The 'Arab Spring' continues to leave its mark throughout the Middle East. The second half of October alone has seen the demise of the third regime in the region - that of Colonel Qaddafi in Libya - in addition to the elections in Tunisia, the government reshuffle in Jordan, and a UN Security Council resolution asking Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh to relinquish his post. Far from having entered a period of fall and winter, developments in the Middle East have remained dynamic with the likelihood of further shifts and changes on the horizon.
Such change will also come to the ArabGulf. While in the context of the political turmoil that has impacted the entire Middle East, the Arab Gulf states are often portrayed as actively resisting any change or even acting as counter-revolutionary in order to reverse the developments that have occurred so far, such characterization does not stand up to close scrutiny. This is because the 'Arab Spring' is not a monolithic movement that is supposed to bring about the downfall of every regime in the region. Rather, the protests are about good governance, accountability and human dignity. The judgment thus about whether the 'Arab Spring' was successful or not will in the end not only be about who won what election or who replaced whom. It will also be about what political system replaces the current one and how effective that system is in the delivery of people's expectations.
It is from such perspective that the impact of the reform wave on the ArabGulf must be looked at. On the one hand, the consequences are clear. For one, the monarchies of the ArabGulf are affected by the 'Arab Spring' just like their neighboring states in the rest of the Middle East. The movement against corruption in Kuwait, the protests for equal treatment in Bahrain, the demonstrations for economic opportunities and jobs in Oman, and the blog discussions about the need for reform in Saudi Arabia cancel out the impression that the ArabGulf states are either immune or unique. They are not. Second, it is beyond doubt that these countries will need to undertake fundamental reforms if they are to maintain their current legitimacy. To remain effective, political systems have to adapt or be open to change simply because the circumstances around which they operate do change. This fact applies to established democratic systems like that of the United States and to monarchical regimes as they exist in Morocco, Jordan or the GCC states. Political development is a phenomenon that runs parallel to the evolution of the human being. Neither is ever completely finished.
Yet, the ArabGulf regimes are in the unique position that at the moment they 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. This is due to numerous factors. For one, the ruling families have maintained their legitimacy and their popularity because up to this stage they have delivered results to their people. Not only have they provided stability to their societies in one of the most security-volatile regions of the world, a region that has experienced three major wars (the 8-year Iran-Iraq War, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the US-led invasion of Iraq) and one revolution (the 1979 Iranian Revolution) in the past four decades, but they have at the same time steadily increased the welfare of their people through unprecedented economic and social development. No doubt oil income has been the source for such growth, but that income has also been put to good use. In the UN Human Development Index 2010, for example, all GCC states are ranked in the very high or high development category.
Second, the monarchies have proved adaptive to reform. A reform agenda was initiated and undertaken in these countries, at least to some degree, even before the start of the 'Arab Spring.' This has allowed the regimes in place to better deal with the current turmoil than has been the case in other places. Respective steps include changes in all aspects of social and economic policy from education access, to judicial reform, to various elections processes, etc. Not only does Saudi Arabia rank as one of the most competitive economies in the world, King Abdullah is genuinely seen as spearheading reform in the kingdom.
A related important factor in this regard is the increased institutionalization of the GCC states, an absolutely vital and important step in the overall form of political development and a key ingredient in determining whether political systems contain within themselves the necessary stability and flexibility to remain sustainable over the longer period. In Saudi Arabia, the Allegiance Council has for the first time taken on a role in the delicate matter of succession politics by formally deciding on Prince Nayef Bin Abdulaziz as the next crown prince. In Kuwait, parliament has become a cornerstone in the country's political life and the period when the Emir could disband the legislature and cancel constitutional clauses indefinitely without consequence is long gone. In the UAE, the recent debate has not focused on the Federal National Council elections as such but on the functions this legislative body should possess so that it can hold the rest of the government accountable. Such steps cannot be underestimated. The move to act according to laws, legal procedures and institutions is the key element in the direction of political and constitutional reform, and the GCC states have undertaken steps in that direction. And yes, while such steps are taken by the regimes in the interest of self-preservation, their impact can be more far-reaching than anticipated.
Third, when it comes to developments in the rest of the region, it cannot be said that the GCC states have consistently and across-the-board attempted to undermine or even reverse reform efforts. It was Qatar and the UAE that spearheaded the Arab support for regime change in Libya; it has been the GCC initiative in Yemen that has laid the basis for President Saleh to step down from power, and it was King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia who, at the beginning of August 2011, called for an end to the Syrian 'killing machine.' In addition, it was the GCC states that were in favor of excluding Syria from the Arab League while countries such as Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon resisted during the last meeting in October. One should also not forget the role played by the Arab media, led by outlets such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyya from the Gulf. These stations have been instrumental in facilitating an era of political change and transition.
The ArabGulf states are neither exceptional nor are they counter-revolutionary. Instead, the ruling regimes are faced with the same demands and dilemmas of sustained political development as any other system in the world. This applies even in the case of Bahrain although here given the sectarian and regional political dimension, a separate, more complete discussion would be warranted. But as the political scientist Francis Fukuyama recently wrote: "Political decay occurs when political systems fail to adjust to changing circumstances." And adjusting to changing circumstances is something that even the Arab Gulf states cannot eventually escape from, even if their record of adaptability so far has been pretty good.
Dr. Christian Koch is Director of the GulfResearchCenter Foundation