The nation of Qatar held its first ever elections on Oct. 2 – a move that has been in the making since a 2003 constitutional referendum.

The original vote was supposed to take place in 2013, but was delayed until 2016 and then again until this month as the nation tries to improve its image one year before Doha is to host the 2022 World Cup.

Citizens 18 and over were able to vote for 30 of the 45 seats in the Consultative Assembly, the Shura Counci, and voter turnout was 63.5%, with reports indicating a high turnout among young people who were eligible to vote. More than 200 candidates were running for election including more than two dozen women, none of whom won. The remainder of the seats will be appointed by the emir.

The Shura is expected to vote on general state policies and social issues such as healthcare, education and citizenship rights, but will have no say on matters of defense, security, economic and investment policy.

Qatar’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, is on the record as describing the vote as a new “experiment.” He also said that the Shura cannot expect to have the “full role of any parliament,” especially in its first year.

While this is the first time that Qataris got to elect members of the Shura Council, the issue of who was allowed to run for office and who was able to vote is being criticized by rights groups.

Human Rights Watch described the system as “discriminatory” because only native Qataris were allowed to run for office and vote. This has triggered minor tribal protests that led to several arrests.

“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,” Human Rights Watch said.

The oil-rich nation has almost 2.9 million residents, less than 15% of whom hold Qatari citizenship. By some estimates, the country’s foreign workers outnumber actual native Qataris nine to one. 

Qatar, which has the second highest Christian population in the Gulf with estimates ranging from 6%  to 13% – mostly Filipino, Indian and Lebanese foreign workers – does not allow Christians to run or vote because they are not considered indigenous Qataris. Until recently, Christians have not been completely free to practice their religion, but Qatar began to grant them some freedom due to international pressure.

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