The Arab world watched in awe last week as brave Tunisians overthrew their corrupt president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, of the past 23 years. As in other Arab “republics” established in the populist ferment of the 1950s, Tunisians have been suffering from rampant corruption and economic deprivation for decades — leading to frustration that eventually boiled onto the streets despite their government’s tight restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly.
Leaders of the other republics in the region are no doubt nervous as they watch the aftermath of the Tunisian uprising play out across the Middle East. During what academic Malcolm Kerr referred to as the “Arab Cold War,” former Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser envisioned that these governments would finally throw off the shackles of colonialism and become representative of their people’s wishes. (In a great moment of historical irony, Ben Ali fled Tunisia on what would have been Nasser’s 93rd birthday.) But today, a quick scan through the list of countries inspired by his ideas — from Yemen to Egypt, Iraq to Libya –reveals a who’s who list of failed and autocratic states in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, it is the Gulf city-states of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Doha — all of which are ruled by an assortment of emirs and monarchs — that offer the most compelling path forward for the Arab world. Despite a lack of Western-style democracy, talented young Arabs have flocked to these states in search of a better life. By 2004, an estimated 3.5 million Arabs had immigrated to the Gulf states for work opportunities, coming mostly from Egypt (almost 1.5 million), Yemen (0.9million) and Palestine/Jordan (0.5 million), according to U.N. statistics. The secity-states have also become havens for some of the Middle East’s more recognizable proponents of democracy who have been exiled from their native lands, such as Iraq’s Adnan Pachachi and former Yemeni vice president Ali Salem al-Beed,who lived in exile in Oman for many years.
The Gulf emirates also score higher than the Arab republics on a wide variety of human development indicators. The 2010 U.N. Human Development Report shows that Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates surpass the Arab republics in life expectancy, years of education, and income. The majority even score higher on gender equality as well. The report also named Oman, another Arab monarchy, as the nation that has made the greatest strides in the past 40 years, particularly in education. At the end of the day, gradual liberalization and institutional development have proven much more important than sham elections.
Of course, it helps to have vast oil and gas reserves. Yet the success of the Gulf emirates is not solely the result of their hydrocarbon wealth. Algeria, Libya,and Iraq are blessed with substantial energy reserves that far outstrip those of Bahrain, Dubai, and Oman. The monarchies of the Gulf have simply proved themselves more adept at channelling their natural resources, and developing the human capital of their populations, than their “republican” counterparts.
The largest of these Gulf monarchies, Saudi Arabia, generally perceived to be bureaucratic and cumbersome, ranks 11th globally on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index and continues to promote economic reform aimed at attracting international investors. A 2010 U.N. report found that approximately 3 percent of world emigrants live in Saudi Arabia, making it one of the top 10 destinations in the world for expatriate labor. And through institutions like the KingAbdullah University of Science and Technology, the kingdom is scooping up highly skilled Arabs from Europe and North America to recreate the so-called Arab House of Wisdom, the Baghdad-based society that became the intellectual heart of the Islamic world during the Middle Ages.
Some may wish for a wave of democracy to sweep through the Middle East, bringing with it good governance and social development. But in the meantime, most Arabs would settle for a dignified and secure life. And that is precisely what the Gulf states are providing. Just look at the social milieu of the Gulf, where Lebanese students migrate because of the lack of jobs in their home country and Iraqi expatriates are quick to point out their former dictator’s brutality.
These Arab republics have so far given “people power” a bad name, and it will take decades to reverse the damage that Nasser’s ideas have done to Egypt and Syria. It is too early to tell how the Tunisian uprising will turn out, but in the meantime, it is the Arab monarchies that are offering young Arabs an opportunity to live in dignity without leaving the region, and hope for a better life.
This article was originally published in Foreign Policy on January 17, 2011.