Middle East

Democracy in the Middle East

The Gulf After the Change

Qatari women stroll along the corniche in Doha
Qatari women still do not have the vote (Photo: Robert Sullivan/AFP).

While uncertainty about the future political shape of Iraq remains, there are indications of possible widespread political changes in the region, especially within those governments that are not as oppressive and are more respectful of human rights.

This doesn’t mean that the region is on the verge of drastic change, especially considering the superficiality and inconsistency of statements by White House officials and the low priority democratization holds in current American global strategy. However, in Iraq’s case, it is difficult to imagine a return to its prior absence of democratic practices, gross violations of human rights, and continuation of political tensions. And it is also difficult to imagine the possibility of the Persian Gulf region remaining outside the process of political change.

Pessimists in the region regard the American presence as detrimental to the will of the people, as assistance to the Israelis, and an attempt to force normalization between Arabs and Israelis. They also think it is farfetched that Washington will transform its military advantage, and its inclination to rely on the military in political crises, to become a power that shifts its focus to aiding and spreading democratization. The United States has never been prepared to accept any democracy that amounts to strengthening political entities independent of its control—especially if they are Islamists.

The governments in the Gulf must realize the danger of leaving things as they are. Many regimes that relied on the military have failed or are on the point of failing. The military hold has weakened in Pakistan, Indonesia, Turkey, and Algeria, and the regime in Baghdad has fallen. Thus it is impossible to imagine the ruling regimes in the Gulf not reforming themselves and embracing the necessity for incremental change.

At this point, these regimes have used up all the sayings they previously employed to refuse reform or political advancements, such as “Our nation is different from other nations” and “Democratic practices are not in harmony with our customs and traditions.” Their attempts to bypass popular requests or aspirations have succeeded in postponing change; yet, the notion of change hasn’t been given up completely. With this in mind, some people interpret the support given by Gulf states to the American forces during the war on Iraq as part of a framework of political self-defense. Their aid laid the foundation for American satisfaction and the necessity of continuing support for these friendly governments.

Some of the ruling families in the Gulf realize the importance of political change as a means to prevent the occurrence of more fundamental change. And so, following the 1991 war, we saw limited attempts at change when the Kuwaiti government returned to work on a constitution and reformed Parliament. In Saudi Arabia, King Fahd established some changes by introducing the all-appointed Consultative Council. Likewise, the government of Bahrain formed a Consultative Council, also appointed by the ruling family, and Sultan Qaboos of Oman transformed the Consultative Assembly to a Consultative Council.

The Kuwaiti Parliament undertook the most serious of these reforms, while the Saudi and Bahrain experiments failed in alleviating occasional political crises. The political situation in these two countries has led to great problems and security tensions; in Saudi Arabia, the strength of the opposition has crystallized into new entities that propagate in mosques and other limited outlets, and are fundamentally antagonistic to the American presence on Saudi soil. The reason for this is that in the mid-1990s, popular sentiment viewed the American presence as inseparable from the absence of democratic political practices. This was exactly the situation that occurred in Iran before the 1979 revolution, when American hegemony protected the autocratic shah.

In the 1990s, the United States was indifferent to the situation under the Saudi ruling family and didn’t talk about changes, while the Consultative Council withered away to become peripheral. As for Bahrain, the government enacted political reform resting on the principle of a new ambiguous national charter. After only two years of this “reform,” the charter has become ineffective in the view of the majority of citizens since the failure of the leadership to implement certain requirements. The general sentiment is that matters have returned to square one, concurrent with an increase of tension and frustration. Undoubtedly, any positive democratic developments in Iraq will affect the situation in Bahrain, because of the political and religious similarities of the two countries.

The United States has encouraged, as far as its authorities are concerned, some Gulf governments to open up politically, and the Bahraini experiment was announced as a litmus test. And now, along with Bahrain, we can add the Qatari experiment as another model of reform in the Gulf.

Qatar is the smallest Gulf nation in population and yet has been initiating political changes since Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani succeeded his father as emir. The government in Doha opened up on many fronts, inaugurating Al-Jazeera, the most independent Arabic TV channel, as positive proof of substantial freedoms. And Qatar has opened lines of political contact with Israel.

The political reform process began four years ago with municipal council elections that culminated last week in a vote for a new constitution. While Qatar has entered a new constitutional age, in essence, these steps safeguarded the government. The new Qatari constitution will not change the country into a haven of democracy, especially since it sanctifies authority in the hands of the emir, does not allow the alternation of power, and does not give the elected members of Parliament powers to form the government.

However, the Al-Thani ruling family is now able to say that it supported political reform before the populace demanded it and that it pre-emptively took on the issue of the constitution and gave the elected representatives legal powers similar to the Kuwaiti experiment. With these types of reforms, Qatar went further than the other Gulf experiments, comparatively speaking. Yet it is clear that the kind of participatory democracy promised by the United States is still in its infancy.

What these political undertakings amount to is a potpourri of superficial reforms (Bahrain), mixed with greater seriousness (Kuwait, then Qatar). But regardless, women are still excluded from political participation. Thus, the United States has a lot of work to do to make good on its promises; as of yet, there is no real working democracy project on the ground. And it is evident that the American leadership is clearly selective in who will participate [in the democratic reshaping of the region]: The United States has stressed that it didn’t topple Saddam to permit the establishment of an Islamic regime in its place.

Washington has two choices: allow people to make decisions about their own fate and encourage democratic reforms; or continue its old policies of supporting autocracies and selectively interpreting democracy in service of U.S. interests.