The Arab Spring struggles in the Gulf states

By Jonathan Power

Dateline: Doha, Qatar

By the lights of many in the Western world the monarchies of the small states that line the Persian Gulf – Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, which includes Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman – are governed by autocratic and anachronistic regimes. The Arab Spring has barely touched them. Their oil remains critical to the outside world and funds their own splendour – Qatar has the highest income per head in the world.

At various times the obituaries for these states have been written, only to be quickly forgotten. Today, in the wake of the upheavals of the Arab Spring, they seem to be bastions of stability – favoured by Western governments. With their small indigenous populations they have found it easy to make citizens economically and socially comfortable, the burdens of life shifted to immigrant workers (who are too often maltreated or underpaid). Nevertheless, hydrocarbon reserves are gradually shrinking and their indigenous populations growing fast, producing young people who find it hard to get the kind of jobs their self-image demands.

In the one Gulf state, Bahrain, where the Arab Spring momentarily arrived, the government appealed to Saudi Arabia to send in troops, the demonstrators were crushed and jail sentences of unwarranted length imposed on some of them. Even so the king went to great lengths to show it was not a dictatorship, commissioning a respected scholar to make a critical public study of where the regime had gone wrong with its shoddy treatment of human rights norms. Alas, the repression continues.

Other states, apart from Qatar which in many ways has sided with the Arab Spring, have not been averse to breaking up demonstrations which have led, on occasion, to police killings. A trial has just begun in Abu Dhabi of 94 Islamist activists accused of plotting to seize power. Human rights groups say the trial is “a mockery of justice”.

On the surface life is much more relaxed in these smaller Gulf states than in their big neighbour, Saudi Arabia. Women play a much greater role in society and have many more freedoms – in dress, in free movement and in jobs. (Nevertheless, when it comes to inheritance, divorce and child custody, in most states the cards are stacked against them.) In the UN’s Human Development Index, which measures social as well as economic progress, the United Arab Emirates comes out a handsome 30th in world rankings. It is well ahead of its fellow Arabs because of the high standard of women’s lives and the ubiquity of health and educational services.

Qatar has carved out a special role for itself. Its Al Jazeera television network played a pivotal role in galvanizing the Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan protesters. It became the first country in the world to offer diplomatic recognition to the Benghazi-based rebel movement that ousted Muammar Gaddafi. It despatched six fighter jets – the only Arab state to lend France and the UK a hand – that were partially instrumental in the fall of the regime.

Today it gives vigorous support to the Syrian opposition. However, it hedged its bets on the uprising in Bahrain, refusing to criticise the crackdown. The Arabic version of Al Jazeera has been criticised for its lukewarm coverage of Bahrain’s Arab Spring imbroglio. A leaked US diplomatic cable, published by WikiLeaks, said the TV station was used as “a bargaining tool to repair relationships with other countries.” In contrast the English-language edition of Al Jazeera has maintained its reputation for its high standard and impartiality.

Qatar, compared with its neighbours, has less sectarianism and discrimination and there are even hints of moving towards a constitutional monarchy. According to Transparency International it is the least corrupt of the Middle Eastern states. It holds local elections and women have the vote.

Qatar and its fellows have been good at winning Western intellectual support by funding impressive new architecture at home (although some of the cities like Doha and Qatar are for the most part unappealing visually, are dominated by the motor car and give little or no space to the pedestrian or cyclist.) They have also brought in prestigious Western universities and museums – the Louvre art gallery and Michigan State University, for example.

Bit by bit the regimes are changing their image from being wealth-absorbed monarchies to culturally open societies. However, moves like sentencing the Qatari poet, Muhammad ibn al Dheeb, to life imprisonment for a mild criticism of Emir Ahmad bin Ali al-Thani, its ruler, do much to harm Qatar’s public image. (But I can write this knowing this column will be published unedited by a number of Gulf newspapers.) There are also accusations that in Qatar foreign women are trafficked.

Qatar has been chosen to host football’s World Cup in 2022. That should become end date for completing the road to freedom. It would be even better if it could happen sooner.

Copyright: Jonathan Power

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