Thursday, June 30, 2011

Hunkering Down Is The Worst Option For Arab Gulf Leaderships

By Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi
The relative quiet we are witnessing in the Arab Gulf today can be attributed to both natural and governmental causes. After all, the soaring summer heat makes it impractical for large groups of people to protest for long hours. A severe government crackdown may have caused others to reconsider.
But below the surface, things may not be as quiet as governments like to believe. In the Arab Gulf, the core demands of the citizens who protested earlier in the year have so far not been met. In fact, at a recent forum in Abu Dhabi, the managing director of the Omani think tank Tawasul, Khalid al-Safi al-Haribi, predicted that the Gulf states would witness a second wave of protests before year’s end.
The Gulf states have perhaps overreached in their reaction to the “Arab Spring.” Externally, they’ve invited Morocco and Jordan into the monarchical club known as the Gulf Cooperation Council and upped the ante with Shiite Iran. Internally, a clampdown on dissent has been coupled with generous financial grants.
Saudi Arabia has led both reactive efforts. Despite disagreements that almost all Arab Gulf states have with Riyadh, several factors make Saudi Arabia the regional anchor state whose decisions influence its neighbors. After all, it is the only state to border all the other five GCC states, and the one with the largest population – including Shiites – landmass, army, oil production and oil reserves. It also has the largest media empire and economy in the Middle East.
Because Saudi Arabia is such an instrumental force in the region, even an incremental change there could have a tremendous effect on the other Gulf states. The kingdom is like a giant ship that takes a long time to turn, yet once the turn is complete it makes a significant difference. Excessively pressuring Saudi Arabia may have a reverse effect; should the contagion spread to the nation, the tragic events in Bahrain would look like a storm in a teacup. The best way forward to encourage reform may be to use the existing tribal structure rather than outside influence to signal to Saudi and other Gulf leaders the necessity of reform – not to please outsiders but because it is the right thing to do.
Despite what foreign media would have many believe, most Gulf leaders have a high degree of legitimacy in the eyes of largely politically apathetic GCC citizens. Much critical opinion of these leaders originates from people outside the Gulf who have little understanding of the realities on the ground. These analysts have likely been deceived by how things appear rather than how they are.
To use computer jargon, Gulf hardware is very much up to date: shiny buildings, modern airports and world-class infrastructure. But the software – civil society and individual responsibility – has not developed as fast. So it is no surprise that foreign pundits measure demand for reforms in Gulf societies based on a small number of activists and the country’s elite intelligentsia. Although protests in Bahrain did escalate into demands by some for the toppling of the monarchy, this was not adopted by the mainstream opposition movement Al-Wefaq. In the least politically active Gulf states, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, the vast majority of the population sees the activists who were detained simply as rebels without a cause.
The Gulf states are visibly concerned about the Arab Spring, which has already cost them a major ally in Egypt’s former president. But hunkering down is not the ideal solution to the challenges that face the GCC.
Gulf leaders today have an opportunity and responsibility to reform their societies and bring them into the 21st century regardless of external factors. There is so much more to reform than the idea of a free and fair ballot box that keeps many leaders awake at night. The judicial system in these countries is outdated and highly susceptible to outside influence. Centralization of decision-making has slowed progress to a snail’s pace. Corruption is endemic to ministries that have not witnessed change at the top in decades. Women’s rights have stalled; only Oman has appointed Shiite ministers; and no Gulf state has appointed a black Cabinet minister. Accountability applies to select people. Freedom of the press suffers from official as well as self-censorship. Individual rights are elastic notions that expand and contract depending on the case.
There is indeed much work to be done away from the ballot box, but Gulf leaders must first consider their place in history. Do those in power want to be remembered as leaders who surpassed their people’s expectations, or as individuals whose reaction to the Arab Spring was to hunker down and wait it out?
-This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 29/06/2011
-Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi is a UAE-based commentator on Arab affairs. This commentary first appeared at, an online newsletter

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