By Matthew M. Reed
Compared to their neighbors, the Gulf monarchies remain mostly untouched by the democratic unrest seizing the region. Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the UAE have each hosted elections for provincial and national councils since the uprisings began last December. Bahrain held parliamentary elections in September though they were boycotted by the opposition after protests there were crushed. Kuwait and Qatar stand as the only sheikhdoms that have not held elections since Tunisia set the tone for a new era of Arab politics. Kuwait’s last elections were in 2009 and so they must wait two years to elect new members to the National Assembly. Most surprisingly, Qatar just announced parliamentary elections would be held in 2013. Bloody revolutions continue to overshadow Gulf elections that many dismiss.
Gulf elections can’t be called “democratic” but they are semi-democratic. Generally speaking, elections in the Gulf grant members of local communities access to organs of the state that make policy, although they as elected officials do not craft that policy. Monarchs hear recommendations but the final say rests in the palace—not the parliament. Kuwait is the supreme example of a dysfunctional semi-democratic monarchy: while Kuwait enjoys the most open political space of any Gulf country, it also suffers from governmental paralysis. In this way, semi-democratic traditions in the Gulf are unique. Regimes use them in different ways than Western observers would expect (a phenomenon Fareed Zakaria called “illiberal democracy”).
Here I want to explore recent elections in the Gulf and their function in an authoritarian setting. This will be an incomplete survey, as I only contrast the experiences of Oman and Qatar, but first, consider the following. Gulf monarchies use elections in order to: enhance their reputation as enlightened leaders, sensitive to their people’s needs; pacify activists who seek more substantial reforms; satisfy Western countries unhappy with the region’s lack of democracy; and defuse dangerous political crises, like those seen this year. Remember too that the bar is low: because the Gulf has been democratically deficient, historically speaking, even the announcement of elections has an outsized effect. The cases of Qatar and Oman are worthy of review given their different responses to this year’s unrest.
Qatar set the stage for elections in 2013 because the regime could afford to be proactive. Elections will reinforce Qatari nationalism at a time when democratic rhetoric is gaining real traction in the region, and the regime knows this. A good barometer for regime security is nationalist sentiment. Leaders rely on it and promote it. In Qatar, nationalism hinges on capable governance, principled foreign policy activism, a cosmopolitan outlook, and their possession of Al Jazeera—the Arab world’s most powerful media source. New democratic traditions will add to this already potent mix.
Qatar’s many advantages are well known so I won’t list them all here. But it’s worth noting that there have been no protests in the small statelet; Qataris are not hitting the streets because there are few grievances to fix. Outrage is absent. This is easy to explain: Qatar enjoys the world’s highest per capita GDP given their small population and immense resources. The royal family has a proven management record that remains hard to match or challenge. Few believe the citizenry can do significantly better. And so change comes from the top and benefits the regime because they reward the population with greater say though citizens did not demand it.
In keeping with the constitution, newly elected officials will be able to approve national budgets, draft legislation, and hold no-confidence votes for ministers. The exact details remain fuzzy but the purpose is clear: the al Thani family’s prestige will soar—even higher than before—by giving away very little of its power. Elections further insulate the regime in this case because they reinforce Qatari nationalism, just as Qatari activism in Libya did.
A very different drama unfolded in Oman. Unlike Qatar, which was proactive with its announcement, circumstances forced Sultan Qaboos of Oman to react to a crisis and promise elections would matter because the people were unhappy. Shortly after riots killed at least two, authorities rolled out reforms and employment schemes; Qaboos even rearranged his cabinet three times, hoping the removal of despised officials would end demonstrations. It’s worth noting that Oman’s protests were modest by Egyptian, Bahraini, or even American standards. Indeed, when I visited Oman in March, I saw dozens protesting outside ministries but nothing truly dangerous. What made the protests so shocking was their novelty. Not since the Dhofar rebellion ceased in 1975 had Oman experienced real unrest.
The response was immediate. Qaboos offered $2.6 billion in new spending, shelved plans to limit welfare for wage earners, accepted a $10 billion bail-out from the GCC, and promised 50,000 new jobs. He also gave Oman’s parliament new powers last month. According to officials, new transparency measures will clarify the constituencies of members appointed by the Sultan to the Majlis al Dawla, the State Council established in 1997. Theoretically, this will curb corruption in the upper house of Oman’s parliament, while the lower house—the Majlis as-Shura—is given new powers including the ability to summon ministers and demand annual progress reports.
Whereas Qatar’s election announcement was proactive, Sultan Qaboos had no choice but respond quickly to the unrest because it was so uncommon. Citizens generally revere the sultan because he is the Omani equivalent of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt combined. The UN confirmed as much in 2010 with a report that ranked Oman first in encouraging human development over the last forty years. Qaboos assumed the throne in 1970, meaning it is impossible to disassociate the country’s forty year rise from four decades of his rule. Any real crackdown was out of the question precisely because it is not the sultan’s style—or, in Oman’s case, culturally acceptable. That said, his responsiveness set him apart from other leaders in the region who rely on brutality.
Oman’s reforms will most likely have the same result as those undertaken in Qatar even though the impetus was different. Ultimately, the sultan’s reputation will be enhanced by his speedy response. Indeed, when I spoke with young Omanis in rural Nizwa and the capital, Muscat, many welcomed the sultan’s new policies and praised his efforts, while admitting that democracy was a slow-going process. Oman’s reforms are not perfect. The country faces serious problems, especially unemployment, and the sultan’s job will only get harder with time since some 40 percent of Omanis are now under 21 years old—and thus cannot remember a time when Oman was not plugged into the world, paved with asphalt, and made of concrete, steel and glass.
For now, rulers in Oman and Qatar enjoy widespread praise for their responsiveness and foresight. But some measure of caution is due as evidenced by a quote found in a Reuters report filed days before Oman’s mid-October election. 26-year old Abdullah Alabri had this to say: “The bottom line is that the election may not change anything at all. It’s just a way of gaining a good image and making people feel a sense of democracy whereas, in reality, after the election we would not attain anything significant.”
Such sentiments are a warning to Gulf leaders that utilize democracy while not fully realizing it. Gulf monarchs are quick to say they’re special—that they practice a kind of “desert democracy” in which citizens enjoy patronage and consultative councils help make policy. Certainly this arrangement will last a while longer. But regime security hinges on nationalist sentiment, proven managerial skills at the highest levels of government, and continued prosperity. If this equilibrium is compromised, democracy may not be a tool employed by autocrats. Instead it will be a rallying point for millions.