Government and Politics

Persian Gulf States Table of Contents

The 1970 provisional constitution (sometimes called the basic law) declares Qatar a sovereign Arab, Islamic state and vests sovereignty in the state. In fact, sovereignty is held by the amir, but, although he is supreme in relation to any other individual or institution, in practice his rule is not absolute. The constitution also provides for a partially elected consultative assembly, the Advisory Council. The first council's twenty members were selected from representatives chosen by limited suffrage. The size of the council was increased to thirty members in 1975. Among the council's constitutional prerogatives is the right to debate legislation drafted by the Council of Ministers before it is ratified and promulgated.

The amir is also obliged to rule in accordance with Islamic precepts, which include fairness, honesty, generosity, and mutual respect. Islamic religious and ethical values are applicable to both the ruler's personal life and his rule. Thus, the ruler must retain the support of the religious community, which often asserts itself in such areas as media censorship, education regulations, and the status of women.

The state political organs include the ruler, the Council of Ministers, and the Advisory Council. The ruler makes all major executive decisions and legislates by decree. The constitution institutionalizes the legislative and executive processes in the functions of the ruler, in effect formalizing his supremacy. Among the ruler's constitutional duties are convening the Council of Ministers, ratifying and promulgating laws and decrees, commanding the armed forces, and appointing and dismissing senior civil servants and military officers by decree. The constitution provides that the ruler possess "any other powers with which he is vested under this provisional constitution or with which he may be vested under the law." This means that the ruler may extend or modify his powers by personal decree.

The constitution also provides for a deputy ruler, who is to assume the post of prime minister. The prime minister is to formulate government programs and exercise final supervisory control over the financial and administrative affairs of the government. When the constitution was promulgated, Khalifa ibn Hamad was concurrently prime minister and heir apparent, but the constitution did not specify that the post of prime minister must be held by the heir apparent.

The Council of Ministers, which resembles similar bodies in the West, forms the amir's cabinet. A major government reshuffle in July 1989 reorganized several ministries, bringing in younger men loyal to Khalifa ibn Hamad's son, Shaykh Hamad ibn Khalifa. The Al Thani continued to dominate the government, with the most influential (after the amir and heir apparent) being Shaykh Abd Allah ibn Khalifa, minister of interior; Shaykh Ahmad ibn Hamad, minister of municipal affairs and agriculture; and Shaykh Muhammad ibn Khalifa, minister of finance, economy, and trade. In October 1992, of the sixteen Council of Ministers posts, ten were occupied by the Al Thani and six by commoners.

The Council of Ministers is responsible collectively to the ruler, as is each minister individually. The ruler appoints and dismisses ministers (technically on the recommendation of the prime minister when that post is occupied by someone other than the ruler). Only native-born Qataris can become ministers, and the constitution prohibits the prime minister and other ministers from engaging in business or commercial activities while holding state office.

The Advisory Council debates laws proposed by the Council of Ministers before they are submitted to the ruler for ratification. If approved by the ruler, a law becomes effective on publication in the official gazette. In 1975 the amir empowered the Advisory Council to summon individuals to answer questions on legislation before promulgation. The Advisory Council also debates the draft budgets of public projects and general policy on political, economic, social, and administrative affairs referred to it by the prime minister. The Advisory Council can request from the Council of Ministers information pertaining to policies it is debating, direct written questions to a particular minister, and summon ministers to answer questions on proposed legislation. Ministers have the right to attend and address Advisory Council meetings in which policy matters within their purview are being discussed; in practice, no use has been made of this constitutional guarantee because members of the Council of Ministers are also members of the Advisory Council.

As the constitution stipulates, Qatar is divided into ten electoral districts for the purpose of forming the Advisory Council. Each district elects four candidates, of whom the ruler selects two, making a total of twenty; they constitute the relatively representative portion of the council. The members represent all Qataris, not just those in their districts. The Advisory Council was increased to thirty members in December 1975 and to thirty-five members in November 1988. Membership is limited to native-born citizens at least twenty years of age. The constitution states that members are to serve three-year terms, but in May 1975 members' terms were extended for an additional three years and then for additional four-year terms in 1978, in 1982, in 1986, and in 1990.

Before the implementation of the constitution, the ruler's legislative authority frequently overlapped or encompassed judicial functions because he personally adjudicated disputes and grievances brought before him. The constitution marks the beginning of an attempt to organize the judiciary. The secular courts include a higher and lower criminal court, a civil court, an appeals court, and a labor court. Civil and criminal codes, as well as a court of judicial procedure, were introduced in 1971. All civil and criminal law falls within the jurisdiction of these secular courts. A labor court was created in 1962, primarily because few of the country's existing judicial customs and codes were applicable to contemporary labor relations.

The sharia court is the oldest element in Qatar's judiciary. The court's law is based on the Hanbali legal school of Islam, wherein judges (qadis) adhere to a strict interpretation of the Quran and sunna, or traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. Originally, the sharia court's jurisdiction covered all civil and criminal disputes between Qataris and between all other Muslims. Beginning in the 1960s, the court's jurisdiction was successively restricted by decree. In the early 1990s, its responsibilities were confined primarily to family matters, including property, inheritance, divorce, and Islamic ethics. Non-Muslims were tried in secular courts unless they were married to Muslims.

The constitution establishes the legal presumption of innocence and prohibits ex post facto laws. It also stipulates that "judges shall be independent in the exercise of their powers, and no party whatsoever may interfere in the administration of justice." The judiciary is nominally independent, not so much as a result of a constitutional guarantee but because its jurisdiction is unlikely to confront the ruler's exercise of power. Secular courts adjudicate on the basis of the ruler's past decrees, and religious courts are restricted to questions of personal status. No provision exists for judicial review of the constitutionality of legislation.

According to the preamble to the 1970 constitution, the government was undergoing a transitional stage of development. The constitution was thus provisional and was to be replaced with a new constitution after the transitional period ended. Shaykh Khalifa ibn Hamad has usually legitimated government changes that he decrees by reference to the constitution. As of early 1993, however, there had been no indication that the full implementation of the constitution was imminent (for example, the electoral aspects of selection to Advisory Council membership) or that the transitional period was ending and a new constitution forthcoming.

In addition to describing and delineating governmental authority, the constitution sets forth such protections as equality among Qataris regardless of race, sex, or religion; freedom of the press; sanctity of the home; and recognition of both private and collective ownership of property. Such guarantees, however, are limited by the public interest and must be in accordance with the law--which is determined by the ruler. In practice, freedom of the press means that incoming foreign publications are screened by a government office for potentially objectionable material, and the indigenous press exercises self- censorship and is subject to sanction if it fails to deal appropriately with political and religious issues.

The constitution also includes a commitment to certain economic, social, and cultural principles, including state provision of health care, social security, and education. Housing, pension, education, and medical programs were begun in the 1960s and expanded by Shaykh Khalifa ibn Hamad as oil revenues permitted throughout the years. There were no state taxes on individuals, and the state subsidized the prices of basic commodities to minimize the effects of inflation. Although these programs appeared to reflect West European statism, they were manifestations of the ruler's sense of duty, based on obligations inherent in Islamic ethics.

For more recent information about the government, see Facts about Qatar.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress