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Are Gulf States Drifting Towards Democracy? A Word of Caution

No taxation without representation”, an early rallying cry of American revolutionaries, remains a fundamental principle of government throughout the western world. Citizens agree to allow the intrusion of the state into their lives on condition that it is they who decide who is to govern and control the levers of the state. However, particularly since the discovery of oil in the region, politics in the gulf has been determined by a rather different relationship. Rulers have been able to accrue vast fortunes, such that they have had no need to extract revenue from citizenry in order to expand the state and exert control over the populace. This wealth finances a highly developed security service, as well as providing citizens with employment, healthcare, housing, and a range of other services. The upshot is that the quiescent compliance of the ruled is bought by the ruler, with his (and it is invariably his, not her) legitimacy directly purchased. Accordingly, the citizens of modern Gulf States have next to no say in how they are governed.

That is not to say that there is a complete disjunction between the Sheiks, Emirs and Sultans of the region and their people. Traditional “majlis” councils, small advisory bodies occupied by tribal leaders, have provided some form of representation and a method of allowing the grievances of the masses to come to the attention of the rulers. However, such bodies have never really had any power to constrain or oversee the exercise of executive power. These councils would not be understood as manifestations of a true democracy by western standards.

Over time, however, there have been shifts, and recent developments have been particularly noteworthy. This December will see the first election in Saudi Arabia where women will be able to both vote and stand as candidates for election to the King’s advisory council. The Kuwaiti parliament, having played a decisive role in the appointment of the current Emir in 2006, has enjoyed an increasingly prominent role in the running of the state and has been so assertive as to be dissolved twice in 2008 and 2012 due to its unwillingness to acquiesce to the will of the ruling Al-Sabah family. Even in Qatar the Emir has felt it necessary to promise elections for positions on his Shura (advisory) Council, however no date has been set, with citizens having to settle for voting in municipal elections, the most recent having been held in May of this year.

The reason for this increased willingness of the region’s ruling houses is to open up the political space is largely underpinned by economics and modernisation. As oil revenues have dwindled it has been necessary for the state to recede. It is no longer possible to fund extensive state programmes providing comprehensive welfare and employment for all. As the state cannot afford to do this there is a breakdown in the tacit agreement between the ruler and his subjects. Whilst matters have not stretched as yet to need a need to extract revenue from citizens via taxation on a large scale, it would seem this is almost inevitable and will lead to widened demands for participation. Allied to this, there is a significant demographic “youth bulge” with 30% of the population in these countries aged between 15-29. Many of these young people are also western educated. With the state unable to provide them with opportunities for employment and advancement there is a growing unrest and desire to see western freedoms replicated in their home nations. Rulers see limited elections as a sort of safety-valve and calculate that if they can provide some representation they can gain legitimacy in compensation of that which they have lost.

The example of Qatar is a salient one. Abundant natural gas reserves, allied to its investment in industries outside of oil and diversification into financial markets, have meant that the state retains significant revenue independent of the need to tax citizenry. Accordingly, it is here that the shift towards representation has been most limited. Along with a homogenous ethno-religious population, there has been little civil unrest as the Emir has been able to continue to generously subsidise the lives of his people. Significant unrest in the Kingdom of Bahrain in 2011 provides a neat contrast in that significant ethnic heterogeneity coupled with an ability to provide for the welfare of citizens is a recipe for civil strife unless the ruled can be persuaded to feel they have a say in how they are governed.

It is my view, however, that these steps cannot be truly said to represent the beginnings of a process that will lead to western style democratisation. I see no evidence that rulers in the region wish to actually concede any power. Whether they can prevent unrest depends on their ability to allow an opening of the political space in such a way that is viewed as legitimate, whilst simultaneously ensuring that this is nothing more than sham democracy and retaining all real power themselves. Poor turnout is a hallmark of elections in the region thus far, suggesting that rulers have a way to go to persuade their people as to the sincerity of their belief in the role of the ballot box. The willingness of other Gulf Monarchies to provide military support to put down the uprising in Bahrain in 2011, and the very existence of the Gulf Cooperation Council, along with the significant rise in spending on military and state security since the Arab Spring, all point to an underlying desire of regional rulers to cling to their positions. It is my firm belief that, for the foreseeable future, there will be no real democratisation. Rulers can and will rely on the extensive repressive capacities that they possess to hold on. Shifts towards more elections and parliaments are and will continue to be mere facades. The Arab Spring appeared to herald a new democratic dawn in the region. It was, regrettably, a false one.

Author Biography

Nat Guillou is a current student on the MSc in Arab World Studies at the University of Durham. Research interests include domestic British and French politics and the Middle East, with particular reference to the State system and political developments subsequent to the Arab Spring.

You can find him on Twitter and 

*Cover image ‘View of Doha downtown area from Katara beach ‘ by Aitor Garcia Viñas


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