard of education and its impact on the population as a whole; and the increase in the levels of political consciousness.” An examination of the evidence on Qatar, however, does not fit this explanation. Qatar’s total population, as reported by the UN Population Division, was 565,000 in 2000; its population in 2050 is projected to reach 831,000.62 Compared to other states in the region whose populations are projected to double (Kuwait) or triple (Saudi Arabia), Qatar’s projected growth rate is rather modest and certainly sustainable as Qatar starts to tap into its liquefied natural-gas reserves. The percentage of Qatar’s population below age 24, at 39.3 percent, is also the lowest in the region.63 One piece of evidence supportive of this argument, however, is the 1992 petition signed by 50 Qataris demanding political and economic reform.64 Yet the emir at the time dealt with the issue by detaining key signatories.

These 1992 demands, however, could foster the belief of current regime members that Qataris do want more political participation or will in the near future. Other evidence, namely candidate comments expressing a desire for a majlis or disappointment in the limited powers of the CMC, do suggest that at least some Qatari elites want an elected national assembly. Yet it is unclear if this demand existed before the promises of an elected assembly were announced. The evidence also suggests that the push for reform is not coming from the Qatari population. The top-down implementation of reforms, the lack of a contested female victory, and the apathy of Qatari voters all suggest that this reform process is driven by the regime and not the society. Even Al Jazeera’s intense debates and the government-sponsored Doha Debates have not fostered the sort of democratic discussion that the Qatari elite claims to have expected. In confidential interviews, three academics referred to this phenomenon as evidence that Qatari political consciousness still remains low.65

Members of the elite — high-ranking public officials and members of the royal family — do want to maintain that these reforms are driven by domestic factors, particularly after the 2003 U.S.-led Iraqi invasion.66 A debate about the drivers of political change in the Arab world emerged in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion that sought to discredit any claims made by the United States that external pressure or action could promote democratic change. Even academic work dealing with the Gulf’s political changes has embodied this argument. After crediting the changes taking place in the Gulf to “domestic pressures and developments,” Sager67 writes, “Certainly, the steps that have been implemented are not a product of the events associated with the aftermath of September 11 or the result of the U.S. strategy to ‘spread freedom.’”

Unfortunately, this argument sets up a false dichotomy whereby political change must be domestically driven or it can be claimed as part of the U.S. strategy to promote change. One can identify international factors that promote change without crediting them to U.S. policy. One only needs to point out that these changes began in the 1990s, well before the events of September 11 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq. Additionally, if these reforms were in response to domestic pressure or developments, why were they introduced by decree rather than referendum? The evidence clearly indicates that the new emir and his supporters within the political elite wanted these reforms and considered their success too important to leave to popular approval. Only after legally enshrining elections and women’s rights as part of Qatari political life did the ruling elite put the issue to a referendum. Even then, the government spent a large number of resources to ensure the new constitution’s victory.

There is no evidence of any real domestic demand for either elections or increased women’s rights, certainly not demand of a kind that would have threatened the regime. In fact, allowing women the right to vote and run for political office opens up the regime to domestic and regional dissent unnecessarily. Sources suggest that other Gulf states placed pressure on the Qatari emir “not to grant his country a permanent constitution that would give large powers to a parliament, for fear that this kind of ‘democracy’ could affect traditional ways of governing.”68

Norms research, however, can account for the Qatari leadership’s ambitious path of political reform and the profile-raising activity that accompanied it. Hurd,69 in his concept of “norm instrumentalism,” examines how political actors can use norms to achieve certain political goals. Gurowitz70 examines how the Japanese leadership, in order to bolster their international role and reputation, initiated policy changes with respect to migrant workers that were more consistent with international norms on racism and equality. Similarly, the reform process in Qatar uses international norms regarding elections and women’s political rights to bolster the state’s external reputation. Elections and women’s political rights are well-accepted international norms that states in the Arab Gulf have traditionally been rather resistant to adopting. The reforms the Qatari leadership initiated, however, embrace these norms in a highly publicized manner.

The norm of elections follows a rather traditional path through Finnemore and Sikkink’s “life cycle of a norm.”71 The use of elections has spread across the globe, reaching far past a “tipping point,” where approximately one-third of states embrace this norm.72 As can be seen below, the number of legislative and executive elections has risen markedly.

While the increasing use of elections by authoritarian regimes has sparked some concern about their meaning, the initiation of elections is still met with praise and a hope that this step marks the beginning of a trajectory toward democracy.73

The norms associated with women’s rights, particularly women’s suffrage, are well established internationally. Prior to 1904, several domestic groups of “norm entrepreneurs” pushed for women’s suffrage. In 1904, an international campaign was launched with the founding of the International Women’s Suffrage Association (IWSA). Early adopters of women’s suffrage — New Zealand, Australia and Finland — adopted the norm in response to domestic campaigns in the first stage of the norm cycle. As these states were not hegemons, the case of women’s suffrage represents an exception to the typical path of hegemonic socialization. States like the United States and the UK were 10 and 20 years behind the initial adopters. Late adopters often encountered little domestic pressure once the norm passed the “tipping point.” Research indicates that women’s suffrage reached this stage in 1930, when 20 states had granted women suffrage rights.74 These 20 states became norm observers in the period from the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 until 1930; 48 countries adopted these norms in the next 20 years, demonstrating how fast a norm can spread after the tipping point has been reached.75

Today, the norm of women’s suffrage is taken for granted, like all well-accepted norms.76 Yet Arab Gulf monarchies are among the few places in the world where a woman’s right to vote or run for political office is still questioned. Before 1999, not one Gulf monarchy had allowed women the right to vote, and members of the political elite still question a woman’s ability to vote or hold political office. An initiative granting political rights to women failed in Kuwait’s National Assembly by a vote of 32-30 in 1999; women were only granted political rights in 2005. A Freedom House report indicated that there were significant reservations in Kuwait about a woman’s ability to be an elected public official.77 In 2002, a poll conducted in Bahrain indicated that 60 percent of Bahraini women believed that women should not hold political office.78

Thus, it is even more impressive that Qatari women, who largely practice Wahhabi Islam, were the first women in the Arab Gulf states to gain the right to vote and run for public office. The lack of norm observance among its peers also suggests that Qatar would be insulated from the typical international socialization process associated with norm adoption. Yet Qatar chose to allow women to vote and run for office in a highly visible way, even setting the date for the first elections on International Women’s Day.

Of course, evidence of norm internalization is often difficult to prove. However, there is some evidence that members of this new and younger Qatari elite believe that democratic elections and women’s rights are principles that Qatar “ought” to embrace. A U.S. citizen who came to know the emir quite well claims that Sheikh Hamad initiated these political reforms “because he believed it was the right thing to do.”79 Before announcing plans to allow women to vote, the emir indicated that he saw nothing wrong with women’s voting.80 The emir also said that popular participation is “one of the requirements of the future” and urged its wider adoption within the Arab world.81 Yet, when democratic norms are not as readily embraced as desired by the Qatari elite or the risk of creating political conflict seems too great, the evidence suggests that the regime may resort to undemocratic means to ensure that democratic norms seem robust in practice. This is the case with the “election” of a female candidate who ran unopposed for the CMC. The fear of an illiberal Advisory Council also seems to be a factor in the postponement of national legislative elections.

Evidence thus suggests that these reforms were clearly important to the leadership’s own self-esteem and Qatar’s reputation — particularly when the regime seems willing to engage in norm-inconsistent (undemocratic) behavior to ensure the norm adoptions are viewed as successful. This evidence calls into question the actual degree to which the norms have been internalized. The very method of introducing elections and women’s rights by decree indicates they were important to the regime — too important to risk failure.

The evidence is more solid in demonstrating that the Qatari leadership became convinced that adopting these norms would help bolster the external legitimacy of the regime and the state. More ambitious reforms demand greater attention and invite praise. Regimes value external legitimacy and may adopt norms to secure or bolster their place within the international system.82 According to a Qatari academic, “These political changes, particularly women’s rights, while they benefit Qatari women, were definitely initiated with an eye to increasing Qatar’s international image. If anything, the issue of women’s rights has cost the emir some domestic support, angered traditionalists domestically and angered GCC members regionally.”83 Hurd84 discusses how norms can be used instrumentally in circumstances where the actor seeks an expected gain from an audience that has internalized the norms. The regime clearly publicizes Qatar’s adoption of these norms to an international audience. As mentioned previously, the first CMC elections took place on International Women’s Day. The very first edition of the newsletter published by the Qatari embassy in the United States heralded the adoption of the new constitution and the first election ever of a woman in Qatar’s municipal elections.85 These reforms were instrumental to Qatar’s goal of promoting a different image, one Thomas Friedman86 embraced when he described Qatar in The New York Times as “a good modernizing monarchy.” This praise and enhanced visibility is used as proof by the Qatari leadership that “our efforts are bearing fruit.”87


Have the Qatari elite internalized norms regarding elections and women’s political rights? There is some evidence of elite learning; the regime does espouse some commitment to these norms as principles that it should adopt. Yet the evidence is also ambiguous. How deeply the regime has internalized the norms is at issue, particularly given the evidence that suggests some norm-inconsistent behavior. The evidence pointing to the instrumental use of norms to bolster the external legitimacy of both the regime and the state, however, is stronger. These ambitious and highly visible reforms are best explained by norm diffusion, which emphasizes the importance regimes place on external perception and praise.

Qatari political reform is that rare case in the literature on international norms that demonstrates how important elite agency can be in explaining their diffusion. Without the Qatari leadership’s decision to embrace political reform, the norms of elections and women’s rights likely would not be adopted anytime soon. While the international normative structure is important, the case of Qatari political reform serves as a reminder that domestic agents count, too.

This research also raises the question as to why external attention and praise are important to the Qatari government. In 1995, the leadership was part of a new regime initially opposed by the Saudi Arabian elite. The previous emir was content to exist under the shadow of Saudi Arabia. The new emir was eager to differentiate the young state from its Saudi neighbors and be freer to operate according to Qatar’s interests, as he and his new regime viewed them. As one member of the Qatari royal family remarked, “Fanatics and extremists…give us a bad name. Holding elections, electing women, that will cause people to see Qatar in a new and different light.”88 When asked why this was important, he responded: “It’s important for our security. We have a freer hand in crafting our own foreign policy, and people come to the defense of ‘good’ states.”89

1 Louay Bahry, “Elections in Qatar: A Window of Democracy Opens in the Gulf,” Middle East Policy, Vol. 6, No. 4, June 1999, pp. 188-127.

2 Daniel Brumberg, “Authoritarian Legacies and Reform Strategies,” Political Liberalization and Democratization in the Arab World, Vols. 1 and 2, 1995; and Daniel Brumberg, “Democratization Versus Liberalization in the Arab World: Dilemmas and Challenges for U.S. Foreign Policy,” Strategic Studies Institute,, accessed April 12, 2010.

3 Ellen Lust-Okar and Saloua Zerhouni, Political Participation in the Middle East (Lynn Reinner, 2008).

4 Jill Crystal, “Oil and Politics in the Gulf: Rulers and Merchants in Kuwait and Qatar,” 2nd Ed. (Cambridge University Press, 1995).

5 Hassan M. Fattah, “Kuwaiti Women Join the Voting after a Long Battle for Suffrage,” The New York Times, June 30, 2006.

6 Bahry, “Elections in Qatar,” op. cit.

7 “Emir Enlarges Consultative Council,” Agence France Presse, November, 12, 1996.

8 “How Long until Qatari Women Get the Right to Vote?” Mideast Mirror, April 23, 1997.

9 “Emir Opens Consultative Council, Comments on Peace Process,” BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, November 20, 1996.

10 Bahry, “Elections in Qatar,” op. cit.

11 “How Long until Qatari Women Get the Right to Vote?” Mideast Mirror, April 23, 1997.

12 Ibid.

13 “News Analysis,” al-Quds al-Arabi, May 23, 1997.

14 “Qatari Emir Announces Municipal Elections,” al-Hayat, December 1, 1997.

15 Bahry, “Elections in Qatar,” op. cit.

16 “Qatari Municipal Elections Take Place,” Agence France Presse, March 10, 1999.

17 Confidential interviews, fall 2007.

18 Ibid.

19 Confidential interview, spring 2008.

20 Ibid.

21 Confidential interview, fall 2007.

22 Confidential interviews, spring 2006, fall 2007.

23 Bahry, “Elections in Qatar,” op. cit.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid.

26 “Qatar: Embracing Democracy,” 60 Minutes, CBS, March 3, 2003; and “How Long until Qatari Women Get the Right to Vote?” op. cit.

27 Scott Peterson, “A First Lady Gently Shakes Qatar,” The Christian Science Monitor, January 1, 1998.

28 Bahry, “Elections in Qatar,” op. cit.

29 Ibid.

30 A. Saif, “Deconstructing before Building: Perspectives on Democracy in Qatar,” Reform in the Middle East Oil Monarchies (Ithaca Press, 2008), pp. 103-28; Mary Anne Weaver, “Qatar: Revolution from the Top Down,” National Geographic, March 2003; and Louay Bahry, “Elections in Qatar” op. cit.

31 Bahry, “Elections in Qatar,” op. cit.

32 Ibid.

33 Confidential interviews, fall 2007.

34 Confidential interview, spring 2008.

35 Confidential interviews, fall 2007.

36 Ibid.

37 Mary Anne Weaver, “Qatar: Revolution from the Top Down,” op. cit.

38 A. Saif, “Deconstructing before Building: Perspectives on Democracy in Qatar,” op. cit, pp. 103-28.

39 “Kuwaiti Claims Opposition ‘Put Down,’” Mideast Mirror, November 30, 1998.

40 “Saudi Editor Assesses Qatar’s Taste of Democracy,” Mideast Mirror, March 10, 1999.

41 Confidential interview, fall 2007.

42 “Woman Elected to Municipal Council,” The Pearl, Newsletter of the Embassy of the State of Qatar, Vol. 1, No. 1, September 2003.

43 Ibid.

44 “Qatar’s Emir Promises Elected Parliament,” Mideast Mirror, November 17, 1998.

45 “Yemen, Qatar Praised for ‘Significant Milestones’ towards Democracy,” AP Online, April 30, 2003.

46 “EU Welcomes referendum Backing New Constitution,” AP Worldstream, May 8, 2003.

47 “Yemen, Qatar Praised for ‘Significant Milestones’ Towards Democracy,” AP Online, April 30, 2003.

48 “GCC Ministers Meet,” Asia Africa Intelligence Wire, June 9, 2004.

49 “Apathy Prevails ahead of Qatar’s Municipal Polls,” Middle East Online, March 30, 2007,, accessed February 12, 2010.

50 “CMC Poll Fails to Evoke Voter Enthusiasm,” The Peninsula, March 26, 2007.

51 Ibid; and “Apathy Prevails Ahead of Qatar’s Municipal Polls,” op. cit.

52 Confidential interviews, fall 2007.

53 A. Saif, “Deconstructing before Building” op. cit.

54 “CMC Polls a Huge Success,” The Peninsula, April 2, 2007.

55 Confidential interview, fall 2007.

56 Ibid.

57 Ibid.

58 Andrew Rathmell and Kirsten Schulze, “Political Reform in the Gulf: The Case of Qatar,” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 36, No. 4, 2000, pp. 47-62.

59 “Qatar Cuts Back,” Reuters, May 4, 1999; and Angus Hindley, “Better Prepared to Manage the Downturn: Special Report: Qatar,” MEED Middle East Economic Digest, May 1, 1998.

60 “Standard and Poor’s Says Qatar’s Credit Outlook is Stable,” Agence France Presse, May 13, 1999; and Angus Hindley, “Better Prepared to Manage the Downturn,” op. cit.

61 A. Sager, “Political Reform Measures from a Domestic GCC Perspective,” Constitutional Reform and Political Participation in the Gulf, Gulf Research Center, 2006, pp. 17-32.

62 Ibid.

63 Ibid.

64 Bahry, “Elections in Qatar,” op. cit.

65 Confidential interviews, summer 2006.

66 Confidential interviews, fall 2007.

67 Sager, “Political Reform Measures from a Domestic GCC Perspective, op. cit. p. 22.

68 Bahry, “Elections in Qatar,” op. cit.

69 Ian Hurd, “Legitimacy and Strategic Behavior: The Instrumental Use of Norms in World Politics,” Paper presentation at International Studies Association, 2007.

70 Amy Gurowitz, “Mobilizing International Norms: Domestic Actors, Immigrants, and the Japanese State,” World Politics, Vol. 51, No. 3, 1999, pp. 413-445.

71 Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink, “International Norms and Political Change,” International Organization, Vol. 52, No. 4, Autumn 1998, pp. 887-917.

72 Ibid; and Cass Sunstein, “Behavioral Analysis of Law,” University of Chicago Law Review, 1997.

73 Middle East Policy, for example, ran a story about Qatar’s elections entitled “Elections in Qatar: A Window of Democracy Opens in the Gulf,” by Louay Bahry, op cit. An article ran in the UK’s Mideast Mirror entitled “Qatar’s Liberalization Drive Wins Applause” (May 1997). Both articles referred to the initiation of direct elections for the Central Municipal Council.

74 Francisco Ramirez, Yasemin Soysal and Susanne Shenahan, “The Changing Logic of Political Citizenship: Cross-National Acquisition of Women’s Suffrage Rights, 1890 to 1990,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 62, October 1997, pp. 735-745.

75 Ibid.

76 Finnemore and Sikkink, “International Norms and Political Change,” op. cit.

77 Brian Katulis, “Women’s Rights in Focus: Kuwait,” Freedom House, March 2005.

78 N. Janardhan, “In the Gulf Women Are Not Women’s Friends,” The Daily Star (Lebanon), June 20, 2005.

79 Confidential interview, summer 2006.

80 Bahry, “Elections in Qatar,” op. cit.

81 “Qatar’s Emir Promises Elected Parliament,” Mideast Mirror, November 17, 1998.

82 Gurowitz, “Mobilizing International Norms: Domestic Actors, Immigrants, and the Japanese State,” op. cit.

83 Confidential interview, spring 2007.

84 Hurd, “Legitimacy and Strategic Behavior: The Instrumental Use of Norms in World Politics,” op. cit.

85 “Woman Elected to Municipal Council,” The Pearl, Newsletter of the Embassy of the State of Qatar, op. cit.

86 Thomas Friedman, “Between Dust and Deliverance,” The New York Times, June 17, 2007.

87 Emir Hamad Al-Thani, Opening Speech to the 37th Session of the Advisory Council, April 11, 2008,, accessed February 12, 2010.

88 Confidential interview, fall 2007.

89 Ibid.