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Qatar: Election Law Exposes Discriminatory Citizenship

Many Excluded from Running, Voting in First Legislative Elections

A Qatari candidate registers to run in the country's upcoming election as a member of its top advisory panel, known as the Shura Council, in the capital Doha, on August 22, 2021. © 2021 AFP via Getty Images

(Beirut) – New laws approved in late July 2021 to regulate Qatar’s first legislative elections will effectively disenfranchise thousands of Qataris from voting or running, Human Rights Watch said today. The new laws highlight the country’s discriminatory citizenship system.

Under the new electoral regime, Qataris who are categorized under the country’s controversial 2005 nationality law as “naturalized” rather than “native,” are barred from running as candidates and largely prohibited from voting in the October elections for two-thirds of the seats in the Shura Council. The new laws provoked controversy and debate among Qataris on social media as well as small-scale demonstrations led by members of the semi-nomadic Al Murra, one of the largest “tribes” in Qatar and among those most affected by the discriminatory nationality law. Qatari authorities responded by arresting and detaining some of the more outspoken critics and at least two of the men leading the demonstrations.

“Qatar’s attempt to establish citizen participation in government could have been a moment to celebrate, but it has been tarnished by denying many Qataris their full citizenship rights and repressing critics of arbitrary voter disenfranchisement,” said Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The new laws have only reminded Qataris that they are not all equal.”

Members of Al Murra outside Qatar told Human Rights Watch on August 23, 2021, that Qatari security forces had arrested at least 15 people over the previous two weeks, at least four of whom they said remain in detention, as well as 2 lawyers, a poet, and a news anchor for a Qatari TV news channel.

Law No. 7 of 2021, which the Emir approved on July 29 alongside two other related laws, will grant the Shura council legislative powers. It will also be able to exercise authority over the executive branch, except for bodies setting defense, security, economic, and investment policy, and will be authorized to dismiss ministers, propose laws, and approve or reject the national budget.

Thirty elected members will represent 30 electoral districts. The Emir, who previously appointed all 45 council members, will continue to appoint the other 15. Previously Qataris have only been able to vote in municipal elections. As with other Gulf states, political parties are prohibited.

Most of the criticism of Qatar’s new electoral regime has been directed at the country’s new electoral law (Law No. 6 of 2021). That law states that citizens ages 18 and over “whose original nationality is Qatari” or who are considered naturalized citizens but can prove that their grandfathers were born in Qatar, can vote in districts according to their permanent address which is based on “the place of residence of the tribe or family,” but that all other naturalized citizens are denied the right to vote. All naturalized citizens are ineligible to run or to be appointed to legislative bodies.

The new electoral law highlights the existing tiered citizenship model under Qatar’s 2005 nationality law, which categorized “native” Qataris or those “whose original nationality is Qatari” as all those who settled in Qatar before 1930 and those proven to have Qatari origins by Emiri decree. Under the law, those whose nationality is reinstated are not entitled to nomination or appointment in any legislative body for 10 years.

The law says that naturalized citizens “shall not be equated with Qatari nationals in terms of the right to work in public positions or work in general” for five years.”

The law also makes it easier for the state to revoke the citizenships of “naturalized” Qataris. The children of naturalized citizens retain this second-tier legal status, regardless of where they were born, perpetuating the lack of full citizenship rights through generations.

Other laws deny “naturalized” Qataris certain benefits afforded to “native” Qataris. For example, the 2007 housing law’s ministerial regulations afford “naturalized” Qataris the chance to apply for a housing loan only if 15 years have passed since naturalization. A “naturalized” Qatari, unlike a “native” Qatari, cannot access other benefits of the law including being granted housing or the funds necessary to buy land. 

Qatar does not publish figures on how many citizens the state recognizes as “native” or “naturalized,” nor do Qatari passports indicate the person’s category. “Naturalized” Qataris often only find out their status when they are barred from getting certain government services and benefits, as some found when they attempted to register to run or vote in the election.

On August 8, a few days after the electoral committee gave Qataris a five-day window to register to vote, Qataris whose applications were not approved began to express their dismay online, many on Twitter. They included many Al Murra, who have long criticized their denial of full citizenship rights.

Among them was Dr. Hazzaa Abu Shraydeh al-Marri, a prominent Qatari lawyer, who posted a now widely shared video on YouTube addressing the Emir.

That same day, the Interior Ministry referred seven people to the Public Prosecution on charges of “spreading false news” and “stirring up racial and tribal strife.” It did not make their names public.

The following day, members of Al Murra organized the first of several daily sit-ins in various locations near Doha. On August 10, Qatari security forces arrested Dr. Abu Shraydeh, at his home, after which all daily sit-ins took place near his home in the al-Muaither district near Doha.

Al Murra members on Twitter and others outside the country said that Qatari security forces arrested at least 14 other demonstrators and critics of the law, including Rashid Ali al-Marri, a lawyer; Saeed Bin Dajran al-Marri, one of the protest leaders; Ahmed al-Shamri, a TV anchor for the Qatari al-Rayyan TV channel; and Jaber al-Nusheira, a poet who has since been released.

Al Murra members abroad said on August 23 that at least eight others have also since been released after signing statements promising not to discuss their detention publicly and to remain off social media.

Some members of Al Murra, which includes several clans, have had a tumultuous relationship with Qatar’s ruling family for decades. Starting in 1996, Qatar arbitrarily removed the citizenship of families from the Ghufran clan of the Al Murra, leaving some members stateless to this day, and depriving them of key human rights, including access to education, employment, and health care. Others whose citizenship was restored after 2005 have reported that they were then arbitrarily categorized as “naturalized” rather than “native” citizens.

The unprecedented four-day sit-ins subsided only after Al Murra members said that the Emir had promised to consider protesters’ demands. On August 22, Rashid Ali al-Marri’s brother tweeted that Rashid and Dr. Abu Shraydah remained in detention and were denied access to family members.

The Qatar Government Communications Office responded on September 9 to a Human Rights Watch request for specific information related to the arrests. It said that the authorities had summoned only a small number of people  during the voter registration period for “incitement of hate speech, abusive online behavior toward voters, and incitement of violence toward law enforcement officers and other members of the general public,” and that most cases have since been “resolved and no further action has been taken.” The statement did not include information about any individual cases Human Rights Watch had inquired about.   

As preparations for the elections continued into September, and members of the Al Murra continued to voice their demands for equal rights on social media, Qataris from all backgrounds joined the conversation, with some identifying what they deemed to be hateful statements against the Al Murra or by them against other “tribes” or families. On September 7, Qatar’s Interior Ministry  issued a statement on Twitter noting that Qatari authorities will not hesitate to take legal action against “anyone who tries to undermine the unity and cohesion of society.”

Al Murra members on social media and abroad reported at least three more related arrests and some releases during the first two weeks of September.

While the new laws point to a grievance mechanism that Qataris could use to challenge their exclusion from voting or running in elections, it does not allow them to challenge their designation as “naturalized” citizens under a law that retains constitutional status.

Plans for a partially elected Shura council were first outlined in Qatar’s 2003 constitutional referendum and promises to hold national elections were previously made in 2007, 2010, 2011, and 2017 – none of which ultimately took place. Qatar’s 2005 nationality law violates article 24 of Qatar’s constitution, which stipulates that all Qataris must be treated as equal in rights and responsibilities. Qatar’s nationality law also violates international human rights law, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of national origin, including in the right to vote in “genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage.”

Qatar should amend the 2005 nationality law to afford all Qatari citizens, whether “native” or “naturalized,” their full rights as citizens, Human Rights Watch said. Qatari authorities should also immediately release all those detained simply for exercising their right to free expression and peaceful assembly.

“Once again, Qatar’s half-hearted attempt at reforms serves to illustrate the larger disregarded rights violations that take place in the country unmonitored,” Coogle said.

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