Institutionalising the Arab Gulf Governments

For the Arab States of the Gulf there are two kinds of reforms, those that are acceptable and those that are off limits. Off limit calls for reform include calling for a constitutional monarchy. Acceptable calls for reform on the other hand include advocating for women's rights and for the election of municipal councils. Is there a middle ground?

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi
1 January 2013

For the Arab States of the Gulf there are two kinds of reforms, those that are acceptable and those that are off limits. Off limit calls for reform include calling for a constitutional monarchy, however inevitable; the policy of the Gulf States in that regard is to kick the ball forward into the future for as long as possible. Acceptable calls for reform on the other hand include advocating for women's rights and for the election of municipal councils. But could there be a middle ground between the acceptable and off limits calls for reform?   

Back in 1748, during the reign of King Louis XV the French political thinker Baron de Montesquieu wrote De l'Esprit des Lois or The Spirit of the Laws (full text), a book that outlines how a government can best function. In his masterpiece Montesquieu calls for a separation of the three branches of government: the judiciary, the executive and the legislative.  

Less than thirty years after the book’s publication, 6,000 kilometres west of Paris a new country was born after a bloody struggle. The founding fathers of the soon to be established United States of America, chief amongst them James Madison were so influenced by Montesquieu’s writings that the concept of separation of the three branches of government was incorporated into the US constitution. 

The separation of powers principle, sometimes known as trias politica ensures that no branch amongst the three enjoys more power and influence over the other. It is a system of checks and balances that to a significant degree prevents the abuse of power and keeps each of the three branches independent. Mid eighteenth-century France was not so different from the Gulf States today, with a reigning absolute monarch, an elite that was benefiting from the status quo, and powerful religious leaders. In the Gulf of the twenty-first century, these three branches of governments are closely intertwined. 

The Executive

Theoretically, the highest executive office across the Gulf States is the position of prime minister. However that is not always the case. For instance, under the Omani constitution the Sultan of Oman is not only head of state and de facto Prime Minister, but also Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, Foreign Minister, Defence Minister and Central Bank Governor. The same applies to Saudi Arabia, where the king who is approaching 90 years old also doubles as prime minister. In fact, the closest Saudi has to an acting prime minister is Khaled Al Tuwaijri, the son of a close advisor to King Abdullah. Sometimes referred to as the “uncrowned king”, Al Tuwaijri’s official post is “President of the Royal Court and as the Private Secretary of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, at ministerial rank”. Elsewhere, although not a clause in the UAE’s constitution the ruler of Dubai or the emirate’s crown prince has traditionally also served as the federation’s prime minister since the country’s founding in 1971. Kuwait’s long standing tradition of having the crown prince serve as a prime minister ended in 2003 when the positions were prised apart, although the country’s Emir is still the senior executive in the emirate. Qatar’s powerful Prime Minister Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabr has served as foreign minister since 1992 and continues to hold both offices today. Finally Bahrain’s long serving prime minister is perhaps the most contentious government figure in the island kingdom. His departure from office was one of the main demands of the Bahrain uprising in the spring of 2011 with protests continuing to this day. One common factor amongst all the Gulf States, unlike Jordan and Morocco is that the prime minister is always a member of the ruling family with appointments being, save for in Kuwait, a lifetime position.

The Judiciary

In the Gulf States today, Kuwait’s judiciary is the most independent judiciary amongst the Gulf States despite a number of grievances. For instance, Kuwaiti courts have detained and jailed members of the ruling family for crimes including “political tweets”, another for selling food unfit for human consumption, a ruling family member Editor in Chief was also detained for insulting the Emir and the public prosecutor. In other rare cases for the Gulf, members of the Kuwaiti ruling family have received much harsher sentences; one was sentenced to death for killing his nephew and another to death for drug trafficking.

There are few records of other Gulf States sentencing members of their ruling families for offences although the UAE today detains one ruling family member from Ras Al Khaimah and has previously put another from Abu Dhabi on trial. Qatar sentenced members of the ruling family for life in 2000 - however that was for an attempted coup against the Emir himself. The judiciary in the Gulf is prone to interference; it is also not uncommon for judges to be replaced halfway through a trial, for appeals judges to serve in courts of first instances or for judges to remove defendants during their own trials. One of the reasons why the judiciary is not independent is the fact that many judges are themselves not citizens of these Gulf States, nor are appointments assured for life.  Incumbents can therefore come under a great deal of pressure from the authorities.

The Legislative

Once again, Kuwait’s legislature is by far the most developed of the Gulf States; this is the result of several decades of struggle for rights by the civil society. The country’s parliament has been accused of hindering economic growth and holding back oil production expansion projects for decades - accusations that allow other Gulf governments to point to it as proof of the undesirable outcomes of taking democratic steps. However one major incident is perhaps strong enough to redeem this “dysfunctional” entity. Following the demise of Kuwait’s longserving Emir Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmad in 2006, the Kuwaiti parliament intervened and voted to oust his successor, the ailing Sheikh Saad Al Abdullah from office. Soon after, the parliament nominated and then confirmed the Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad as the new Emir. This episode is one of the most important political milestones in modern Gulf history and perhaps the only incident in history where an individual entered a parliamentary building as a prime minister and left it as monarch. 


To be sure, a complete separation of powers is very difficult to attain. Even in democratic states such as the US the president wields veto power, effectively meshing the executive into the legislative (in 2009 President George W Bush used his veto to overturn a bill passed by Congress that bans torture). But even though it is very difficult to attain, there is an urgent need to move towards institutionalised systems of government where the entire country is not held hostage to the health of the monarch or a ruling family feud. The separation of the three branches of government through reforms, is only one, albeit a major step that needs to be undertaken by the Gulf States. Others include the development of civil societies, minority, immigrant and women’s rights along with freedom of expression and transparency. The separation of powers however is a long overdue step for the Gulf States and one that will allow them to take a giant leap into the present day.

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