Gulf states keep winds of change at bay – but for how long?

Oil wealth and demo­graph­ics have so far large­ly shield­ed a major­i­ty of the six Gulf Coop­er­a­tion Coun­cil mem­bers from the brunt of the Arab revolt sweep­ing the Mid­dle East and North Africa, but have hard­ly insu­lat­ed them from the winds of change. 

Sau­di Ara­bia, Kuwait, the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates and Qatar have until now suc­cess­ful­ly sought to ring fence them­selves by sup­port­ing Bahrain’s bru­tal squash­ing ear­li­er this year of mass anti-gov­ern­ment protests, bankrolling Oman, splash­ing bil­lions of dol­lars on social spend­ing at home and bank­ing on the fact that a major­i­ty in the Gulf prefers reform to revolt and the fears of nation­als of the small­er Gulf states that pub­lic protest would open a Pandora’s box with expa­tri­ate majori­ties putting for­ward demands of their own. 

The mea­sures are like­ly to at best buy the Gulf states time. Their ring fenc­ing strat­e­gy is threat­ened both from with­in the GCC as well as by the revolt else­where in the region and could be under­mined if a drop in oil prices makes it more dif­fi­cult for Gulf gov­ern­ments to main­tain their finan­cial largess. 

The crack­down in Bahrain backed by GCC troops has moved the protests out of the cap­i­tal Man­a­ma and into Shi­ite vil­lages, split the oppo­si­tion along sec­tar­i­an lines and enabled the rul­ing Khal­i­fa fam­i­ly to keep for now keep the oppo­si­tion in check. It has failed how­ev­er to gen­er­ate a cred­i­ble nation­al dia­logue that address­es wide­spread polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic griev­ances The point was dri­ven home this week with jail­ing by a mil­i­tary court of 36 peo­ple, includ­ing 20 medics who treat­ed activists wound­ed dur­ing the protests and two hand­ball play­ers, to sen­tences from five to life for par­tic­i­pa­tion in the demonstrations. 

If Bahrain’s fes­ter­ing prob­lems could at any time abrupt­ly and rad­i­cal­ly upset the Gulf apple cart, Oman could break the mould of buy­ing off pop­u­la­tions with spend­ing and pro-for­ma baby steps towards more rep­re­sen­ta­tion by grant­i­ng its elect­ed Shu­ra or advi­so­ry coun­cil greater leg­isla­tive pow­ers. A third more vot­ers will be allowed to vote on Octo­ber 15 in elec­tions called after mass anti-gov­ern­ment protests ear­li­er this year that focused on high­er wages, more jobs, an end to graft and more pow­ers for the coun­cil rather than a change of government. 

Omani leader Sul­tan Qaboos bin Said, who has ruled Oman since he oust­ed his father in 1970, has yet to announce how exten­sive the council’s leg­isla­tive pow­ers will be. Nonethe­less, grant­i­ng the coun­cil such pow­ers sets the Omani coun­cil apart from sim­i­lar assem­blies else­where in the Gulf with the excep­tion of Kuwait and Bahrain whose par­lia­ments have long had leg­isla­tive pow­ers because they are being grant­ed as a result of the revolt sweep­ing the region and knock­ing on the door of con­ser­v­a­tive Gulf states. 

This week’s by-elec­tions in Bahrain intend­ed to fill 18 par­lia­men­tary seats left vacant after mem­bers of the oppo­si­tion Islamist Al Wefaq par­ty resigned did lit­tle to restore cred­i­bil­i­ty to the island’s polit­i­cal process or the government’s claim that they demon­strat­ed its com­mit­ment to polit­i­cal reform. Only 17 per cent of reg­is­tered vot­ers cast their vote after the par­ty declared a boy­cott in protest against a con­sti­tu­tion that it says dis­al­lows equal rep­re­sen­ta­tion by reor­ga­niz­ing elec­tion dis­tricts to favor Sun­ni candidates. 

Munic­i­pal elec­tions this week in Sau­di Ara­bia, the kingdom’s sec­ond, and, in the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates next week for a pow­er­less fed­er­al coun­cil, half of whose mem­bers are appoint­ed, do lit­tle to real­ly advance the polit­i­cal process. In an acknowl­edge­ment of the winds of change, Sau­di king Abdul­lah announced that women would be allowed to vote and stand as can­di­dates for the country’s advi­so­ry coun­cil but only in the next elec­tion four years from now. The gov­ern­ment ear­li­er this year was able to quell protests in its pre­dom­i­nant­ly Shi­ite, oil-rich East­ern Province. Turnout in Thursday’s elec­tion was low with activists call­ing for a boy­cott because the tooth­less coun­cils demon­strat­ed the government’s refusal to empow­er the public. 

Nation­als in the UAE as well as in Qatar have been reluc­tant to take their griev­ances pub­lic because they con­sti­tute a minor­i­ty of their coun­tries’ pop­u­la­tions and fear that protest could inspire expa­tri­ates, who form a major­i­ty, to demand a greater stake in their adopt­ed homes. Nonethe­less, crit­i­cism of the UAE federation’s is expressed behind closed doors, includ­ing a sense among the north­ern emi­rates that they ben­e­fit far less from the country’s oil wealth than Abu Dhabi, which has the most sig­nif­i­cant reserves, and Dubai. The UAE has in recent months cracked down on crit­i­cal voic­es and report­ed­ly invest­ed a half a bil­lion dol­lars in the cre­ation of a mer­ce­nary force for the even­tu­al­i­ty of pub­lic protests. 

Nev­er­the­less, the Gulf states have by and large in recent months been able to con­tain what­ev­er impulse for revolt has reared its head. Social spend­ing and cos­met­ic change how­ev­er are unlike­ly to address wide­spread sim­mer­ing dis­con­tent, much of which involve the same issues that have this year already sparked protests that over­threw the lead­ers of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya and have the regimes of Syr­ia and Yemen tee­ter­ing on the brink. 

With an offi­cial unem­ploy­ment rate of ten per cent, Sau­di Ara­bia has to cre­ate 5 mil­lion jobs for nation­als by 2030. In a report last week, HSBC Hold­ings Plc warned that the king­dom could cut out­put if falling prices threat­en the financ­ing of its bud­get and $130 bil­lion social spend­ing and stim­u­lus plan. HSBC said it expect­ed an aver­age $90 a bar­rel oil price next year, a 15 per cent drop com­pared to its cur­rent price of $105, and the point at which the king­dom could decide to reduce production. 

For now, most Gulf lead­ers, like the mon­archs of Moroc­co and Jor­dan who have been invit­ed to join the GCC, have the advan­tage that their pop­u­la­tions yearn for reform rather than rev­o­lu­tion. The Moroc­can and Jor­dan­ian kings have respond­ed with polit­i­cal reforms that have stopped protests from esca­lat­ing but have yet to prove that they meet the calls for change. Most Gulf states have yet to fol­low suit. Their reluc­tance to be proac­tive rather than reac­tive has so far shield­ed them from the revolt. The ques­tion is for how long and at what price. 

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.

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