Political Reform in Qatar: Participation, Legitimacy and Security

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.

Read the full post at the Middle East Policy Council website


Wikileaks Part 2: Yemen’s al-Qaeda Policy

Much has been said in the past week about the potentially troubling diplomatic relations which will result from Wikileaks’ leaked State Department cables, but despite all the attention given to the Arab world’s rhetorical hatred of Iran, Qaddafi’s Ukrainian nurse and Russia’s Batman and Robin, the Yemen cables in particular could affect US national security more tangibly than any others. A recent series of foiled terror plots on US soil originating in Yemen have reinvigorated debate over Obama’s terrorism policy toward al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). And while the leaked cable only confirms what we already knew about Yemen, including its eagerness for US aid (even if it is to be used in ways it was not intended) and the presence of US air strikes against al-Qaeda , how will the public release of these cables affect the United States, Yemen, their relationship and transnational actors who also have a stake in the region?

Middle Eastern governments have always tried to walk a fine line by cooperating with the US behind the scenes to avoid public backlash and Yemen is no exception. The most damning (and oft-quoted) element of the Yemen cables is President Saleh’s “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours” in reassurance to General Patreaus that Yemen is serious about helping the United States monitor and weed out AQAP. However, other parts of the cable confirm that Saleh may have other priorities on his mind such as nearly doubling US foreign assistance to the country and as American Ambassador to Yemen Stephen Seche implies, bolstering the Yemeni military: “Raising a topic that he would manage to insert into almost every item of discussion during the hour and half-long meeting, Saleh requested that the U.S. provide the ROYG with 12 armed helicopters.  Possessing such helicopters would allow the ROYG to take the lead in future CT operations, ‘ease’ the use of fighter jets and cruise missiles against terrorist targets, and allow Yemeni Special Operations Forces to capture terrorist suspects and identify victims following strikes…‘We won’t use the helicopters in Sa’ada, I promise.  Only against al-Qaeda,’ [Saleh continued].”

While Saleh gives the impression that he holds the same concerns as the United States, Yemen’s characteristic misuse of US military aid and “catch and release” terrorist policies reaffirm that Saleh has different priorities. Former Ambassador to Yemen William Rugh argues that “[Saleh’s] priority, however, is not al-Qaeda but dealing with discontent in the south; the bloody, ongoing rebellion in the north [Sa’ada]; and the complex array of tribal and local interests that threaten his leadership. Yemen’s sagging economy only galvanizes Salih’s critics.  At Washington’s insistence, al-Qaeda is on Salih’s list of priorities but he has other existential concerns that trump counterterrorism cooperation with the United States.”

However, with the release of confidential reports, Al-Qaeda may pose more of a threat to Saleh than he originally envisioned as public knowledge of US-Yemeni military cooperation may radicalize Yemenis against their president. Gregory Johnson, an expert on Yemen from Princeton University postulates just this, stating that “in some of the tribal areas where al-Qaida is really attempting to recruit people, having something like this where the president and his ministers are on the record talking about lying and deceiving parliament and the Yemeni public, I think it will have traction. Al-Qaida will be able to use it in the months to come.” If regime security is Saleh’s main concern, then somewhat ironically, he has been emboldening his opposition all along.

Whether news of the leaks and Saleh’s comments reach the Yemeni public remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that AQAP will use the leaks to further their own agenda. In the 1990s, Rugh argues that “Salih calculated that strong action against al-Qaeda and its tribal allies might strengthen his domestic opponents and feared that open cooperation with the United States would validate al-Qaeda’s narrative that Salih was an anti-Muslim American puppet.” This same fear exists today and presents a deterrent to full collaboration with the US, however with al-Qaeda armed with the newly leaked knowledge and poised to act, the Yemeni government, which denies the reports, may find that fighting al-Qaeda is actually in its best interest and that of its most powerful ally.


Brazil’s Soft Power Advantage

Brazil has surprised a number of observers with its rapid rise onto the international scene. The Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula), has lent his unsolicited advice and influence to solving the Iranian situation and the Gaza crisis, among others.  This prompts the question: how has Brazil managed to generate so much international influence and goodwill?  Many American analysts will point to Brazil’s booming energy industry, including the discovery of massive undersea oil deposits off the country’s coast.  Any experienced international traveler or sports aficionado will tell you that one of Brazil’s most valuable resources is its human capital: it’s legions of skilled football (soccer) players.

Poor children the world over know all about the Brazil soccer team and its stars, listing Ronaldinho, Robinho, Kaka, and Ronaldo among their favorite players.  Moreover, given most Brazilian players’ humble beginnings in the country’s favelas, these sports superstars are very easy to relate to.  This affection for Brazilian soccer plays starts at an early age, and over time, has generated massive reserves of goodwill for Brazil all over the globe.

Though the term “Soccer mom” has entered the national vernacular, the United States still has yet to embrace soccer with the fervor with which the rest of the world worships “the beautiful game.” The United States would do well to encourage the development of its homegrown soccer talents to lay the base for an improved performance at the 2014 World Cup hosted by, of all countries, Brazil.


A Tale of Two Analysts

Tim and Tamzyn are both Iraq analysts.  Tim is a media analyst, deriving the majority of his knowledge on Iraq from his extensive experience monitoring and assessing overall media coverage of Iraq.  Tamzyn however gets her understanding of Iraq almost exclusively from primary source social research with local Iraqis.  I realized that this contrast in sources between two Iraq analysts provides a unique opportunity to examine how an analyst’s sources can influence his or her assessments.

I conducted loosely-structured interviews with both Tim and Tamzyn in order to get their assessments of the main issues in Iraq today, as informed by their sources.  The main overall topics that we discussed were politics, security, and foreign influence in Iraq.

Tamzyn’s and Tim’s assessments differed on the subject of politics and the recent Iraqi national elections.  Tamzyn, with her reliance on social science research, stressed that religion is viewed as very closely tied to politics; all clerics are believed to have a political agenda.  Tim disagreed, arguing that religion really on plays a prominent political role for Iraqi Shi’a, and even then, just for selecting high-level political leaders.  Tamzyn also noted that the Iraqi electoral commission is generally viewed as legitimate, and most Iraqis want the opportunity to vote.  With his reliance on media sources, Tim however had a much greater appreciation for the more subtle nuances in Iraqi politics, and his political assessments were much more targeted as a result.  He highlighted the overwhelming coverage that the Western media gave to the secular political candidate Ibrahim al-Jaafari and argued that the recent election does not represent a sea change in Iraqi politics.

On the subject of security, Tim was much more optimistic than Tamzyn.  He explained that the security features prominently in the Western media, and by all objective measures, security has improved drastically across Iraq.  Tamzyn disagreed, noting that though Baghdad residents have witnessed some marginal improvements in security, perceived security has actually decreased since the elections.

The two analysts broadly agreed on the general ranking on foreign influencers in Iraq.  Tim and Tamzyn agreed that the United States, of all the foreign players in Iraq, exerts the most influence.  However, Tim placed Iranian influence almost on par with American influence, while Tamzyn put Iran in a distant second place.  Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq’s other neighbors fell into third place.  Nevertheless, Tim emphasized that the U.S. role in Iraq has diminished, and the United States now primary plays the role of mediator.

The real value in this exercise was not to learn the lessons that Tim and Tamzyn have to teach us, but rather to observe how their source biases reveal themselves in their analyses.  While media monitoring and analysis provides for a more nuanced assessment of the political conditions in a country, social research gives a much better feel for local opinion.  Strategic Social has extensive experience with both the strengths and weaknesses of various research approaches, and incorporates these lessons into the products that we offer our clients.


Iran’s nascent, government-controlled video game industry

People the world over have become well acquainted with the Iranian government’s draconian censorship policies regarding domestic use of the internet.  In the wake of the country’s most recent elections, the international press heralded the use of Twitter to mobilize opposition to Iran’s authoritarian government.  Rightfully, a considerable amount of attention and analysis has since been paid to how effective the use of social media can be for domestic opposition groups

Lost in this storm however has been one of the most popular uses of computers among young people: video games.  When most people in the United States think of video games, they picture games like World of Warcraft, Grand Theft Auto, or sports games like Madden football.  Iran, under the government’s careful supervision, has developed its own video game industry.  According to True/Slant, some of these games are actually pretty good.

A few years ago, Fox News reported on the development of the Iranian video game “Rescue the Nuke Scientist,” which “simulates an attempt to rescue two Iranian nuclear experts kidnapped by the U.S. military and held in Iraq and Israel.”  The game was developed by the Union of Students Islamic Association, supposedly in response to a game designed in the United States called “Assault on Iran.”  Mohammad Taqi Fakhrian, a leader of the student developers, explained, “This is our defense against the enemy’s cultural onslaught.”  The group has very close ties to the Iranian government and hosted the infamous 2005 conference where Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad infamously called for the destruction of Israel.

This kind of video-game-as-propaganda is unsurprising.  It mimics the Iranian president’s belligerent statements towards Israel and the United States and promotes an anti-Western political discourse.

However, the Iranian government has also used video games to promote traditional Persian culture.  By far and away, the most popular Iranian video game is the Quest of Persia series.  These games draw strongly from Persian history and culture.  According to a regional gaming website, Quest of Persia is “100% Persian” and was developed by Puya Arts.

Despite its draconian control over the Internet and social media, the Iranian government for several years has used the country’s domestic video game industry as a tool for both political and cultural propaganda.  It is likely that video games will continue to be used as a tool in strategic communications because of their interactivity and popularity the world over.