By Brian Whitaker
Since 2011, the uprisings in Arab republics have led to a belief that monarchies are inherently more stable. But a new report from Chatham House, the British foreign affairs think tank, questions whether the resilience of Arab monarchies in the past means they will also be resilient in the future.
The report argues that politics in the six (monarchical) Gulf Cooperation Council states – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – will be "significantly transformed" in the coming decade as a result of several factors:
- "Generational change, with 60 per cent of the population under the age of 30, is placing strain on traditional political structures."
- "The revenues from energy resources are not sufficient to sustain the current political-economic bargain in the medium to long term: three of the six GCC countries need oil at US$100 per barrel in order to balance their budgets, and, crucially, these ‘break-even’ prices are rising as population growth adds to public-sector wage and subsidy bills."
- "In four of the GCC states, hydrocarbon resources will run out within the lifetime of citizens born today."
- "Current and future shifts in the structure of the political economy, demographics, education and the availability of information will all affect power relations between states and citizens, citizens and expatriates, and different social groups. Citizens in these six states ... will expect more of a say in how they are governed and how their countries’ resources are managed."
The 68-page report, Future Trends in the Gulf, is the result of three years' research including workshops in the region, and makes a very substantial contribution to discussion about where the Gulf is heading. It also makes some interesting policy recommendations for other countries in their dealings with the Gulf states. Its first recommendation is this:
"Diversify the base of relations with the Gulf beyond the existing elite – and reach out to a broader base among the increasingly well-educated and aspirational new generation."
This might not sound very radical but in countries where the regime sees itself as the only interlocutor and doesn't want alternative voices to be heard (especially not by foreigners) it touches a sensitive spot. The report notes: "Reaching out to civil society and political parties can prove tricky, as local governments are often suspicious of such attempts."
In 2010, for example, Bahrain demanded the removal of Britain's ambassador, Jamie Bowden, accusing him of "interfering in the country's internal affairs" after he met members of the opposition al-Wefaq party. Britain duly shuffled Bowden off to Oman and replaced him with Iain Lindsay who is regarded as little more than a PR man for the regime.
Last July, Bahrain ordered Tom Malinowski, the US assistant secretary of state for human rights, to cut short a visit on the grounds that he had violated "conventional diplomatic norms" by meeting the leader of the Wefaq opposition party.
"Alliances will be more resilient," the Chatham House report says, "the more they are valued by the wider local populations, especially among the younger generation. This means there is a case for a more people-centred and less elite-centred approach to the Gulf, especially when it comes to setting economic and security priorities." Diplomats, it adds, "should not see local governments as the only people entitled to speak for particular cultures".
The report also makes an important contribution by calling for "a fresh discourse" on security cooperation in the Gulf. While noting that Gulf state have "a particularly important role to play in helping to counter violent extremist groups", it says:
"Defence cooperation with the Gulf needs to be placed in a wider political context, where respect for human rights is not seen as being at odds with security imperatives, but as part of ensuring sustainable security."
There is still a tendency among western governments to view human rights as something of a luxury – desirable but less important than business and security interests. In the age of ISIS, though, that argument is becoming more and more difficult to sustain. The religious policies of Gulf states – laws against blasphemy and apostasy, for example – show a striking resemblance to those of ISIS as well as legitimising and encouraging intolerance more generally (an issue discussed in detail in my book, Arabs Without God).
The Chatham House report says:
"In partnering with Gulf countries against extremism, Western allies need to broach sensitive issues such as religious education in Saudi Arabia, or the impact on Western publics and Muslim communities outside the region of publicly flogging Saudi blogger Raif Badawi for ‘insulting Islam’, even as the world debates the balance between free speech and religious sensitivity in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris."
While it is not up to western countries to bring participatory government to the Gulf, the report says, "it is in their long-term national interest to ensure that their methods of engagement do not hold it back".
In this area the report sounds a couple of cautionary notes. One is not to allow counterterrorism efforts to be used for political score-settling:
"Western governments need to avoid being drawn in – whether through their own agencies or through private companies – to assisting governments in uncovering ‘crimes’ that in their countries would be seen as rights, as evidenced, for instance, in the lengthy prison sentences meted out to young bloggers for ‘insulting’ rulers."Since 2001, the ‘war on terror’ has led to examples, from Yemen to Afghanistan, of international counterterrorism being co-opted to settle discrete scores. While policing in the GCC is far more subtle, disagreements over the broad definition of ‘terrorism’ do raise problems for counterterrorism cooperation."
The other cautionary note is that "security" means different things to different people. While Western countries are understandably preoccupied with tackling groups that threaten their own people (currently Islamic State and Al-Qaeda), the report says, "Gulf populations want more weight to be given to protecting people in their region – especially Iraqis, Syrians and Palestinians – from state violence and refugeehood as well as terrorist groups":
"A fresh discourse on Gulf security needs to take account of the need for people to feel secure vis-àvis their own governments, for instance by ensuring the police are held accountable by independent judiciaries, and ending lengthy detention without trial.
"Such concerns need to be taken into account when setting priorities for both private- and public-sector cooperation with GCC security establishments. The smaller Gulf countries have some of the world’s largest police forces relative to their populations."