Op-Ed

There Aren’t Protests in Qatar—So Why Did the Emir Just Announce Elections?

Shadi Hamid

In a surprise move, Qatar announced that it would hold elections for its legislative authority — the Shura Council — in 2013. Elections for the body were originally supposed to be held in 2008 but were postponed. What is interesting about the Emir’s announcement isn’t so much that it happened, but that it was done in the absence of any real provocation or unrest. Unlike most Arab countries, Qatar has not seen even tiny protests or Saudi or United Arab Emirates-style petition campaigns. This likely has to do with three realities: Qatar’s GDP per capita, the highest in the world; a relatively small population (at around 250,000 citizens); and a popular, effective monarch who has succeeded in putting Qatar on the map. If you like, call it “Qatari exceptionalism.”

Well before the Arab spring, Qatar had pioneered a creative, if odd, foreign policy of developing nimble alliances, maintaining strategic independence, and supporting regional mediation to resolve conflicts in Lebanon, Darfur, and Palestine. Qatar managed to host the largest U.S pre-positioning military base in the world while, at the same time, holding joint exercises with Iranian frontier guards. Perhaps more surprisingly, it all — somehow — worked, often to the great irritation of its neighbors.

With the outbreak of the Arab revolts in January 2011, the Qatari government once again seized first-mover advantage and supported the pro-democracy struggles in Egypt and Tunisia. In Libya, Qatar played a critical role, providing weapons, training, and hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the rebel forces. The Turkish-Qatari “model” of foreign policy is now the preferred model of the revolutionaries and would-be leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya.

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