Unlike much of the rest of the Arab world, the Gulf region has seen very little in the way of protests so far. Here, too, however, political relations are in flux and those in power are coming under increasing presssure to justify their role. Matthias Sailer reports
Although the media is currently focused on events in Libya and Syria, the political "awakening" of the Middle East has also become a major concern to the rulers outside the glare of the spotlight in the apparently quieter Gulf states. Hundreds of thousands came out onto the streets of the tiny kingdom of Bahrain in mid-February, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), on the other hand, have seen no demonstrations at all so far.
Saudi Arabia witnessed some small-scale protests which were quickly contained by security forces, only in Oman was the sultan forced to respond to the demands of several thousand demonstraters by announcing cautious political reforms.
So why is it that the democracy movements in the Gulf monarchies have had so little success so far? Even if only for reasons of self-interest, it is a question that the West ought to be asking itself. After all, these countries, which along with Kuwait make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), are in control of 40% of the world's oil and 23% of its gas reserves.
It was their sovereign wealth funds that saved many a major European and American company from bankruptcy during the financial crisis, and, politically also, Qatar and the other Gulf states have been assuming more of a leadership role, as they proved recently by bringing together the normally so fractious Arab world to support the vote for a no-fly zone over Libya.
There are two main reasons behind the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt as well as for what is currently happening in Libya. On the one hand, there are the socio-economic problems (unemployment and lack of state social provision), on the other, the lack of social liberties. The all-pervasive corruption and the open extravagance of the Tunisian ruling clique have likewise been catalysts for the widespread anger among the population.
The Gulf monarchies, too, have their unemployment problems and a lack of prospects to offer, especially for the large number of often well-educated young people – but it is a significantly smaller problem there. In 2010, for example, Qatar's oil and gas revenues gave the country an astonishing estimated per capita GDP of 68,000 dollars.
The situation in the UAE is similar. Shrewd and far-sighted economic policies have seen both countries making significant strides over the years in diversifying their economies away from oil. Nowhere is this more evident than in Dubai, where, in 2006, the oil sector accounted for just 5.1% of GDP. Both governments passed on part of this new wealth to their own people in the form of a range of privileges. Thus there are few serious worries to be faced by the inhabitants of either country when it comes to their financial security.
But many members of the younger generation remain frustrated, because, in spite of their good standard of education, they often lose out in competition for jobs to the country's many foreign workers. There is some compensation to be had for this frustration from the many social freedoms that can be enjoyed by Qatari and Emirati people – very different was the case in Mubarak's Egypt or Ben-Ali's Tunisia.
Democracy's poor reputation
The people of Qatar and the Emirates tend to have a feeling of pride in their rulers, so there is relatively little in the way of opposition as a consequence. The democratic experiments gone wrong in Iraq and Gaza have rendered this form of government anything but appealing to the citizens of both countries. Even the elected and influential parliament of the Gulf's most democratic state, Kuwait, is viewed less as a positive achievement, and considerably more as a cause of political instability and economic weakness.
Nevertheless, the rulers of these countries have also been allowing their money to flow freely since the beginning of the uprisings, investing in their subjects' well-being and material satisfaction, not to mention the preservation of their own power. In spite of this, there have been cautious calls for a greater degree of democracy. In April, two petitions calling for more democracy in the UAE led to the arrests of five pro-democracy activists, including a lecturer from a university in Dubai affiliated to the French Sorbonne.
Bearing this in mind, it does not come as a complete surprise to discover that the Emirate of Dubai has refused to extend the licence of the Gulf Research Centre, one of the most prestigious social science think tanks in the region. It has been based in Dubai for the past ten years.
Neighbouring Bahrain has been dramatically less peaceful. Hundreds of thousands took to the street in mid-February to call for political reform, observance of human rights and an end to corruption. The regime's surprisingly hard-line reaction saw the deaths of seven protestors in a short period between the 14th and 17th of February.
On February 14, Saudi Arabia and the UAE intervened, sending 1500 troops into Bahrain and citing a GCC military mutual assistance agreement against external threats as their justification for doing so. The protests were suppressed by force, with activists, bloggers, doctors and journalists subjected to arrest and intimidation.
The Emir of Bahrain lost no time in attributing the stirring up of protest to Shiite Iran, a country, he claimed, that had been plotting against Bahrain for the last "20 to 30 years" and which was behind the current unrest. Implausible though this claim may have been, it is in line with the Sunni regime's strategy of deliberately stirring up tension between the economically and politically disadvantaged Shiite majority and the Sunni minority as a means of preventing the rise of any united opposition.
The truth is, Bahrain with its lack of natural resources and financial dependence on Saudi Arabia, no longer possesses the financial means to simply smother unrest with money. According to Shadi Hamid, research director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, the constant stream of reports on state television referring to alleged subversive intentions on the part of the Shiites are convincing more and more Sunnis that there must be some truth in them.
Thus far, oil-rich Saudi Arabia has had to deal with only a few small-scale protests in the eastern Shiite-majority region close to the border with Bahrain. Like the UAE and Qatar, it has dealt with the situation by a combination of showering it with money and using security forces to suppress protest. The attitude of the ultra conservative Saudi clergy ("protest is un-Islamic") as well as the country's all-pervasive security forces also help to keep protest in check.
As Iran's rival in the region, Saudi Arabia also has an interest in pursuing an aggressive policy towards Iran, and since the US decided to turn their back on former ally Mubarak, Saudi Arabia has become increasingly emancipated from its protector – knowing full well that the US is completely dependent on Saudi oil as well as on the country's support in opposing the Iranian nuclear programme.
The USA has no interest in confrontation with the allied Gulf states, and because the broadcaster Al Jazeera is largely in the hands of Qatar, democracy movements in the Gulf have been lacking an essential catalyst – reporting on the bloody suppression of the rising in Bahrain was meagre.
The one-sided focus on Iran as existential external threat allows the Gulf states not only to convince their own subjects of the need for authoritarian measures, it also allows them to justify this strategy to the international community. The fact that this strategy can only intensify the conflict between the Arab Gulf states and Iran is an unfortunate and worrying side effect.
In the face of the rising tide of revolt, the rulers of the Gulf states have become very keen to set the socio-economic problems of their own houses in order. It is likely that we will see an initial increase in authoritarian behaviour towards activists from the UAE and Qatar. At best it will be a case of cautious political reform, one step at a time, from above. It is likely to be a similar story in Saudi Arabia.
The situation in Bahrain is more difficult. If tangible political reforms should fail to materialise and there should be no end to the economic and social discrimination against the Shiites, then it will only be a matter of time before the protests, currently suppressed by violence, flare up once more.
Much will also depend on what happens in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya – positive developments in those countries would give a considerable boost to the other pro-democracy movements in the Gulf.
© Qantara.de 2011
Translated from the German by Ron Walker
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de