The GCC and the challenges of democracy and human rights


As such the Gulf is witnessing a movement, sometimes an overt movement, sometimes a covert movement for development. It has not developed politically and remains stagnant. This is why the people of the region have sought to improve their well being through demonstrations and other means – mainly peaceful. The consequences of any political reforms can be seen in the characterise represented by empire. We should not forget that the empire emanated from Saudi Arabia and one of the reasons is the lack of openness. That sometimes leads to radicalization.
Tonight we are going to shed some light on the situation in the Gulf region and in the Gulf Co-operation Council. We could not have a better speaker than our colleague and friend Dr Abdulhadi Khalaf who has been a patriotic figure in the region, an intellectual. He was a member of parliament in Bahrain in the 70s, he went to prison, he was tortured, he was exiled, and he was prevented from going back to his country. So we will be spending some time tonight with a learned scholar and a leading political activist.
Dr Abdulhadi Khalaf: Thank you very much Dr. Saeed for your kind words. I am happy to be back in London and see all these familiar faces here. I will start by noting that the last time I was here I ended my presentation on a pessimistic note.
I noted that the leaders of Bahraini opposition groups had failed to seize the momentum and the many opportunities that were available to them after their successful campaign for the regime to reform and to implement steps towards the democratization of the country.
Bahraini opposition leaders realized that the king was not serious in his plan to reform the country and the political system so they decided on a boycott of the parliamentary experiment and of the parliamentary process. They were joined by other opposition movements and were successful in that half the people boycotted the elections in 2002.

Opposition groups did not continue on the path to press for demands and more serious changes that go beyond the cosmetic changes. Instead of keeping the momentum of the movement motivated by the decades of grievances of royal autocratic rule Bahraini opposition groups remained within the confines of organizing sit ins, planning petitions and holding seminars.
Unfortunately those tactics did not go beyond the symbolic and they did not challenge the legitimacy of the autocracy and its consequences. The king was naturally happy with the limitations that the opposition groups have put upon themselves.  He remained in charge and all political initiatives stemmed from him.
The leaders of the opposition were marginalized and even ignored. The king chose to ignore political leaders of the opposition and to focus his attention on the leaders of the clerical establishment and other traditional notables.
My pessimism then and now is based on observing that the king’s incontestable power and there are no indications that this will be contained or stopped. The opposition groups continue to be so conciliatory to avoid direct confrontation with the monarch and to put into question the legitimacy of the reforms.
We all know that in March 1999 Hamad  became s at the head of a regime that was plagued with political problems. Those problems began to take their present shape in 1975 when his father dissolved parliament and ended the first parliamentary process in which I took part.
His father wrestled with a determined opposition made of  different political networks and groups: the Islamists, the communists, nationalists. The late emir relied on a well-equipped and very brutal internal security apparatus led by the notorious General Ian Henderson, a Scott, with a long colonial experience in the suppression of anti-colonial movement in Kenya. The regime managed to suppress all the challenges from different groups from 1975 until 1999.
Things began to change in 1992 with the start of  a new movement  formed by  different forces: nationalist, religious and Islamist, Sunni and Shia. Those groupings came together in a coalition  and under one umbrella demanding institutional reforms,  rejuvenating national politics  and the restoration of parliamentary life. 
Unfortunately the regime faced these demands with more repressive measures and the confrontation that lasted from 1992 to 1999 resulted in the loss of many lives from the young supporters of the opposition and the arrests of thousands of people.
In 1999 the old emir, Isa bin Salman,  died and his son, Hamad, came to power. He promised to reform the regime and to turn Bahrain into a modern constitutional monarchy. Many of the leaders of the opposition believed his claims or wanted to believe his claims and promises and joined the process.  It did not take the king long to renege on his promises and this led to the boycott of the 2002 parliamentary elections.
There were many opportunities, many new possibilities and options open for the opposition groups to press for genuine and lasting reforms. But unfortunately they stayed far short of those limits that were on offer. On his part, the king followed the same old paths of his father, continuing direct and indirect communications with traditional notables and the clerics, especially the senior Shia clerics. That process generated a number of concessions for the clerics who in return agreed to end the boycott of the parliamentary process. Subsequently Al Wifaq, the major Shia organization decided to participate in the parliamentary process and to field its candidates who were carefully vetted by the organisation’s clerical patrons..
The results of the elections were extremely positive from those patrons perspectives.  Al Wifaq launched an impressive campaign and mobilized its forces and managed to win 18 seats out of the 40 elected deputies. Indeed, Al Wifaq could have become the main parliamentary bloc with a major say in shaping the parliamentary politics. It did not. One of the reasons for its failure lies in the rules governing parliamentary procedures. These allocated only a minor role to the Al Wifaq.
The main political force in the Bahraini parliament is the king’s “party” . This is  an informal gathering of most members of parliament who belong to different religious and non-religious groups.  This was clearly shown when  Al Wifaq, could not secure for itself any of the major posts in the hierarchy of the elected chamber. Al Wifaq’s parliamentarians could only wait for a royal green light before they were given the chairmanship of some of parliamentary committees.
Now is the time for Al Wifaq and other opposition groups which took part in the political process are experiencing how cosmetic are the political reforms introduced by king Hamad.  Let me take you through some of what these elected members in parliament are facing or going to face.
According to the new constitution that the king proclaimed unilaterally we are citizens that have particular rights but these rights do not include the right to change the government or to change the political system.  Calling for such changes will result in dire consequences including long prison sentences.
One of the basic rights in any democratic system is the right to demand to mobilize for political changes. These are abolished. These are not allowed. There is even a stipulation in the constitution and the recent laws that proclaim any questioning of the ruling family’s power as subversive calls that must be punished. They result also in imprisonment.
The 2002 constitution allows for the election of a parliament. But it also allows the monarch to appoint another chamber of 40 members, an equal number to the deputies. Both chambers the elected lower chamber and the appointed upper chamber have equal rights and equal mandates to discuss laws and to legislate. They have to stop here. Legislation is not the exclusive right of the parliament in that the king wields absolute power in this regard. He can even dissolve parliament at his own discretion anytime without specifying reasons. The king also has the power to amend the constitution and propose laws and promulgate them. He also has the veto on laws passed by the parliament.
Each chamber can present inquiries to ministers but they cannot question them. They cannot question their policy decisions. Members of parliament cannot even put inquiries directly to the prime minister and he is excluded from any political responsibility.  The prime minister, the king’s uncle, has been in his seat since 1971.  While I consider myself reasonably familiar with the extent of his powers, I was still surprised by the details that I learnt when I was commissioned to write a biographical sketch on him.  Every position in the government was his appointee. He personally has seen that positions are filled by people he trusts. He has personally intervened and those who have advanced in the government and the civil service are those who are loyal to him personally. So the prime minister has immense powers. But despite his powers he is not accountable to anyone except to the king and certainly not to parliament.
During the past three months we have seen that Al Wifaq has been exposed as a weak group in parliament whose presence is simply a symbolic and cannot result in any genuine political changes. Why are they there then?   The more charitable answer would suggest that they are there because they have been promised that there is a place where you can serve the people, a place where you can solve problems for your constituents. Help job seekers or fix a house for the homeless. The limits of their participation stop within these confines. They cannot question what role citizens play in a democracy, what role a monarch plays within a democracy and what is a constitutional monarchy.
In an insightful review of the African processes of political reforms, Célestin Monga identifies eight phenomena that hinder democratic transition. These are: the weakness of political organisations; the strength of alternative networks and corporative; constriction of the political field; constrained civil society; state-controlled media; confidence in sources of external support; institutional corruption, and clientalism.

The evolving situation in Bahrain exhibits most of the problems listed by Monga and other students of autocratic regimes in other parts of the third world.  Reforming a tribal patrimonial regime as the al-Khalifa’s in Bahrain is also proving to be more intricate than those involved have initially imagined. Here one finds some of frequently discussed social and political structures that both hinder and undermine endeavours towards democratising reforms elsewhere in the Third World – a long history of misrule and mismanagement of resources, competing tribal, communal and religious cleavages, as well as lack of mutual trust among political actors seeking reform.  Admittedly, remedying some of these problems can take several generations of political reformers. Some of the obstacles are so acute that one cannot imagine the launching of a serious political reform, let alone a process of democratization, without first resolving them.

The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – are ruled by dynastic regimes, and have relatively similar economic, demographic and social structures. They differ in size, population and wealth but they also share some common features. I will note only three of these common features.  I believe that understanding them is essential to any meaningful discussion on prospects of political reforms, human rights situation in the region and the future prospects of good governance in the region.
The first feature is that all the monarchies in the GCC region are traditional tribal monarchies ruled by autocratic rulers. The prototype ruler relies on the immediate members of his own tribe and family.  They have to share their political and economic support with members of their families and tribes.  In other words, part of complexity of the situation further in Bahrain and the GCC states stems from the fact that the ruling families are not just families. They have economic and political interests and they are active political actors. They have monopolized the political scene and they have monopolized the economic scene. The recently exposed Yammama scandal involving British defence industries and senior members of the Saudi royal family shows that the ruling families have more power and a more unknown political role than we previously suspected.
The second feature is that all the GCC countries are oil-based economies.  Oil revenues as well as other incomes accrued through investing those revenues; provide the ruling families with far superior powers than any of its local adversaries, whether real or potential. However fluctuations in these revenues account for the occasional flexibility shown by Gulf ruling families towards public demands for reforms. This is a simple fact of political life in the region. At the risk of sounding oversimplifying I contend that the pace of king Hamad’s reneging on his promises of political reforms can be gauged by noting the gradual rise of his country’s revenues from oil and gas productions. In 1999, these revenues were 371 million Bahraini dinars causing a deficit of some 63 million BD in that year’s budget. These figures improved steadily in the following years. In 2006 oil and gas revenues reached 1667 million BD, leaving the budget with a surplus of 469 million BD. There similar examples from Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries – promises of reforms are usually more generous and far reaching at times of budgetary deficits or economic difficulties.
 The third common feature is that that all the GCC countries consider themselves allies and friends to the United States. Indeed maintenance of this alliance is an integral component of endeavours by the ruling families to assert legitimacy of their regimes. In spite of occasional tensions the GCC countries have defended their political, economic and military relations with the U.S. American military facilities are spread all over the region and around it: Bahrain hosts the headquarters of  the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and the operations in the U.S. Central Command. 

American presence is an extension of an earlier reliance by ruling families of the Gulf on the British Empire.  (Since 1820, various agreements with representatives of the British crown have provided the tribal chiefs, founders of the present Gulf ruling families, with protection and recognition as rulers. In exchange, all rulers acknowledged the rules of Pax Britannica. Britain’s commitment to the stability of those regimes has been repeatedly reconfirmed in the face of both domestic and regional challenges. When Britain relinquished its role as a protector of the regional status quo, the USA stepped in and began gradually to establish its military presence. Among the United States’ priorities are to safeguard stability in the region and the free and unhindered flow of its oil at reasonable prices to international markets.

Since the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979, the U.S. has assumed a direct role in safeguarding the stability of the Gulf regimes and in guaranteeing their long-term survival. The liberation of Kuwait in 1991 by a military alliance led by the USA is a case in point. As in the past, the price that ruling families have to put up to insure the survival of their regimes is total deference to the interests of their protector and patron. This may explain changes made, or promised, by all GCC countries as soon the U.S. proclaimed human rights part of its foreign policy interests.  All rulers of the GCC fell in line and declared their intentions to introduce political and institutional reforms.  King Hamad’s declaration of his reform project in 1999 is, in my view, part of this process. Similarly, his reneging on that project and the promises he made reflect changes in the U.S. priorities. Human rights and democratic reforms were relegated to the bottom of those priorities since president began mobilizing for the invading Iraq. The subsequent sinking of the unite States in  the Iraqi quagmire reassures Gulf rulers that their patron will not pressure them to introduce political reforms, however  cosmetic they managed to make them.


I see that I have already passed the allocated time. I  will stop now to listen to your comments.

Thank you for your patience. 

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