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Tinkering here and there
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 29 - 12 - 2005

Gulf countries' dabbling with political liberalisation continues, though limits on political freedoms remain entrenched, writes Mohamed Darwish from Bahrain
The year 2005 saw the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) busy introducing political reforms. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman have been experimenting with constitutional amendments and parliamentary and municipal elections; their stated aim being to boost political freedoms, improve the standing of women in public life, and create a climate of political and religious tolerance.
The urge for political reform in the Gulf may differ in intensity from one country to another, but it is not new. Even before 11 September, people were clamouring for political and social openness. Since the middle of the last century, various individuals and groups have been urging reform, however timidly. Some did so because they opposed the authority of the ruling families. Others did so because they believed that even under dynastical regimes, there was room for more political participation and free expression.
The Gulf is mostly governed by monarchical regimes that draw legitimacy from the support of various clans through an intricate web of blood alliances and religious affiliations. For most of the last century, ruling families saw liberal opposition as their main enemy, even at times when that opposition was divided and weak. Rulers used the clergy to discredit and denounce opponents. As a result, religious currents, such as the Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia, and the Salafi movement and the Muslim Brotherhood in other countries, gained in strength. It became harder to introduce social reforms or empower women without the blessing of these currents -- something that remains to this day an impediment to reform.
Arab Gulf states don't have what one can describe as well-organised political oppositions, although there are some exceptions to that rule. One is Kuwait, which has a history of experimenting with democracy that goes back to the country's inception in 1961. Another is Bahrain, where political groups ranging from the far right to the far left are quite active.
The 9/11 attacks may have accelerated the rhythm of political reform in Gulf countries, but foreign factors were not the only force at work. Some domestic changes were already in progress. A new middle class has been on the rise for almost three decades. This class, currently urging a new social contract, has come to life through state sponsorship of education, urbanisation and employment. The new educated classes demanded a larger share of the pie when it came to key positions in the state. Initially, all the new class wanted was better jobs and salaries.
Members of the new classes feature predominantly in civil society and political organisations in countries like Kuwait and Bahrain. In Saudi Arabia, members of the emerging intelligentsia sign most of the reform petitions. So far, the intelligentsia has refrained from demanding a rotation of power. What they are calling for is gradual change. In other words, they are willing to tolerate the status quo so long as more freedom is infused into it.
Most acts of reform in GCC countries belong to the "reform from above" genre, in the sense that the ruling classes engineer the pace and shape of reform in a manner that is non- threatening to the status quo. Civil society is getting stronger in most GCC states, but it varies in power and influence. As a whole, there are 37 charity groups, 84 professional associations, and 69 women organisations in Gulf states.
Following the 9/11 attacks, a sea change happened in the way the US viewed the region. As most of the attackers were Saudi nationals, the US began reviewing its position on democracy relative to the Middle East. US officials argued that the absence of democracy in the Arab and Islamic world -- a state of affairs for which the US was partly responsible, given its history of supporting undemocratic but friendly regimes -- provided the right climate for the emergence of militant extremists. The US began calling on countries of the region to democratise, modernise their education systems (especially religious curricula), and allow more political participation.
Gulf states found themselves caught between the anvil of the US and the hammer of militant groups. The US urges Western-style liberties. It wants education systems overhauled, with concepts of martyrdom and jihad played down. It wants less money channelled to Islamic societies, for charity purposes or otherwise. And it wants local government to fight militant Islamists. Militant groups, once hailed by governments for engaging in jihad against common enemies, have been ostracised.
Meanwhile, ruling elites found it wise to tolerate political and economic reform demands. As the intelligentsia filed more petitions for gradual reform, various states began taking action. Governments allowed the public more freedom in a quest to enhance their own legitimacy.
Such reforms picked up pace after the US invaded Iraq. The US has a known agenda of reshaping the region along the lines of the Greater Middle East plan, untroubled about changing conventional regimes in the process. But it is not just about the US. In many Gulf states, governments and nations sense the need for reform, in order to forge a new basis of legitimacy, a new social contract between rulers and ruled. The drive for political participation, a strong civil society, and modern government is palpable everywhere. The quest for modernity is rooted in the need to cope with the post-oil era, as well as the current pressures of globalisation.
Over the past few years, elections were held in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar. If slow, a process of political awakening is taking place.
The prospects of democratisation in GCC countries, however, are hard to assess unless one keeps two things in mind: first, the quality of elections; and second, the constitutional regulations under which parliaments operate. Existing parliaments have limited powers. Recent years have witnessed a surge in women's participation in public and political lives. Women have won the right to vote and run for office in Oman, Qatar and Bahrain. In Kuwait, women have been allowed to vote for the first time in parliamentary elections, following a pitched battle between liberals and conservatives. Religious and clan leaders have been strongly opposed to women having the right to vote.
What helped the case of women in Kuwait is the fact that the Kuwaiti government was partial to women's rights. It appointed the first ever woman minister this year. But the Kuwaiti example was not the only one: the UAE appointed its first ever woman minister last year. Yet, women still don't have the right to vote in the UAE. The picture is mixed.
More than 30 Saudi women took part in the 15 November 2005 elections of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce. Last week, Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz declared his support for women taking part in such elections. He said women should be "patient and perseverant" until they gain their rights.
The prospects of political empowerment for women are still discouraging. However supportive ruling elites may be, it is hard for ballot boxes to reverse years of neglect. Women's chances of reaching senior positions are limited for the time being, unless a quota system is introduced, or women are directly appointed to office. It seems that a transitional phase is needed to overcome social prejudice against women's participation in political life.
Meanwhile, a new political current is emerging in Saudi domestic politics. Some call it a democratic transformation in an Islamic context. Liberals and Islamists are finally exploring pragmatic ways to democratise. This new propensity emerged following the Gulf War, when most of the religious extremists were put in detention. In the mid-1990s, some Islamists opted for a middle way between jihad and renaissance.
A new breed of liberal Islamists appeared who are moderate in discourse and want to see reforms taking place in an atmosphere of plurality. The 9/11 events offered an opportunity for such Islamists to air their views in public. Many signed petitions to the government expressing their views on reform. Government reaction to these petitions has been rather favourable. Some of the reform demands have been met already. But there is a problem here, for the Wahhabi religious current is still opposed to cultural plurality. The increasing liberalisation in most GCC states is being greeted by suspicion in conservative religious circles. Conservatives see liberalisation as a threat to their political and social power.
A new political alliance is taking shape that may bring along religious reform of a post- Wahhabi genre. So far, some steps have been taken towards integrating Shias and Sufis into the Saudi national dialogue and allowing them to perform their rites freely. Also, the Saudi government recently released reformists Ali Al-Dumani, Matruk Al-Falih, and Abdullah Al-Hamad from prison. The three men received a pardon from King Abdullah on 8 August 2005, having been sentenced in Riyadh to 6-9 years in prison on charges of fuelling sedition, distributing political leaflets, and using the media to rouse the public against the government. The three men released a public petition in January 2004 calling for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy.
Municipal elections in Saudi Arabia have shown that citizens were ready for more political reform and participation in elections. But the Saudi government is still in control of what the elected council can or cannot do. The government is yet to allow elected councils to play an active role in the country's political life or launch a comprehensive reform programme that encompasses the entire nation.
Curiously enough, the 26th GCC summit, held last week in Abu Dhabi, made no mention of political reform, despite it being high on the agenda of all member states. The summit may have remained shy on that issue out of respect for the "domestic affairs" of member states. Nonetheless, the oversight was symptomatic of how GCC ruling classes approach matter of reform, elections and political parties.
It would be too optimistic to predict full-scale democratisation in Gulf countries just yet. One may expect partial reform for years to come, but full liberalisation is a distant prospect. Gulf ruling regimes have a long way to go before they are willing to countenance comprehensive change; they are certainly not prepared to see power rotating through free and fair elections, governments overseen by parliaments, or parties formed without hindrance.


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