Gulf states remain on waiting list for Arab Spring

Mohamed Abdel-Baky , Sunday 1 Jan 2012

In a year of momentous upheaval across the Arab world, Arab Gulf states appeared to weather the storm, but for how long?

Anti-government protesters approach police with flowers and a national flag in Bahrain

Almost a year after the Arab Spring ousted the first Arab authoritarian regime in Tunisia, opening the door for millions of Arabs to demand democracy and social justice, in the Gulf, oil-rich sheikhdoms are showing unwillingness to align themselves with the new possibilities the Arab Spring harbours.

Since day one, monarchical regimes in the Gulf adopted a systematic policy — internal and foreign — to ensure that the Arab uprisings did not make it to their shores. Meanwhile, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), led by Saudi Arabia, played a clear role in shaping the uprisings in its neighbour countries like Yemen, Bahrain and Oman, either through military intervention or financial aid.

Internally, most Gulf monarchies avoided using the security solution in facing down street protests, offering social and economic benefits to their citizens.

In Saudi Arabia, the wealthiest Gulf state, the regime was faster than the democratic movement. In the first week after his arrival to Riyadh following medical treatment in the US, King Abdullah launched the largest programme in the kingdom's history to increase social and economic benefits to Saudi citizens

The programme included the creation of 60,000 jobs in the military and security agencies, and the establishment of an anti-corruption committee to fight graft. The programme, which took a month to be prepared by a special team, targeted three main age and social groups: university students, fresh graduating youth, and government employees. The three sectors were pioneers in protest movements that spread in Arab countries over the year.

In the 15-24 age group, unemployment in Saudi Arabia is reported to be almost 40 per cent. To meet the sector's demands, King Abdullah ordered that 40 billion riyals ($10.7 billion) be pumped into the country's development fund, which provides interest free loans to Saudis who want to build homes, get married or start small businesses.

Meanwhile, state employees got a 15 per cent pay rise, and for the first time the king approved to set a minimum wage of 3,000 riyals ($800) a month for government employees.

Politically, the Saudi regime decided to amend some municipal elections regulations, the most significant of which was to allow Saudi women for the first time the right to vote and run for elections in 2015. The Saudi king took the decision after feminist groups became strong, calling for freedoms and gender equality.

A few months ago, hundreds of Saudi women protested against a ban on women driving. Security forces and conservative Islamic groups could not stand against the protest as the feminist movement put the Saudi regime under the spotlight, bringing the world's attention to women's freedom in the kingdom.

In a similar move, Qatar's emir took an initiative to advance political reform by holding early elections for the Shura Council, the legislative authority, in 2013. The announcement came after a few months of online calls — mainly on Facebook — for more freedom and political reform in Qatar.

Some observers believe that until Gulf regimes adopt serious reforms, challenges will resurface. “Gulf citizens do not want their presence to remain marginal with zero participation in ruling their countries,” said Gamel Zeyabi, a Saudi expert in Gulf affairs.

“Gulf regimes still control the steering wheel of political change. At this point, they can still determine the direction of where to take their societies rather than having the route forced upon them like in Egypt and Tunisia,” said Christian Koch, director of the Gulf Research Centre Foundation.

Regionally, GCC states played a major role in the Libyan revolution when they pushed the Arab League to approve the no-fly zone decision as well giving NATO troops legitimate cover to intervene and protect civilians from Gaddafi troops. Qatar became the first Arab state to recognise the National Transitional Council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people. It also offered its status and experience in OPEC to help the new Libyan government market Libyan oil and gas production.

Qatar also sponsored an international conference held in Doha that was the first meeting of the so-called “Libya Contact Group” created to boost the reconstruction of Libya.

Some GCC countries also offered financial aid to the Egyptian economy after the fall of Mubarak's regime, and put time and effort into the Yemeni issue until Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down based on a Gulf initiative. However, the GCC's most significant regional move in 2011 was the military intervention in Bahrain to quell unrest and protect the Al-Khalifa royal family.

On March 14, more than 1,000 GCC troops, mostly Saudi soldiers, arrived to Manama. Another 500 police from the UAE joined the GCC force later. The GCC said that its troops entered Bahrain to maintain the stability of the country upon the request of King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa.

For the US administration, the situation in Bahrain was a real challenge. Bahrain is home to the US Navy's 5th Fleet. While the Obama administration announced its support for the peaceful protest, and called for serious democratic reform, it turned a blind eye when the GCC sent troops into Bahrain to protect the Sunni monarchy.  

A US diplomat in Washington who spoke to Ahram Online on condition of anonymity said the Obama administration did not support the Saudi decision to intervene in Manama, but Riyadh refused to change its mind, arguing that it was interference "meant to protect the stability of the Gulf region”.

The GCC intervention was supported by the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman, with most sending a small number of troops.

The US diplomat added that the Saudi move came three weeks after Washington pressured Manama to withdraw Bahraini military units from the streets: the intervention "contradicted US administration policy, which encouraged political dialogue”.

Bahrain was not the first location in the region in which Saudi Arabia resorted to the military option to curb what it sees as an Iranian threat —potentially fought through Shia communities as proxies — to Saudi hegemony in the region.

In 2009, the Saudi Arabia launched a three month war in northern Yemen against the Shia Houthis rebel movement, which it believed to be linked to Iran. However, Bahrain was different to Yemen, as the problem was not a rebel group, but a call by hundreds of thousands for democratic and constitutional change.  

“The Saudis and GCC at large did not get it; they do not understand that the uprising came from inside, and a regional power like Iran or the US has nothing to do with it. People wanted their voice to be heard,” Nabil Ragab, a prominent Bahraini activist, told Ahram Online.

“Bahrain is the most fragile country among the GCC. The regime failed over the last decade to meet the political or economic demands of its people. Sooner or later it will collapse. It is about time,” Ragab added.

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