The black swan of the Gulf

The military and security apparatuses of these Gulf states plays a role in keeping the peace, but the best way forward is to build a civil society that is bound by a unifying mechanism such as a functioning, representative, elected parliament.

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi
24 September 2012

It has become clear twenty months into the Arab uprisings that the Arab Gulf states have decided to clamp down and maintain their political status quo. In fact, instead of introducing meaningful political reforms some have taken leaps backwards in time. In his 2004 book Fooled By Randomness, Nassim Nicholas Taleb introduces us to his ‘black swan theory’ regarding events that are so big that they are hard to predict and vastly alter the course of history. I believe that the Gulf states will continue to maintain their position until they are subjected to a black swan event; something so unpredictable that it would finally jolt them into swallowing the bitter reform pill. 

The Gulf states have been receptive to ‘black swan’ events before, setting up the Gulf Cooperation Council in the wake of the Iran-Iraq war. Back in 1986, Kuwait’s Emir suspended parliament and resisted citizen petitions to reinstate the National Assembly as late as 1989. The following year Saddam invaded Kuwait, and the Emir held an historic gathering of Kuwaiti tribal leaders and politicians in the Saudi Red Sea port of Jeddah, which became the seat of the Kuwaiti government in exile. The “Jeddah Conference” as it became known, convened on October 13 and 14, saw the Emir promise to reinstate the parliament after liberation in an attempt to rally the Kuwaitis. In October 1992 Kuwait’s elected parliament reconvened. 

Perhaps the most understated significant event in Saudi history was the so-called Great Aramco Strike of October 1953 when more than 13,000 Saudi and Palestinian workers of the oil giant downed their tools demanding working conditions that matched their American colleagues. Gamal Abdul Nasser, Egypt’s socialist leader, who had introduced widespread labour reforms in his country, seems to have inspired the striking workers. The Saudis responded with carrot and stick gestures but ultimately agreed to many of the workers’ demands. Black swan events pepper the recent history of the region, government actions in Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi during the ongoing Arab uprisings show that they are still employing a reactive rather than a proactive methodology. 

In the wake of criticism levied against Qatar for supporting democracy everywhere but at home, the Emir promised last year that advisory council elections would be held in 2013, a full decade after the gas rich state introduced a permanent constitution. But we’ve seen this movie before. The result is likely to mirror other ineffective parliaments in the region. Nor is Kuwait’s celebrated but dysfunctional parliament an experience to emulate, rather it has silenced even some of the biggest advocates of political reform in the region. This has become a classic chicken or egg dilemma. Introduce political reforms and watch economic development stagnate à la Kuwait or procrastinate until frustration leads to street protests à la Bahrain? The Gulf states have survived the first round of the Arab uprisings’ unrest but it is unlikely that we have seen the end of them. 

But what are the possible black swan events that could take place in the Gulf? Here are several from an exhaustive list: 

1- Israeli threats of striking Iran’s nuclear facilities have been echoed by the country’s top leadership. Should Israel carry out this strike the human, environmental, military and social ramifications would not be limited to Iran but would affect the Arab Gulf States as well. Iran has threatened to retaliate should it be attacked and many believe that US interests in the Gulf could be targets. These could be military such as the US Navy Fifth Fleet base in Bahrain or the Udaid base in Qatar, US commercial interests in the UAE or the oil facilities in Saudi’s eastern province.

2-  An internal coup. Bahrain and Kuwait are the two Gulf States that did not witness palace coups in the last few decades (these were also the two states with functioning parliaments, not anymore). A coup d’état, though unlikely, could introduce unknown variables into any political equation.

3-  A botched succession. Almost all Gulf leaders are ill, old or both. Some states such as Oman have quite ambiguous succession plans that could lead to infighting amongst the ruling elite.

4-  An external threat. The Gulf States border some of the most unstable countries in the world including Yemen and Iraq that have gone through devastating levels of violence that can have spill over effects. Additionally the Gulf States, especially Qatar and Saudi support the Syrian rebels with arms and ammunition. This could backfire if the Syrian Baathists decide to take the battle to the Gulf States’ own backyard either before or after the brutal Syrian regime falls.

5-  Militarisation of the opposition, especially in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

6-  An expatriate uprising or labour strike. The UAE and Qatar are amongst the countries most at risk in this case due to their demographic imbalance. In October 2007 a strike halted work on Burj Khalifa when 34,000 South Asian workers downed their tools demanding improvements in their salaries, transportation and accommodation from their employer Arabtec. March 2006 witnessed a 2,500 labour riot also at Burj Khalifa by Arabtec employees. In January 2011 another incident by the same company’s employees saw 30,000 workers go on strike.

7-  Extremist Islamic forces launching attacks in the Arab Gulf States. Saudi Arabia has already suffered a wave of Al Qaeda terror attacks between 2003 and 2006, while a senior prince was targeted in 2009. Additionally, militarised Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood fighters in Syria have gained urban fighting experience that other groups lack. These fighters who are not bound by any rules of engagement, may direct their sights towards their backers in Qatar and Saudi after the fighting in Syria ends.

8-  The fall of one of the eight Arab monarchies. In the past few decades the monarchies of Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Tunisia and Egypt all transformed into republics. It is not beyond question for this to recur in Jordan or Bahrain without urgent serious reform.

9-  The bonus wildcard here could be maverick Qatar introducing major political reforms instead of the announced cosmetic advisory council elections next year, encouraging others to follow suite. 

While the above risks cannot be eliminated completely, the Gulf monarchies may be able to minimise the chances of them occurring, along with their impact. To be sure, the military and security apparatuses of these Gulf states plays a role in keeping the peace, especially from external threats, but certainly the best way forward is to build a civil society that is cohesive and bound by a unifying mechanism such as a functioning representative elected parliament. 

At an Arab world conference in Paris last summer I encountered a senior Kuwaiti sheikha and asked her assessment of Kuwait’s dysfunctional parliament. Her reply astonished me; she called it “sammam al aman” (the safety valve) of the ruling family despite its numerous flaws. The black swan lesson of Kuwait, its invasion and the “Jeddah Conference” should not be missed by the Gulf rulers of today. After all, it’s still not too late for pre-emptive reform.

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