Gulf Arab States: Hunker Down or Seize the Opportunity?

The relative quiet we are witnessing in the Arab Gulf streets today
can be attributed to both natural and governmental causes. After all,
the soaring summer heat makes it impractical for large groups of
people to protest for long hours. A severe government crackdown may
have caused others to reconsider.

But below the surface, things may not be as quiet as these governments
like to believe. In the Arab Gulf states, the core demands of their
citizens who protested earlier in the year have so far not been met.
In fact, at a recent forum in Abu Dhabi the managing director of the
Omani think tank Tawasul, Khalid al-Safi al-Haribi, predicted that the
Gulf states would witness a second wave of protests before the end of
the year.

The Gulf states have perhaps overreached in their reaction to the
"Arab spring". On the external level, they've invited Morocco and
Jordan into the monarchical club known as the Gulf Cooperation Council
and upped the ante with Shiite neighbor Iran. Internally, a clampdown
on dissent was coupled with generous financial grants.

Saudi Arabia has led both reactive efforts. Despite under-the-table
disagreements that almost all Arab Gulf states have with Riyadh,
several factors contribute to Saudi Arabia being the anchor state of
the region whose decisions influence its smaller neighbors. After all,
it is the only state to border all the other five GCC states, and the
one with the largest population -- including Shiites -- landmass, army,
oil production and oil reserves. The kingdom also has the largest
media empire and economy in the Middle East.

Because Saudi Arabia is such an instrumental force in the region, even
an incremental change there could have a tremendous effect on the
other Gulf states. The kingdom is akin to a giant ship that takes a
long time to turn, yet once the turn is complete it makes a
significant difference. Excessively pressuring Saudi Arabia may have a
reverse effect; should the contagion spread to a nation that hosts
Islam's holiest shrine, the tragic events in Bahrain would look like a
storm in a teacup. The best way forward to encourage reform may be to
use the existing tribal structure rather than outside influence to
signal to Saudi Arabian and other Gulf leaders the necessity of
reform -- not to please outsiders but because it is the right thing to

Despite what foreign media would have many believe, most Gulf leaders
have a high degree of legitimacy in the eyes of largely politically
apathetic GCC citizens. Much of the critical media opinion regarding
these leaders originates from people outside the Gulf who have little
understanding of the realities on the ground vis-a-vis their own
ideals. These outside analysts have likely been deceived by how things
appear rather than how they really are.

To use computer jargon, Gulf hardware is very much up to date: shiny
buildings, modern airports and world-class infrastructure. But the
software -- civil society and individual responsibility -- has not
developed as fast. So it is no surprise that foreign pundits measure
demand for reforms in Gulf societies based on a small number of
activists and the country's elite intelligentsia. Although the
protests in Bahrain did escalate into demands by some for the toppling
of the monarchy, this condition was not adopted by the mainstream
opposition movement al-Wefaq. In the two least politically active Gulf
states, Qatar and the UAE, the vast majority of the population sees
the activists who were detained simply as rebels without a cause.

The Arab Gulf states are visibly concerned about the Arab spring,
which has already cost them a major ally in Egypt's former president.
But, to borrow from American lingo, hunkering down is not the ideal
solution to the challenges that face the GCC.

Gulf leaders in power today have an opportunity and responsibility to
reform their societies and bring them into the twenty-first century
regardless of external factors. There is so much more to reform than
the idea of a free and fair ballot box that keeps many leaders awake
at night. The judicial system in these countries is outdated and
highly susceptible to outside influence. Centralization of
decision-making has slowed progress to a snail's pace. Corruption is
endemic to ministries that have not witnessed change at the top in
decades. Women's rights have stalled, some countries have yet to appoint ministers who follow the Shiite faith, and no Gulf state has appointed
a black cabinet minister. Accountability applies to select people.
Freedom of the press suffers from official as well as self-censorship.
Individual rights are elastic notions that expand and contract
depending on a case-by-case basis.

There is indeed much work to be done away from the ballot box, but
Gulf leaders must first consider their place in history. Do those in
power want to be remembered as leaders who surpassed their people's
expectations, or as individuals whose reaction to the Arab spring was
to hunker down and wait it out.

This article first appeared on Bitterlemons International on June 23, 2011