When the young Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in front of authorities in late 2010, his actions and the subsequent Tunisian uprising lit a spark that ignited the entire region.
But one part of the Middle East that has remained relatively stable has been the smaller Gulf states: Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. With the exception of Bahrain, the smallest countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council have remained fairly insulated from the revolutionary cries spreading throughout the rest of the region. There have been small protests calling for limited reform, but nothing close to the scale of the protests in Tunisia and Egypt. This is surprising, given that these countries are all monarchies with power concentrated at the top and limited opportunity for popular political representation.
The reasons for these monarchs’ relative stability stem from their abilities to modernize, liberalize, and provide for their people. The fact that these countries have generated great wealth from oil revenues has surely helped to assuage citizens’ financial concerns, but not without the leaders' commitment to putting that wealth to work for the people.
Kuwait is the most democratic of the four countries. It holds elections for parliament, which has significant lawmaking powers, and is the only one of the Gulf countries that is ranked by Freedom House as “Partly Free,” instead of “Not Free.” But other prosperous Gulf states have presented Kuwait as an argument against holding elections. Many view the Kuwaiti parliament's extensive wrangling over what are often seen as petty issues as a barrier to development in that country.
For instance, in 2008, Kuwait Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah dissolved parliament because of the quarreling. Sultan bin Mohamed al-Qassimi, a political columnist in the UAE, contrasted growth in the UAE to stagnation in Kuwait, pointing to democratic politics as an issue: "Look at Kuwait. We can see how politics made the country stagnant. We have been able to overtake the country that used to be the richest in the Gulf."
Among these four, Oman has been most affected by the Arab Spring, as some Omanis have gathered to protest labor standards, unemployment, and the lack of freedoms. But the sentiment in Oman has generally been, "Long live the Sultan, but give us some reforms." Loyalty to Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said — the current leader who has been in power for over 40 years — remains strong, and many of the activists who have staged protests in the country have also declared their allegiance to the sultan. Omanis see him as the figure who transformed their country to a modern state with widespread access to health care, education, and many modern luxuries. Many Omanis may want more freedoms, but one of them is not necessarily to elect their leader.
Even without mass civil unrest, the monarchs have recognized the potential threat of the Arab Spring to their own positions and have been quick to respond. Each of them has introduced some sort of political or social reform since January. Kuwait’s cabinet resigned earlier in the year, new benefit programs were announced, and the emir has expressed his recognition that political reform is needed to improve its democracy. Oman’s sultan issued 28 royal decrees, reshuffling the cabinet and giving more legislative power to the partially elected Oman Council. The UAE announced that it will hold elections for the Federal National Council in September, and that the number of people allowed to cast votes will be 20 times the number who were able to in 2006. Qatar held municipal local elections in May, with parliamentary elections to come in 2013.
There is a tendency in media and academic circles to dismiss recent democratic reforms in the Gulf states as simply symbolic moves on the parts of monarchs to silence protesters, and not real steps toward meaningful reform. But these are baby steps toward democracy. Chairman of the UAE National Election Committee Anwar Gargash admits political change will occur gradually, suiting the “country’s temper.” He also said, “Creating meaningful participation is a necessity, not a sideshow.” Full-fledged democracy and reform will not happen overnight.
We should be wary to transpose the idea of "American exceptionalism" onto the stable Gulf states — namely, the sentiment that the final solution is liberal democracy worldwide, and that we should work to hasten it. These states have shown us that remarkable growth and prosperity can occur in a non-democracy.
The Gulf states undoubtedly have room to grow in terms of affording more voice and freedoms to their citizens, but when these states choose to introduce reforms in response to the will of their people, it will be a gradual process. And this process, slowly but surely, has already begun. While some of the reforms are certainly more meaningful than others, it is important to remember that Gulf states have little to no history and experience with democracy, so they are doing things at their own pace. Rather than forcing a weak democracy onto a relatively strong state, democratic reforms should be taken slowly and on their own time.
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