Near and Middle East


My visit to the Gulf region (Qatar – United Arab Emirates – Iraq)

In September and October, I did some extensive travels in the Gulf region. To summarize my visit in one sentence: It was mainly about women!

Qatar: I was invited by a woman academic who arranged meetings with women candidates running for the Shura Council elections – and I also met the Afghan All-Girls Robotics Team in their Doha exile.

UAE: I spoke at the Dubai EXPO about the implications of the European Green Deal. The following day, I met with members of the National Council, which has a 50% women’s quota.

Iraq: Before joining the European Parliament’s delegation as part of the EU election observation mission in Iraq, I met with Iraq’s most prominent woman human rights defender, Hanaa Edwar, as well as a feminist filmmaker and women candidates running in the elections.

My visit to the Gulf coincided with the visit of the EU’s Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, including the Gulf Cooperation Council Headquarters in Riyadh.

Qatar: Shura Council elections and the Afghan All-Girls Robotics team

I arrived in Doha, Qatar, just a few days before the first Shura Council elections were held. The Shura Council provides advice to the ruler of Qatar, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, conducts debates and drafts legislation. However, the ultimate decision-maker in the kingdom remains the Emir.

In June, I had been involved in an online workshop organized by the EU Delegation, aiming at supporting Qatari women running for the elections. This time, I was able to meet two of the women candidates: Maryam Abdullah Rashid Hamood al-Sulaiti and Kholoud Sultan Rashid Sultan Al-Kuwari. We had a very interesting exchange on the role of women in the region, including on legislation concerning inheritance and polygamy. The election programmes of the two women covered a wide range of topics, for example the protection of the environment, human rights and social issues. Health issues are high on the agenda for both women: Kholoud Sultan Rashid Sultan Al-Kuwari is a trained physician and Maryam Abdullah Rashid Hamood al-Sulaiti has multiple sclerosis. With her campaigning, she has raised public awareness about the situation of persons with disabilities, and serves as a role model.

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Among the 284 candidates on the electoral list, 27 women were running for the 30 seats of the Shura Council which are filled through elections. Unfortunately, none of the women candidates was elected. However, in addition to the 30 elected members of the Shura Council, the Emir appoints another 15 members. In mid-October, two women were appointed as members (none of them had been a candidate). Hopefully, these developments will spark a new discussion on the introduction of a quota for national elections – as it already exists in other Gulf countries such as Iraq and UAE.

Given that Qatar prohibits the formation of political parties, all candidates were running as independent candidates. The voter turnout of about 63,5% following broad national media coverage during the election campaign demonstrates solid interest among the electorate. On the other hand, human rights groups criticized that the election law reflected on the discriminatory citizenship law: Qatari citizenship distinguishes between “native” and “naturalized” citizens, and the latter group had not been allowed to run as candidates.

My visit to Qatar was facilitated by Dr Amal al-Malki, Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Hamad Ben Khalifa University, who also arranged a meeting with students, including participants originating in various conflict regions. We discussed topics ranging from the role of women in politics, especially in the security and defense sector, to possible political answers to conflicts, including in Afghanistan, Sudan and Venezuela. Further, we raised the importance of constructive exchanges between “Western” and “Muslim” countries and societies.

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I met members of the Afghan All-Girls Robotics Team which has inspired so many people – through their scientific work, their perseverance and strength. They had been able to leave Afghanistan on rescue flights organised by the Qatari government. Their dream is to return to Kabul one day and establish a robotics academy on the university campus! Meanwhile, they continue their studies in Qatar.

I also visited an evacuation camp where Afghan refugees are living in houses originally built for the soccer World Cup in Doha. Human rights group continue to report failure to investigate and compensate the deaths of migrant workers involved in World Cup related construction work – and call for effective implementation of legal reforms for a better protection of migrant workers.

Many Afghans, including those who worked for European institutions, were able to escape the country through Qatar. Until today, the Emirat facilitates such crucial evacuations and remains a hub for negotiations with Taleban.

United Arab Emirates (UAE): My Speech at the EXPO on the EU Green Deal

Only a fortnight before my arrival in Dubai, the European Parliament had issued a resolution critical of the human rights situation in the country, focussing particularly on imprisoned human rights defenders like Ahmed Mansour.

Knowing that prison visits would not be granted, I had requested to at least visit relatives and/or lawyers of imprisoned human rights defenders. However, it soon became clear that such meetings in the UAE would have caused unacceptable risks for my counterparts. Therefore, I have been following up on the resolution by other means.

I had been invited to deliver the keynote speech at an EXPO event facilitated by the EU’s and the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) Clean Energy Network – the network is funded by the EU. The title of the event was “The EU Green Deal: Research and Innovation as a driver towards climate neutrality”. In my speech, I pointed out that all GCC countries and all EU countries were amongst the 196 countries that signed the Paris Agreement in 2015. I referred to different plans on how to achieve the Paris goals, from “Vision 2030” or “Vision 2035″ in the GCC countries to the EU’s so-called “Green Deal”, and their implications for EU-GCC relations. GCC countries, with their great dependence on revenues from fossil exports, and EU member states, with their high demand for energy, will all have to move towards green energy. (As further reading, I can recommend an article recently published by Cinzia Bianco: “Power play: Europe’s climate diplomacy in the Gulf“)

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During my stay, I also met with several members of the Federal National Council of the UAE, including two women, and we talked about ways to exchange more regularly. Issues of common concern included the situation of detained family members of suspected fighters of the Islamic State held in North Syria (see my visit in November 2020), the dramatic situation in Afghanistan as well as possibilities for increasing the visibility and influence of women in peace talks in the region.

Iraq: National Council elections

Prior to the start of the official monitoring mission for Iraq’s National Council elections, I met my friend Hanaa Edwar, the “grand dame” of the human rights and women’s rights movement in Iraq

Hanaa Edwar had arranged for me to meet with candidates, mainly women, who told me about the risks and challenges they had been facing since their decision to run for election. Sadly, and as reported by the mission’s preliminary statement, women candidates were subjected to smear campaigns – mainly online – trying to undermine their personal integrity.

Some of the candidates had been activists during the protests that surfaced on Baghdad’s Tahrir Square two years ago and continued for several months. This is why I had met them during an earlier visit. Key demands of the protesters included an end to corruption and sectarianism as well as democratic reforms, including regarding election legislation. However, many of these former protesters had refused getting involved in the elections and to become part of a political system they fundamentally criticise. Many instead called for a boycott of the election, in order to not legitimise a political system that, according to their assessment, has changed far too little. Nevertheless, a few protagonists of the protest movement finally were elected into Iraqi parliament. Now, it remains to be seen whether or not they will be able to use their position for advocating for a more inclusive political system.

I also had the opportunity to meet Iraqi actor and feminist filmmaker Zahraa Ghandour, who is in the process of making a film about Hanaa Edwar. We went out for a wonderful evening to enjoy “Baghdad’s nightlife”.

With the official start of the European Parliament’s election monitoring mission, I checked into the Rasheed Hotel, a world of its own within the formerly US-controlled Green Zone. This was a sharp contrast to the comparatively free movement I had enjoyed when visiting Baghdad before: Many of our meetings were also held within the premises of the hotel.

Our European Parliament delegation was part of the larger EU Observation Mission to Iraq, with a presence of the core of about three months. I was very pleased to be a part of this, above all given that during previous visits, civil society organizations had frequently raised the importance of international election observation missions. This was a message I had echoed at numerous subsequent meetings back in Brussels, contributing to the establishment of our much needed observation mission.

Our delegation met with members of parliaments, new candidates, civil society organisations, election officials and religious leaders to get a better understanding of the political context of this election. We also observed the election process inside and outside Baghdad on the election day itself.

Whilst the technical process of the elections ran smoothly, unfortunately voter turnout at 43% was low, even lower than on previous occasions. This clearly shows a lack of trust of Iraqi citizens in their political institutions. A number of candidates reported attacks by armed groups. Intimidation and smear campaigns on social media were rampant. These were also key concerns raised in a statement by our delegation : “Violence, or the mere threat of it, cannot be a tool for political gains in a democracy. Armed non-state actors should not be a part of the democratic life in the country, in line with letter and spirit of the constitution. Iraqi society needs to move away from a highly militarized society and move towards a well-organized state, nourished by a vibrant citizenship.”

The protests of 2019/2020 had raised expectations – particularly among young people – for fundamental political reforms, including on elections. In fact, recent reforms brought a new voting system, the so-called “Single non-transferable vote”, a system that tends to favour individual candidates rather than political parties. However, the preliminary statement of the observation mission of found that: “Campaigning mainly promoted the candidates and political blocs that dominated the previous elections, while most parties affiliated with the […] protest movement parties boycotted the elections.”

A full report of the mission is expected for mid-December.

In a recent publication on Iraq’s electoral system, Victoria Stewart-Jolley rightly observed which kind of electoral changes were lacking: “The government formation system itself remains unaltered by the reforms. In order for real reform to take place, the system that allows the distribution of posts and ministries along sectarian lines needs to be both changed and regulated. In the absence of real change, government formation in Iraq will continue to be detached from the public vote, which raises the prospect of further disruption and protest.”

Last but not least, a very positive outcome of the Iraqi elections is the number of women who were elected into the National Council, which surpassed the minimum quota of 25% according to Iraqi law. In total, 97 women were elected, which amounts to about 30% of the 329-seat chamber. With this result, Iraqi women are better represented than in the US House of Representatives (27,4%), Morocco (23%) or Jordan (12%).

Whilst female candidates enjoyed widespread public support in the elections, they have been largely side-lined in previous cabinets. An interesting analysis of the recent elections and on the challenges for Iraqi women in politics is the following article: Will quota seats in Iraqi politics advance women’s rights?

I am back in Brussels now. But my work on strengthening the role of women in politics – including in the Gulf region – will surely continue.

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