The Gulf Research Center and Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace held a joint conference on “Identifying Drivers of Political Reform in the GCC countries” in Beirut on November 15 and 16. This was the third such discussion dealing with political reform in the GCC countries organized jointly by the two institutes.
The conference focused on several potential drivers of political reform: political actors – both leaders and organizations advocating reform; new political institutions, parliaments and elected local councils; the economic transformation taking place in many countries, with the subsequent change in the educational and demographic structure of the population, as well as the growth of new interest groups; and the impact of new ideas and debates to which the population of the region is increasingly exposed through mass media, particularly satellite TV.
The conference evaluated the role of external factors – both the impersonal impact of economic globalization and the direct efforts at promoting reform by the United States and the European Union. The participants – experts from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Lebanon, Europe and the United States – highlighted the fact that political transformation in each country is driven by a number of the above factors, with some being more important than the others depending on the specificities of the countries. For example, parliaments are important drivers of change in some countries and dormant in others, ideological debates are also more influential in some cases than others. In general, participants agreed that there is no automatic, simple causal connection between economic and political transformation and that internal factors are more important drivers of change than external ones.
While focusing on the domestic factors driving the reform process, how far they have progressed in different countries and how the transformation is likely to unfold in the short and medium terms, the participants urged overcoming the stagnation in the political modernization process, which has failed to keep pace with the economic development. More importantly, they stressed the futility of imposing one model on all the GCC countries given the diverse ground realities and discussing political reform without taking into account the role of the private sector.
Political development is the interaction between the internal and the external factors. In fact, internal factors are more influential than external pressure. In Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman, political changes were a result of domestic needs, which were implemented even before 9/11. While internal politics within the ruling elite was a very important factor in bringing about the changes, moving ahead may be conditioned by external factors.
In Kuwait, reforms are often delayed by announcing perks and providing employment. Kuwait was a trendsetter, but the cushion of oil and high prices has delayed reform a great deal. Yet, it is important to stress that the drive to grant women political rights in Kuwait was designed and executed domestically. In fact, the Kuwaiti model is seen as a liability by the ruling family, forcing them to contemplate the idea of setting up a new appointed majlis like Bahrain to limit the power of the elected body.
There is also a need to distinguish between change and reform. Not every change is a reform in the political sense because it does not translate into real transfer of power from one group to another. Change is taking place not to reform the political system, but to combat extremism.
It is important to look at the political actors in light of changes in the socio-economic bases. In Saudi Arabia, for example, hundreds of thousands of Saudis are now participating in the stock market activities, which has created a new middle class. Another development is the new law that entrusts the appointment of the new ruler of the Kingdom to a group of people, which diminishes the influence of the religious establishment.
What exists in the Gulf is not a government constituted from parties; it is a party of the monarchy, which has banned political parties. Secondly, one needs to take note of Islamic groups and their performance in the elections. Their success forces us to reassess our general impressions about Islamists, who are the main power industry in the region. Their future, however, depends on their performance in the parliament. In Bahrain, they have been disappointing, but Islamists have the support of women. Further, the Islamists are trying to suggest to the rulers that West is a bigger enemy than them, and that the West is the common enemy.
In general, there is a political vacuum. On the one hand, the regimes are secular, but their agenda doesn’t promote liberalism and democratization because they want to preserve power. The only change they want is in the economy. On the other hand, Islamists don’t have an agenda except Islamism. In both cases the people are unsure of their choice.