How Reform Fever is Revealing the Differences Between Gulf Nations
Bahrain has had the most visible demonstrations and, unfortunately, a death toll. The protests, which claimed to be peaceful, although the government strongly denied that, attempted to promote themselves as multi-party reformist protests. However, the crackdown quickly put the Wefaq party at the forefront of what became a Shiite protest that called not just for the reform of the system, but its change. This certainly struck a nerve across the Gulf — notably Saudi Arabia and Iran. Shaikh Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s Crown Prince, took the initiative and called for calm that would be followed by dialogue where “all options would be put on the table.”
The presence of Bahrain’s King Hamad Bin Eisa Al Khalifa at Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz’s return couldn’t be more symbolic. In short, Bahrain is the new Lebanon; just like it inherited the role of the Middle East’s banking capital from Lebanon in the 70s, it has now fully inherited the role of the regional battlefield.
A small Shiite protest was held outside Qatif calling for the release of political prisoners without trial. Prince Talal Bin Abdul Aziz, founder of the 1958-64 Free Princes Movement, gave a careful BBC interview in which he argued that constitutional reform would not see the light if it wasn’t initiated by King Abdullah himself. Two open letters signed by a group of intellectuals, businessmen and academics were sent to the king upon his return; King Abdullah announced an aid package that mainly targeted two major structural challenges: jobs and housing. In a New York Times Op-ed, Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal commended the package, but also described it as the beginning of much wider and deeper reforms. The package has been characterised by many activists as attempting to stop the bleeding without addressing its cause.
Oman was the first to face protests almost a month ago, but they were related to wage increases. The government promised to study the requests.
Ever the welfare state, Kuwait was the first to give a cash handout early last month. But many Kuwaitis believe its recent “parliament cheque-gate” has effectively accelerated its transformation into a full-fledged constitutional monarchy.
A half-serious Facebook page, calling for an Emirati day of protest against what it described as degradation and shame, was unanimously considered offensive, foreign and uncalled for by the nationals.
Qatar is famously referred to as the world’s only state with virtually no opposition — save a minority that would like the American airbase in Al Udeid shut down. It is in effect a very profitable holding company with around 1.3 million very well paid employees of which 200,000 are on permanent employment. Possibilities of dissent are probably the lowest in the world.
This reinforces the view that the GCC states couldn’t be in different places if they tried to.
For Bahrain the next few weeks will be crucial to assess if it will be able to develop a reform package that can appease the opposition enough to build a national dialogue platform. It will be hard to see how that can happen when Bahrain prides itself as being the only Gulf state where more of its citizens are employed by the private sector rather than the public one. It is also important for both the government and the opposition to appear independent of regional interference. The opposition and government are respectively cynical of Saudi and Iranian intentions.
Saudi Arabia is where the battle for reform will be long and drawn out. This is because King Abdullah hasn’t really groomed anyone to take over his reformist agenda. Many argue that King Nayef Bin Abdul Aziz won’t oppose reform as much as Prince Nayef the Minister of Interior opposes it now. Reality is that’s not saying much when considering how opposed he has been to it.
In a recent meeting with a select group of Saudi intellectuals, Prince Nayef had effectively said that an Egyptian-like revolution wasn’t likely and that any form of dissent wasn’t welcome. Infrastructure failures, such as those that allowed the rain in Jeddah to turn into a flood again, have made those most staunchly loyal to the House of Saud question the efficiency of its executive branch and the need to empower the legislative branch and reform its judiciary branch. Saudi Arabia’s place in the world should be much more important that what it is now and the 12 million $100 barrels can go a long way into getting it there. But Saudi Arabia mustn’t turn towards a mega-welfare state that is weary of its own people. Very few people want to abolish the monarchy, most just want it to work better. The emergence of young princes who would mediate between the callers for reform and the old royal guard is crucial. Everyone knows there is very little tolerance for a Tahrir Square camp-out in Saudi Arabia, but that doesn’t mean that it must turn into a kingdom of fear.
If anything, the recent political upheavals in the region have shown that socio-politically the Gulf states’ challenges are anything but in sync.
Mishaal Al Gergawi is an Emirati current affairs commentator. This article first appeared in UAE daily, Gulf News.