It’s a question I have returned to over and over again: Why are the Arab Gulf states so averse to actual political reform? In an earlier piece I suggested that the factors that prevent the Gulf states from undertaking serious political reform include pressure from regional states and resistance from tribal chiefs, the clergy and intellectual and merchant elites, all of whom are comfortable with the understanding they have with the current governments and benefit from the status quo.
There is another element that I wish to explore here, that of the concern on the part of the Gulf governments at the unravelling of the state apparatuses that they have meticulously built over decades, should they implement real reform.
At the outset one must consider which of these state institutions is most important for the Gulf leaders? Perhaps at the forefront are the intelligence department, ministries of defense, interior, foreign, and (sometimes) religious affairs. What if there was a way for the Gulf leaders to maintain these so-called “sovereign ministries” in their power while taking serious steps for reform?
In the other corner of the Arab world is a 300-year-old kingdom of over 32 million people headed by a monarch and an influential elite known as the Makhzen. In 2011, as much of the Arab world was embroiled in turmoil, the Moroccan monarch enacted a number of “reforms” that allowed him to both satisfy a large part of society and yet maintain significant authority.
Morocco’s King Mohammed VI also happens to be amongst the closest allies of the Gulf monarchs who offered his country, along with Jordan, $2.5 Billion each a few months after the reforms were approved in the North African state in a popular referendum. Even after the reforms of the summer of 2011 King Mohammed VI continued to maintain “exclusive control over military and religious fields”. In an extensive speech to introduce the new constitution King Mohammed VI made it clear that he was supremely in charge. Shortly after the speech an activist told the BBC “Before, we had an absolute monarch, now we have an absolute monarch that is a pope as well”.
And yet, despite all these powers vested in Morocco’s king the North African state is leagues ahead of the countries of the Gulf in terms of citizen empowerment. Morocco’s Prime Minister is today chosen by the King from the political party that won the largest number of seats in parliament, thereby pacifying the opposition. In fact the presence of political parties (not to mention trade unions, community groups and youth organizations) is in itself something that does not exist in any of the Gulf states. Even in progressive Kuwait, which is decades ahead of other Gulf states in terms of political maturity, political parties are banned and freedom of speech has recently suffered extensively.
So far the scenarios for possible political reform in the Gulf states seem to vary between maintaining the status quo, introducing painfully slow citizen empowerment steps or opening up suddenly and risking the unravelling of the state and ruling elites. There is however a possible alternative path whereby the Gulf states’ monarchs would take a bold step and introduce serious reforms similar to those taken by their close ally in Morocco in 2011.
Certainly there are those in the Gulf from both the government side and that of the activists who would find such a suggestion unacceptable for their own reasons. Additionally, prominent critics of the Moroccan reforms of 2011 such as Ahmed Ben Chemsi have criticized them for not going far enough and arguing that the “monarchy may have succeeded in outfoxing its opponents by producing an elaborate constitutional smokescreen”. Freedom House, a Washington DC based think thank that produces an index on freedom in the world places Morocco on a par with Kuwait, on the “partially free” list of countries unlike the other Gulf states that are considered to be “not free”.
But what’s in it for the Gulf states leaders? It is unfathomable to continue governing the Gulf states without some form of citizen participation in the legislature. Also, there is mounting international criticism of these Gulf states, who value their reputations greatly. Implementing political reforms would greatly reduce such rhetoric and allow their states to take a major step in the right direction without sacrificing their much-prized security authorities.
The Gulf states are today amongst a shrinking minority of countries where citizens are not able to vote in lawmakers and elect a parliament that enjoys legislative power amongst many other rights that are now taken for granted in other developing nations. Gulf leaders should take a leaf out of Mohammed VI’s book and regard citizen empowerment and political reform as an opportunity rather than a threat.