Mohammed Al Rumaihi is the editor of Al-`Arabi magazine, published in Kuwait, and the author of many books, including Beyond Oil (Al Saqi, 1986).
In distinct contrast to Iraq and Iran, whose twentieth-century history has been marked by wars, revolutions, totalitarian rule, and other upheavals, the Arabian monarchies of the Persian Gulf have enjoyed great stability. Is this good fortune of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) likely to endure, or do rougher times lie ahead?
For insight into this question, we look at changes underway in several areas -- security, demography, politics, and leadership. We conclude that if innovative policy changes are not made soon, implementing serious reform, it will be very difficult to maintain the favorable status quo.
The Gulf monarchies (also known as the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC states) resemble palm trees, all of which look alike to the untrained and uninitiated but, in reality, there are over five hundred different types of dates. Still, one can make some generalizations about GCC security and political issues.
External security. The GCC states all share the same broad historical experiences with regard to security. For 150 years before 1971, they lived contentedly under a British protectorate; then, between 1971 and 1990, they enjoyed a brief period of independence. Although a time of relatively high prosperity, those two decades also brought home the difficult reality of being on one's own. The Americans arrived in 1990 and are seen by some to be have taken over the former British role; the American raj began when Saddam Husayn invaded Kuwait.
Current external threats remain major. Iran and Iraq fought a massive eight-year war and still both states dispute their mutual boundary. Iraq's claim on all of Kuwait remains very much alive. And Iran's dispute with the UAE over the Abu Musa and Tumb Islands has a dangerous potential, as does its claims to Bahrain.
The GCC's Damascus Declaration of March 1991suffered the same fate as most Arab agreements: it was left alone to die in peace. Some in the GCC countries saw the Damascus agreement as a divorce from the old Arab order, a carte blanche for them to handle their security as they pleased. In contrast, the Syrians and Egyptians read into that agreement substantial financial assistance and easy access to GCC security requirements, with all the political influence this entails. After these differences were aired publicly, Cairo and Damascus reluctantly accepted the GCC version. In turn, the GCC countries subsequently decided to opt for an alignment with the United States.
This arrangement -- "individual Gulf countries with the Americans" -- permits the six countries not to build a mutual security pact but instead to depend individually on American muscle. During the British raj, whenever the head of a royal family in the Gulf passed away, the serving British military vessel would come close to shore until the name of the new ruler was announced. The Americans are expected to institute a practice along these lines to demonstrate their strong interest in Gulf affairs. This approach may meet short-term American objectives in the region (for example, convincing those regimes to have direct relations with Israel) but it weakens Arab solidarity and spurs resentment at the American presence; and, in the long term, it will bring problems.
Intra-GCC security. The real security threat, in fact, comes from within the GCC. To begin with, almost every two Gulf countries have some form of border dispute between them. A silent disagreement between the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Oman over the Buraimi Oasis continues, while the UAE and Oman quarrel over the Musandam Peninsula. Saudi Arabia and Qatar disagree over the Odad creek running between them. Qatar and Bahrain dispute the Hiwar Islands. And so forth. Saudi Arabia and Oman signed an agreement in winter 1994 to demarcate their joint borders.
The GCC contains two main axes, the Saudi and the Omani. The proud and independent Omanis have always had an independent outlook and resent Saudi attempts at hegemony; recently, Qatar has joined with Oman. The existence of these two axes further tears at the fragile GCC.
Domestic security. Some regimes see the American forces as a shield not just against external foes but also against internal ones, thus obviating the need for reforms and modernization. Their unspoken argument runs as follows: "Demands for change result less from internal wishes than from foreign meddling, especially Iranian. As long as we possess the globe's largest oil and gas reserves and the United States implements a new world order, Washington will protect us, just as the British once did."
Indeed, unruly neighbors in the Gulf will continue to press and, in response, ruling elites in the GCC will continue to use the bogey of an external threat to suppress demands for reform. Thus, a dialectic exists between external threat and peaceful domestic change; the greater the former (whether real or imagined), the less the latter.
A PAUCITY OF POLITICAL CHANGE
At a summit held in Kuwait in December 1991, during the euphoria of the liberation from Iraq, the GCC for the first time publicly broached the issue of political reform. That meeting made public Omani proposals to raise a million-strong army consisting of Gulf citizens, proposals that had all sorts of political implications given the member states' different ethnic groups, citizens, and domestic alliances. The GCC secretary-general, `Abdallah Bishara, is said subsequently to have privately explained to a closed conference held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in April 1992 that the summit had discussed "the broader issue of internal security, like human rights, freedom of speech and general world-wide trends."
Five years later, the GCC states have yet to see the results of that discussion. To be sure, some limited developments have occurred in the meantime, including reactivation of the Kuwaiti parliament, political reforms in Oman (such as the limited political participation of women), and the December 1993 creation of a Consultative Council in Saudi Arabia. But many observers find these steps too small. The Consultative Council, for example, is an appointed body with limited political power that serves as a political arm of the Saudi monarch; political groups in Saudi Arabia do not see it as a means to achieve popular participation in government.
Behind closed doors, some younger Saudi princes vent similar frustrations. Others have moved on to make their mark in trade and commerce. More broadly, the country's next generation is not likely to accept what its elders found sufficient in terms of political opportunities. The time for unlimited education and unlimited expectations has passed. Changes that occurred in the era of oil have relatively liberated the youth from old ties of family, tribe, and sect, reorienting them toward a more political grouping under new ideologies, some of them religious or political in nature. Nobody can expect to educate people, feed and house them, expose them to the international media, and at the same time shut their mouths; they think power and wealth are theirs by right. Rulers have to share with them some of what they best love.
Political change in the GCC countries can also be negative. Those sectors of society holding backward ideologies and primitive notions of the nation-state also are gaining strength. The prime example is Muhammad al-Mas`ari's London-based organization (known in English, somewhat deceptively, as the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights),1 which demands a government more dictatorial than any of the existing regimes in the GCC region. Political groups throughout the region, from Kuwait to Oman, share these anti-modern goals and anti-democratic demands; some of them have ties with Tehran or Khartoum. Their common external focus consists of being culturally anti-Western and politically anti-American.
Other, more liberal political groups demand modern political reform through a constitution, the holding of elections, or increased political participation. These can be viewed as part of the Kuwaiti experiment, for the free political debate that now exists there serves as a beacon for modernized and Westernized groups throughout the GCC. Unfortunately, governments see such groups as direct threats to their rule, despite their many restrictions. Outside Kuwait, any domestic opposition in the GCC, however moderate, is looked upon as a security threat.
Mismanagement impedes decision making. The UAE appears to be a unified country, but is actually comprised of seven emirates. Its laws are decided not by a federal institutional but by each ruler. Such decentralized decisions generate economic and political conflict throughout the GCC, and especially in the economic arena. For example, the unified tariff that was supposed to be applied in the GCC countries some time ago never came to pass due to objections from the small emirates in the UAE.
The Gulf monarchies have strong points upon which they could build. Contrary to all their neighbors to the north and south, they possess historical legitimacy, the ruling families having been in power for a long time and having survived some terrible times. Further, the monarchs have willingly shared the wealth of their countries with large groups within society. The Gulf's ruling elite has noted the violent changes that have wracked their neighbors, particularly Iran and Iraq; it will probably opt for change rather than hold on to old ways. Not clear, however, is whether it will change enough.
DEMOGRAPHICS AND LABOR LIKE NO OTHER
As with the palm trees, demographic statistics of GCC countries are too different to allow observers meaningful comparison. Numbers alone are a problem, for the GCC states have not conducted a scientific census. Some governments go so far as to treat population data and other vital statistics as matters of national security. What do exist are widely scattered numbers from different years containing different information. From these, we can estimate that about 21.4 million persons currently live in the GCC countries.2 An estimated 70 percent of the population lives in Saudi Arabia, with the rest divided between Oman (11 percent), Kuwait (9 percent), the UAE (4 percent), Bahrain (3.5 percent), and Qatar (2.5 percent). Annual population growth since 1989 has been 3.4 percent, one of the highest rates in the world.
Of the 21.4 million, somewhat over half are foreign nationals. The foreign population amounts to some 75 percent in the UAE, 70 percent in Qatar, 65 percent in Kuwait, 40 percent in Saudi Arabia, 33 percent in Bahrain, and 32 percent in Oman.
Even though only a small number of GCC citizens contribute to the economy, an acute shortage of stable jobs is emerging. Until now, this has been largely disguised thanks to government employment of most of the local work force -- a practice becoming harder and harder to maintain. Nationals have a very low level of productivity; workers sit in their offices doing practically nothing, just getting in the way of others doing their work.
Nationals of the Gulf monarchies sit in their offices doing practically nothing, just getting in the way of others doing their work.
High unemployment among locals, who tend to be young, is a very dangerous phenomenon. Currently, 40 percent of the Gulf population is under fourteen years of age and, given the labor market, many of them face a nonproductive life. Should local women also seek employment in larger numbers, internal tensions will increase yet more. Looking ahead, unemployment constitutes a time bomb for internal political stability; a local generation without work could well take up radical ideologies. In some countries, especially Bahrain and, to a lesser extent, Oman and Saudi Arabia, unemployment has already led to political disturbances.
As for foreign labor, it makes up 90 percent of the work force in the UAE, 83 percent in Qatar, 81 percent in Kuwait, 72 percent in Saudi Arabia, 55 percent in Bahrain, and 54 percent in Oman. In all, foreigners compose up to 70 percent of the GCC's labor force -- a frightening picture for any region anywhere, and especially so given the large population growth and economic problems in Iraq, Iran, the Levant, and Yemen. Foreign workers hail mainly from Asia (especially the Indian subcontinent) and from the Arab East. Asians tend to work as domestic help or as manual workers, while Arabs are employed as clerks and in government positions.
Bearing in mind that the government heavily subsidizes such services as electricity, water, health, and education, foreign labor puts tremendous pressure on these already overburdened public services. The expatriate labor force also impedes the proper development of native human resources. For example, Egyptian nurses trained in England work for a few years in Gulf hospitals, then return to Egypt -- without imparting their skills to nationals. Nevertheless, more foreign laborers are likely to arrive because private companies welcome cheap foreign labor; in contrast, nationals are too expensive and tend to be very poorly trained and motivated.
Very high levels of foreign labor could cause labor a variety of problems in the GCC countries, with profound political consequences. Activists could demand a minimum wage, for example, causing a social and political upheaval. Some workers have been in the region for more than three decades and their children know only the countries where they were born and raised, yet are not citizens. Even the region's cultural identity is in question, for many workers do not speak Arabic. Among other dangers, this raises the possibility of English emerging as the lingua franca.
To halt the influx of expatriate labor requires difficult changes. The local population needs not only to be educated for self-reliance but foreign governments need to adjust to lowered labor exports and lowered salary remittances. A number of countries have come to depend upon these; some 10 percent of all GCC oil and gas revenues have been re-exported from the region by foreign laborers.
THE NEED FOR LEADERSHIP
The affluence of the Gulf monarchies hid some important failures that characterize the oil era of the last quarter century. One failure concerns the disguised unemployment in the governmental sector; another concerns the governments' tendency to see employment of nationals as a means to distribute wealth rather than a way to get work done.
A third failure is the growing tendency of GCC states to borrow money (locally and internationally) at high interest rates to provide the population with the standard of living to which it has become accustomed. Jasim as-Sa`dun estimates the budget deficit of the six GCC governments in 1989-93 at $135.3 billion.3 In the words of a newspaper report, GCC governments are "mortgaging the oil wealth of the future generations."4 People are beginning to worry about the availability of future basic necessities like education, employment, and even water.
Further, during recent decades, some rulers have departed from the tradition that kept themselves and their relatives away from commerce and trade, a constraint meant to prevent conflicts of interest. This change in custom has significantly added to overall corruption and discontent.
Leadership in the Gulf monarchies is traditional, meaning large ruling families with great numbers of clans and cousins. The only exception is Oman, due not so much to political attitudes as to the small size of the royal family. Traditional rulers are reluctant to accept greater participation by citizens in government, to share decision making, or to become accountable. As an elderly ruler recently put it, "Do you want me to share my power with camel herders and taxi drivers?" In some countries, not only is the ruler's word law but the law can be changed at the whim of the ruler.
THE SUCCESSION ISSUE
The issue of succession is the main problem facing the GCC leaderships in the near future. Established patterns of succession do not exist, so virtually every senior member of the ruling families sees himself potentially as the ruler. In all the GCC states but Oman, some high government positions are reserved for family members, regardless of their ability. Further, given that all the rulers except the Qatari have long ruled or are elderly, the younger generation tends to be eager for change and highly frustrated. It is not necessarily wiser than the older generation, but the latter is losing touch with the traditional way of governing without adopting modern ways (for example, greater participation from the populace). Let us see what this means in each of the six Gulf monarchies, ordered according to the size of their national populations.
Saudi Arabia. A 1992 declaration publicly specifies and regulates the issue of succession. But that decree is vague and gives unlimited power to the king to appoint or remove a successor. Front-runners among the Saudi princes tipped to be the next crown prince are all in their seventies and share a general outlook. It could be decades before the younger generation can assume the reigns of power -- by which time it will have become the older generation. The younger princes are thus highly frustrated, to the point that some of them have indicated so in public.
Oman. Sultan Qabus has no obvious heir apparent, making Oman's succession an open question. His car accident a year ago reportedly caused some interior tribes to go on alert. The sultan's sudden demise could put Oman in serious internal straits, perhaps on the verge of a civil war. Oman has been relatively free of the pressure of the royal entourage and palace intrigue because of the limited numbers of the ruling family. The sultan can choose freely for his top administration among Omani citizens of high caliber.
Kuwait. The constitution of 1962 determines the succession process. Further, having a constitutional system, the surprises there are limited. A good number of members of the ruling family, especially the younger one, would like to participate in the democratic process by standing for election. Legally they may do so, but some think such a move would harm the family's image.
United Arab Emirates. Here the problem of leadership is acute. In this loose confederation headed by Sheikh Zayid of Abu Dhabi, an aging man, the obvious successor is his elder son Khalifa, a weak personality himself of poor health. His second son, Sultan, is next in line, but a powerful group of Sheikh Zayid's sons from his strong wife Fatima (including his chief of staff, Muhammad) are educated and strongly entrenched and so cannot be ruled out as possible successors. Dubai, the second most powerful emirate, has solved its succession problem by appointing Muhammad, the third son of Sheikh Rashid, to the powerful post of heir apparent.
Bahrain. Dual power-sharing is in force. Khalifa (brother to the ruler, Sheikh `Isa) is the powerful prime minister who has led the government almost single-handedly since the 1960s and has since accumulated unhappy antagonists, especially with the merchant class of Bahrain, who resent royal family members' doing business. Hamid (`Isa's eldest son) is the heir apparent and commander-in-chief of the army. He and his uncle Khalifa are said to be at odds over internal policies.
Qatar. Qatar exemplifies the frustration of younger members of the ruling GCC families: Sheikh Hamad seized power from his father, Sheikh Khalifa, in a June 1995 palace coup. Qatar's experience shows that the generational gap constitutes much more than simply taking over the reigns of power; such actions can easily backfire in the absence of a strategy for political reform. The many Qataris who expected changes after the takeover are disappointed and now look back to the old regime with nostalgia -- not because they particularly liked it, but because they could then hope for a change in politics (political and administrative reforms, a sharing of power with the population) rather than a change in personalities. The new regime faces growing unrest and resentment; its involvement with the Israelis and the Americans is seen not as a new politics but as a sign of instability.
Saudi Arabia. The demand for change in Saudi Arabia is split. Those adverse to modernization tend to accept austere Wahhabi views and harken back to a more puritan society. In contrast, those who wish for more political participation seek to emulate the Kuwaiti experiment: power-sharing and a say in the development of the country. If the former group is well organized, the latter is not.
Oman. A long period of political instability came to an end when Sultan Qabus came to power, with British help, in 1970. Since then, while a development program has been introduced, some Omanis are impatient. As a sign of this, a Muslim Brethren movement (of Sunni fundamentalists) came to light in 1995, leading to the arrest of hundreds of activists, including some in high government and business positions. This may augur future tensions.
Kuwait. Democracy is key to the future of Kuwait, and the Kuwaiti experiment will probably serve as a model for other Gulf monarchies to emulate. The trend toward participation will continue and it will lead to moderation. This democracy will broaden through the participation of women and second-class citizens, who will enter the political system. (The parliament has already paved the way for the latter to do so.) The democratic process is gaining momentum. A very wide but loose political alignment has emerged, comprising the tribes, merchants, the Shi`a, the Salafis (members of a Sunni religious group), the Muslim Brethren, democrats (loosely understood in the term, but modern in attitudes), and a group of independents.
Still, there are plenty of problems. The weakness of the middle class in Kuwait has made it easy for the more traditional elements to dominate the parliament and pass laws such as the recent one requiring gender segregation in all educational institutions; paradoxically, a democratic system is producing undemocratic laws and legislation. A good number of parliamentarians understand their role as furnishing personal services to their electorate, ignoring the need for modern legislation and government accountability. Confrontations between government and parliament have repeatedly occurred owing to the two sides' not fully comprehending concepts of power-sharing and cooperation.
Bahrain. Within the GCC countries, the most vocal demand for change comes from Bahrain. The Shi`a, a majority on the island but deprived of any kind of political recognition, have backed a good number of political movements during the past thirty years, mainly demanding political reforms; today's political movement is widespread and religiously colored. In addition, the failure of economic development has left many people either unemployed or denied their basic civil rights. Although the Bahraini population has a long history of having its political demands suppressed by the government, Bahrainis have recently, for the first time, adopted the more violent path of burning shops and bombing hotels. This kind of violent political development, if left unattended, could eventually lead to more violence both in Bahrain and beyond, to the other GCC states. That Bahrain is the headquarters of the U.S. Seventh Fleet makes developments there all the more significant.
The UAE and Qatar. Although nationals share the same aspirations as other Gulf citizens, the tininess of size and great wealth of these states contribute to reduced political awareness.
In all probability, GCC societies will face more social and political strains in the coming decade. So far, by getting money into the hands of the people, their governments have managed to suppress the demands for political change. But the future brings an austerity that will necessarily limit that flow of money. Withdrawing subsidies for social services and raising tariffs and taxes, combined with a need to spend more money on military hardware, will set the government and the people on a collision course. Nor is it likely that most current or future GCC leaders will agree to a more participatory process, to modern administration, to less corruption, and to more accountability.
1 Where the Arabic original uses the word Shar`i, the English uses "Legitimate." The former implies rights according to the Shari`a, the sacred law of Islam, a meaning completely bleached out of the latter.
2 Salih as-Salih, Gulf Development Forum, 15th annual conference, Kuwait, Jan. 5-7, 1994.
3 Jasim as-Sa`dun, Gulf Development Forum, 15th annual conference, Dubai, Jan. 19-20, 1995.
4 International Herald Tribune, Dec. 11, 1995.