The relative quiet we are witnessing in the Arab Gulf streets 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 these governments like to believe. In the Arab Gulf states, the core demands of their 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 the end of
The Gulf states have perhaps overreached in their reaction to the “Arab spring”. On the external level, they’ve invited Morocco and Jordan into the monarchical club known as the Gulf Cooperation Council and upped the ante with Shiite neighbor Iran. Internally, a clampdown on dissent was coupled with generous financial grants.
Saudi Arabia has led both reactive efforts. Despite under-the-table disagreements that almost all Arab Gulf states have with Riyadh, several factors contribute to Saudi Arabia being the anchor state of the region whose decisions influence its smaller 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. The kingdom 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 akin to 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 a nation that hosts Islam’s holiest shrine, 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 Arabian 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 of the critical media opinion regarding these leaders originates from people outside the Gulf who have little understanding of the realities on the ground vis-a-vis their own ideals. These outside analysts have likely been deceived by how things appear rather than how they really 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 the protests in Bahrain did escalate into demands by some for the toppling of the monarchy, this condition was not adopted by the mainstream opposition movement al-Wefaq. In the two least politically active Gulf states, Qatar and the UAE, the vast majority of the population sees the activists who were detained simply as rebels without a cause.
The Arab Gulf states are visibly concerned about the Arab spring, which has already cost them a major ally in Egypt’s former president. But, to borrow from American lingo, hunkering down is not the ideal solution to the challenges that face the GCC.
Gulf leaders in power today have an opportunity and responsibility to reform their societies and bring them into the twenty-first 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, some countries have yet to appoint ministers who follow the Shiite faith, 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 a case-by-case basis.
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 article was originally published in The Huffington Post. It first appeared in Bitterlemons International on June 23, 2011.