It’s not just governments – tribal society, religious influence and business networks all contribute to the lack of political change.
Much has been said over the past 12 months about the need for reform and democratisation by Arab Gulf governments. While it is evident that Gulf governments have an aversion to genuine democratic reform, it is far too simplistic to put the blame for political stagnation squarely on them. For behind these governments is a network of interests so powerful and intricately woven that it acts as a resistance lever even in the rare instances where serious political reform is suggested.
For instance, the centuries-old tribal nature of the Gulf societies ensures that authority is by tradition delegated to a tribal chief. Even during elections it is not uncommon to see tribes voting exclusively for their own family members. In the United Arab Emirates, several reform activists were openly condemned, while one government-owned newspaper quoted a citizen as saying: “We live here in the UAE as tribes and our leader is a sheikh. Having free elections and more elected Emiratis won’t make a difference in our daily lives.”
The religious authorities in the Gulf states are perhaps among the biggest obstacles to reform. Most clerics in the Gulf rely heavily on government support and reciprocate it with fatwas that serve the governments in return. At the height of the anti-Mubarak demonstrations Saudi’s grand mufti condemned the peaceful protests in Egypt, saying: “This chaos comes from enemies of Islam and those who follow them.”
When in the following month the prospects for demonstrations appeared to be shifting to Saudi Arabia, the kingdom’s council of senior clerics issued a fatwa forbidding protests. Often these clerics find themselves in a conundrum and have to carefully package their criticism so as not to offend their generous patrons. In one recent incident, the Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is hosted by the wealthy emirate of Qatar, stated, in reference to Syria, that the time for ruling dynasties in Arab republics was over.
Many businesses in the Gulf operate in an unethical manner; almost all are monopolies that provide substandard services to clients who aren’t able to find alternatives to their products or rely on independent courts to sort their grievances. Additionally, many of the merchant families are comfortably married into the ruling classes and enjoy benefits that include senior government posts.
Members of the merchant class understand that with democratic change they run a risk of losing privileges that they enjoy under regimes with whom they have established longstanding working relationships. Already a number of Gulf businessmen have suffered as a result of empowered courts in Egypt following Mubarak’s fall, that saw their questionable transactions there reviewed and even annulled.
When Gulf states announce steps towards reform, no matter how ineffective, an army of intellectuals close to the respective government immediately sets out to praise them. These intellectuals are vital to confer internal legitimacy on a process that is essentially intended to appear like reform. There is scant room for truly independent voices in the regulated press, most of whom today have resorted to social media.
Notably, sensitive topics such as defence expenditure and foreign policy are only allowed to be tackled by regime-loyal intellectuals with varying degrees of praise. Following Mubarak’s fall, websites known as the halls of shame were created to highlight the role of similar columnists in Egypt during the Mubarak era, a fate that regime-loyal Gulf intellectuals are no doubt keen to avoid.
Certain regional pressures may also apply against states wishing to reform, as the US political science professor As’ad AbuKhalil noted. AbuKhalil, who was invited to meet the emir of Qatar, subsequently wrote that the latter informed him that political advances in one Gulf state couldn’t exceed political advances in another. Today, Bahrain’s parliament is almost devoid of opposition voices after the main opposition party decided to boycott post-crackdown elections, bringing the once-vibrant parliament in line with its Gulf peers.
It must be stated that Kuwait to a significant degree is an exception to the regional political stagnation, although it suffers from various forms of political malaise.
This is not to say that democratic regimes are ideal systems for these tribal societies; perhaps those who seek reform are indeed an unrepresentative minority. This is merely an attempt to explain why genuine democratic reform by these constrained Arab Gulf regimes is an unattainable goal, at least in the short and medium terms. Until, that is, a tipping point is reached.
This article was originally published in The Guardian on January 26, 2012.