The Struggle for democracy in the Gulf


Chairman: Dr Saeed Shehabi:  We are going to discuss today one of the topical subjects which is of concern to us all. We have benefited from these debates over the years. We have participated in debates on issues affecting our part of the world and our interaction with the Western hemisphere.

Today we are living in a world which is dominated by a superpower and that superpower has been changing its policies over the decades, sometimes over years and sometimes over short periods of time. Sometimes we find it is there to support the despotic regimes, the dictators and at other times we hear from them that they are going to support the democratic reforms in the Arab and Muslim world.

The debate is still  going on. Everyone is worried about what is going on in this world. Who is really in charge of what is going on especially in the Middle East. The Gulf is of paramount importance to its people but also to the West. It has more than 60 percent of the world’s oil reserves and it has functioned over the past 50 years to produce the very necessary component that is needed by the Western world: factories, livelihood all depend on oil. Oil has remained the most central element in the  industrialization and the technological advancement of the world.

But what is the Gulf? Is just a place where there is a abundance of oil hidden under the ground. Or is it more than that?  Does it have people? Do these people have aspirations? What do they want? Do they really want to be just consumers and living  a luxurious life style. I heard before I came that a person from Qatar has bought a special telephone number for $2.7 million because the number is nice. But dose this really reflect reality? Are the people of the Gulf so rich?  Are the people in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, downtown Doha or Oman so well off that they have millions to spend on private numbers? Or are they living as anyone in the world, struggling to gain their own livelihood through their own sweat and hard work.

There is money, there are petrol dollars but are they being distributed evenly among the people? Is everybody getting the same share? What about democracy? Is there something called reform? We have heard over the past five to ten years of efforts to democratize the region. Next month elections will be held in Kuwait after parliament was dissolved last week by the newly appointed emir of the country. Elections will be held but will they produce a democratic government? What is democracy? It think the basic tenant of democracy is to be able to change the government. Are our government changeable in that region?

Dr Abdul Hadi Khalaf : The topic that I plan to speak about is the struggle for democracy in the Gulf and I have three issues to address. I hope you will help me to keep focus. The first is the recent rise of labour activism among migrant workers in the Gulf; second the problem of succession in the ruling families; third obstacles that we fact in our struggle towards democracy.

I have to digress and make some points as background. The GCC that we are speaking about  is a group of countries: Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. They are ruled by dynastic regimes and have similar economic, demographic and social structures. They all depend on oil for their economy, they are ruled by tribes that have acquired legitimacy through a number of sources. The initial one was approval by British colonial powers as chiefdoms of the region. This legitimacy was consolidated  by discovery of oil and the subsequent of increase of wealth. The ruling families are ready to control distribution of that wealth.

These are the similarities but of course there are differences: differences in size, area, population.  Iraq has 24 million people while Qatar has 500 – 600 thousand. Bahrain is only 600 km while Saudi Arabia is one thousand times more. The size is different but the political structure, the problems that democratic forces face are the same.

For decades we have had  patrimonial regimes that stood in international politics as almost unique. It is difficult to understand why the Gulf ruling regimes could sustain  stability although the whole region was  coming into changes from the 50s,. 60s and 70s. These were changes that  brought revolutions, civil wars etc but the Gulf maintained its stability. It was almost an oddity.

This exceptional situation was explained by different factors. One of those was the  regional role that these regimes played in the cold war, providing through their wealth and prestige some buffer against drastic changes in the region. They could interfere in Egypt, Sudan and Syria and a number of other places, including far away places like Italy in 1975 to help maintain stability and the balance of America in the cold war.

This was part of the stability. Money accrued from oil also played its part in enabling the regimes to buy support. Support was easy to make. It did not touch the people but it gave people services like education and social infrastructure that made life easy and compared to the rest of the region quite tolerable. This reduced the  pressure from the population against the regime. The third source is the oil money which allowed the regimes to invest a large about of money in infrastructure. This made the import of foreign labour, especially from the Indian sub-continent possible.

This created a second class labour force, a labour force that was outside the system to, a working class that had no entitlement to demand their rights. They were not allowed to demand their rights because they were temporary residents and because of the system that was defined so well that no migrant workers can be secure of his or her employment. This employment can be terminated within six months or at any point.

We have seen this. In 1973 In Bahrain we carried labour organisation as part of the struggle and we managed to organise foreign workers and Bahrainis in common actions. One of these was in the dry docks where we had the strange situation of 400 Pakistanis in the dry docks from Karachi and 70 Bahrainis. There was an argument to give the same wages to the Pakistanis. It was a very selfish argument on the part of the Bahrainis. If the Bahrainis are more expensive than the Pakistanis then we will get more Pakistanis. So let them be our equal.

This was a successful experience and the regimes all over the Gulf learned from this. Since then they have split the labour market so you do not get an over concentration of workers from the same nationality in the same region. You will get Pakistanis but you will get some people from Lahore and some from Quetta in the same work place so the ability for them to co-operate is reduced.

The presence of foreign workers in the whole are provided the locals with an illusion of superiority. We are better than the rest. Even the poor could employ a foreign maid or find themselves better paid than their co-workers.

The factors that maintained security came to an almost abrupt stop. The stop occurred in relation to September 11. It was a combination of factors but after September 11 the ruling families realised that hitherto they had done well but now there is a stop. Our role as a regional factor in the cold war is coming to and end, there is no cold war. The mismanagement of the economy, endemic corruption, wasteful investment has meant that even the wealth that was accrued from oil production has also become weakened and weakened the regime’s ability to disperse benefits.

Oil revenues also zigzagged. We had fluctuations in the oil market that forced the regimes like Saudi Arabia to borrow billions of dollars, externally and domestically  during the past two years.

The regimes came to realise that the happy fairy story they had been living has come to an end and they should consider a general overhaul of their systems. This awareness was quite evident even from Bush senior when he claimed that the liberation of Kuwait would launch a period of democratization in the Gulf and will bring more awareness of human rights etc

I believed senior Bush myself so immediately after the end of the Kuwait war I took the first available plane to Bahrain and I was not allowed in because the government did not believe him either.  But many people in the region believed that now the  regimes are weakened because of the changes in the geo-political context and their control of the economy is not as great as it was.

I will ask you to think again about September 11 because for the Gulf this is a historical flash point. From the rulers’ perspectives this threshold was evident  as they were now being questioned as the true allies of the United States. They policies boomeranged and they introduced some of those hated terrorists that attacked the USA and exposed the great super power as a weak state.

The second factor was the launching of the United States Partnership. Here was a policy, a road map, something that the Americans want to do to us. It is no longer the case that domestic affairs are ours and foreign policy in the Americans. They will now interfere in how we manage our economy, our educational system etc

This is for the whole Gulf. I am not just talking about Saudi Arabia. They rulers of the six GCC countries found themselves facing something that they had never seen before, something that questions their very existence and asks them to reform and demands reforms. The requests and demands were coming from two separate places: one domestically demanding reform, we now have to get something for our sacrifices, for the losses of our welfare and also from the USA the patron of these regimes.

External and internal critics of the regimes have different agendas but the timing coincided. Different issues were demanded: the right to participate in politics and to be citizens. The idea of becoming a citizen in the Gulf had never been discussed. Now it is one of the hot topics that is discussed in most newspapers in different ways all the GCC countries. How to change our status from being subjects to becoming citizens. We have been subjects now we want to be citizens with all the entitlements that citizenship can entail.

For the external patron, especially the United States, the issues were naturally different. They wanted to make the regimes more palatable and acceptable in order to decrease the risks of instability. Even hardliners  within the ruling families came to the realization that they had to something and  accept reforms. But there were a number of issues that the disagreed on within the ruling families themselves. The disagree on how urgent the reforms are and to what extent they should be pushed.

Since September 11 all observers outside and inside are in agreement that the ruling families are now convinced and aware that they cannot afford to procrastinate and delay. They have to do something to show that their intention to reform are real. But between declaring the intention to reform and actually reforming is a long way to go. We have yet to see concrete measures and steps. We have seen steps of reform in Bahrain but those steps did not survive more than a few months until they were exposed as cosmetic changes and public relations exercises.

So what are the obstacles for these regimes to democratize or to introduce real reforms. Students of the area can list a lot of factors. We have several contributors in this book that Saeed Shehabi and I co-edited and there you will note that the issues, the factors why the Gulf is not democratizing can be taken from Pakistan, from Trinidad from anywhere due to the weakness of civil society. The Gulf  civil society is weak, is it affected by confessionalism, tribalism and ethnic divisions.

The second factor is the absence of national feeling, national belonging and national identity. You have the other factor that is thrown at you every time you discuss democracy in the third world, that is the lack of a democratic culture. This  applies to discussions about Trinidad as much as Bahrain.

Now I will concentrate on another factor: why democracy and reform is not attempted as quickly and as seriously as we would like, namely the conflicts within the ruling families. The ruling families are not in agreement about reforms. There are hopes. They all agree that the ruling family should survive but some of them would accept that reforms are necessary for their survival. Some think they can hold out.

This is a serious factor because when you look at the six countries they are hit by severe conflicts within the ruling family, conflicts that are so serious ( as in the Kuwaiti example) that they have to take so many days to come to an agreement on who will be the next ruler, as was the case in January. Now this has led to the dissolution of the Kuwaiti parliament.

I will sum up that the problem they are facing with a metaphor of P Huntington made some 35 years ago on the kings dilemma. To paraphrase the Kings dilemma of a reformer king – how to reform without loosing power. How to reform without encouraging domestic opponents from demanding more.

We having ruling families that are facing a dilemma on three fronts: first there is the fear and apprehension that if they concede to the demands of their domestic opposition or if they succumb to external pressures, they will open the gates for a flood that may sweep their regimes. You never know what will happen. Concessions will empower their domestic opponents. We have seen evidence of this in Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The only opponents will only ask for more because if they see a sign of weakness they will force us to do more.

They also know that they cannot delay reforms. They have to make the reforms. Procrastination is not only dangerous, it can also lead to expanding the networks of domestic opposition and may create alliances between domestic and external opposition.

Here we have factors against two wills. If we give in they will ask for more but we cannot delay matters anymore.

The third thing they know is that if they attempt serious reforms there will be serious conflicts within the ruling family. It is simply because the ruling family is not like that in Britain or Sweden. Being a member of the ruling family means power, wealth and  the ability to  accumulate more wealth and more power. The case was here that during the debate in Kuwait on women’s rights we have seen the split within the ruling family between those who opposed reforms and they were such powerful persons as the Chief of the National Guard, the Chief of State Security were  among the opponents. The chief of State Security in fact went on live televised talk show and attacked the government for giving it to the reformers on women’s rights. He considered it an illicit deal. He later apologised for his attack but the point was made that this is one of several anecdotal evidences that the matter is serious.

We have details of the situation in Bahrain. There is some split between the king and his uncle, the prime minister. It is not a split between two persons but between two factions in the ruling family. Similar things can be said about Saudi Arabia and about the UAE.

The problems that are generated by internal conflicts within the ruling family is seen all over the region. The only one that has no such problem is Oman and the reason for that is simple. Oman has the smallest ruling family, it is not  as entrenched or deeply involved in the economy as other ruling families in the Gulf but also because the Abu Said in Oman are the smallest in number. Another factor is that Sultan of Oman has  concentrated all power in his hand. There is no competitor to him within his family. So internal squabbles within the Omani ruling family can be counted out.

In Bahrain squabbles between the ruling family are serious. I mentioned the king and his prime minister. You can see this in daily life. Sometimes farcical things happen.  This bridge is for the king, this hospital is for the prime minister and competing projects. Some have no economic or investment values but reflect the competition between them. Who will put his hand on which island to be his private island. Competition about these resources in also competition about power and control. Control of wealth is also control of how this wealth is dispersed.

We have seen the Kuwaiti example and I mentioned the number of senior members of the Al Sabah family that are put on each side. This did some good in Kuwait. It was exposed in January and because it was exposed and they couldn’t even settle it, the  factions of the ruling families came to a deadlock and had to seek help from parliament.  That was the only thing that came out of it: giving parliament a role in settling disputes within the ruling family.

Qatar is more serious, although it has a small population there is a major American military base there. The problem succession in Qatar has been chronic for generations. For the last seventy or eighty years there has not been a ruler who came through normal succession – there has always been some sort of coup d’etat. In fact the latest ruler of Qatar made a coup d’etat against his own son – and father ! His son was the crown prince and he deposed him and appointed another son.

This is not exotic news. It frightens me because each of these persons has his allies, his supporters within the ruling family. The father tried to rally his supporters to launch a counter coup but he failed. I don’t know if the deposed crown prince will try but the chances are there.

Saudi Arabia will be the most serious of all because the  youngest in line to being crown prince is past 65. Now they have to settle something. The Al Saud family has to come to an agreement on how to settle their succession problem otherwise the defacto states will be established in parts of Saudi Arabia.  Now each governorate is ruled almost on its own with the absolute of the governor to run domestic affairs Each of the governors are sons of Ibn Saud or King Abdul Aziz and these governors might try to establish their absolute power once a conflict is prolonged.

To me the ruling families in the  Gulf and their squabbles is the most serious because now we have come back to the ethnic conflict, to the weakness of civil society, confessionalism and tribalism. These are fed by factions within the ruling families. Each ruling family tries to recruit allies from the tribes and ethnic groups and members of the civil society. Emirs and princes are competing with each other recruiting allies within each of these corporations, tribes and ethnic groups. There is a serious split within tribes as a reflection of competition between princes and emirs.

But there are some  major signs of hope. The major sign of hope is international interest. International interest is a major sign of hope. It is a different types of international interest by governments even Bush and Blair and the like. They push for some reforms which suit their own agendas but they are putting pressure on the ruling families to make concessions.

The second source of international interest is by the media. Now we have a major presence of the major  media channels in the region. We have also the fantastic grown of the blog, webs and all the information that IT  has provided us. This creates a media revolution and our news our exposed and broadcast.

The third source of international interest is the international NGO’s. I am not talking of the admirable work of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Both are admirable. Now the International Labour Organisation is getting interested. We have for ages tried to get them interested in the region.

This comes to the second source of hope: the rise of the activism of foreign labour in the Gulf. Foreign labour in the Gulf, migrant workers are more active now. You have probably heard and read of riots and strikes and sit ins organised in Dubai, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar by foreign workers. Sometimes what you have heard is only part of the story.  The other side of the story is the trade unionizing of these workers by people who come to organize them from their home countries.

The third element of social hope is the rise of  elite activism. Our elites,  hundreds of people – women, intellectuals and academics, even government employees are getting more active and encouraged by the general atmosphere and relying on the loop holes that conflicts between princes provide.

The fourth element is grass roots activism which is not evident all over the place. It is evident in Bahrain, Kuwait and in the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia where you see people organizing themselves in a non-traditional manner that we have not experienced before. In Bahrain they have beaten the politicos like me and the ulemas.

* Abdulhadi Khalaf is Senior Lecturer in Sociology of Development at Lund University. After getting his PhD in 1972, he was elected as a member of Bahrain’s parliament in 1973-4. He worked as a senior researcher and consultant at Team International, Beirut; the Arab Development Institute, and UN-ESCWA. His current research interest is the role of NGOs in the democratization processes in the Gulf region. His most recent publication is included in the Swedish language anthology ‘Social Movements.’ His published books in Arabic include ‘Conditions and needs of Working Women in Bahrain’ (1983), ‘Civil Resistance’ (1986), and ‘State-Building in Bahrain’ (2004). His publications in English include The Unfinished Business – State Building in Bahrain, (2001).

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