One year after they ratified a new constitution, Qatari citizens are looking forward to the fulfilment of one of its guarantees. The permanent constitution of 2003 calls for the formation of an expanded, more representative Shura Council, with 30 out of 45 members to be elected by popular ballot.
The powers of the Shura, or consultative, Council were already outlined in the "Amended Temporary Basic Ordinance", a provisional constitution enacted in April 1972 to establish the state's independence and sovereignty. The council had been formed in the 1960s and, while drawing on deep-rooted traditions of tribal consultation, was among the first such bodies to be formally instituted in a Gulf country.
The provisional constitution also defined the role of the cabinet and the judiciary, while protecting private property and outlining some basic rights and obligations for citizens. But the council, like the cabinet, was strictly an appointed body whose only role was to advise the Emir. It could comment on, but not promulgate, legislation.
Formally, the new permanent constitution preserves the Shura Council's advisory role. Yet in outlining procedures for the council to approve budgets as well as broad government policies, the constitution enshrines important governmental functions in what is soon to be a partially elected assembly.
In fact, the council's responsibilities have been developing for several years. Cabinet ministers and other officials have become accustomed to appearing before the current, 35-seat, all-appointed Shura Council to address questions, and the government has been known to scrap draft laws based on the council's objections.
Given the closed-door nature of council discussions, the degree of influence exercised by the institution and its individual members is difficult to assess. But according to Abdelaziz Kamal, chairman of the Shura Council's education and culture committee, the opinions offered by the council are "usually listened to". In a recent interview with the UK-based Gulf States Newsletter, Kamal indicated that several current council members were contemplating running for elected office in the expanded body. Polls for the 30 elected Shura Council seats are expected to take place in early 2005. In an indication of the change of mentality that is already taking place, Qatari citizens have reportedly taken to calling the future Shura Council the "parliman", rather than using the formal, established term "majlis".
In the Gulf States Newsletter's assessment, Qatari politics within the past two or three years has taken on "an inherent momentum". Not coincidentally, the budding trend towards political openness is "linked to the growing prominence of women in public life". Along with the national referendum on the new constitution, Qataris have already had a taste of voting with two sets of Municipal Council elections, in 1999 and 2003. Sheikha Youssef Hassan al-Jefairy, a woman candidate who won a seat in the second municipal contest, is said to be thinking about running in the national elections.
Qataris are also getting accustomed to the freedom of expression that the new constitution has granted them. Economic and political reforms are debated relatively openly, with cautious conservatives and eager reform advocates airing their respective views more vocally in public meetings. Newspapers are also, gradually, starting to reveal greater diversity of opinion. Even if built from the top down, Qatar's new institutions will be resolutely home made.