Future Challenges For the Persian Gulf Monarchies

Q.  As 2010 draws to a close, what do you identify as the future challenges facing the Persian Gulf monarchies?

The future challenges facing the six Persian Gulf monarchies are both shared and diverse.  In all cases their respective rulers must do more to prepare for a fast evolving political landscape.  As of yet, no proper roadmaps are in place for genuine democratic openings, and this renders their polities vulnerable to rapidly building pressures for reform from fast growing and increasingly educated youthful demographics.  Most acute is the mounting opposition to the monarchies’ routine reliance on censorship and promotion of opacity.  Censoring the Internet and newspapers, and co-opting journalists, academics, and other would-be civil society actors may reduce the need for heavy-handed security apparatuses, but the methods and rationale behind this Gulf-wide strategy are being increasingly criticised.  The nationalization of labour also remains a concern, as repeated attempts to hold in check the stream of immigrant workers and push nationals into the workforce have failed.  At the root of the problem is the unwillingness of citizens to compete on a level playing field with expatriates given their social contracts with ruling families and their preference for maintaining hierarchy-based, rent-generating economic structures.  In time, this may prove to be the ultimate weakness for these states, as post-oil economic realities will require reforms that strike at the core of 'ruling bargains' predicated on distributed wealth and privileges in exchange for political acquiescence. 

On an individual basis, Bahrain presently faces the toughest challenges, given that its government no longer has hydrocarbon wealth or economic advantages to distribute to its citizens.  Recent elections have exposed resentment over an increasing wealth gap between the state’s various communities, with its substantial Shia population having been particularly vocal.  Having resorted to a public and rather brutal crackdown on its opponents, the Sunni ruling family’s legitimacy has been greatly and perhaps irrecoverably reduced.  Although at the helm of a much more powerful economy, the ruling family of Saudi Arabia is also facing a looming crisis.  With an aged ruler surrounded by almost equally aged potential successors, there is concern that the kingdom’s political stability may deteriorate as factionalism surfaces amongst its elite.  The situation will likely be exacerbated by an ongoing struggle between reformers and religious conservatives - the latter still commanding great loyalty across the state, even if their political power has been carefully reduced in recent years.  Oman too faces a succession question, with its childless ruler having taken much personal credit for the sultanate’s various modernization programmes.  If his successor proves less progressive, there is a danger that the measures which have been taken to liberalize Oman’s economy – and which have delivered largely positive results – may be reversed. 

Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE also face their unique challenges.  Kuwait’s unusual parliamentary political culture – an unpleasant mishmash of pork barrel politics and public chest-beating - is now deeply entrenched, and it will prove difficult for genuine democratic reforms to be pushed through without significant instability.  All the while, Kuwait will remain unable to develop properly its economy or emerge from the sidelines of the regional system.  With the smallest, but wealthiest per capita population of all the GCC states, Qatar is the most vulnerable to invasion or coup d’état.  Its energetic foreign policy may at some point backfire, with regional or international powers deeming that its usefulness has expired.  In this scenario, the country will be left unprotected and will represent a valuable prize.  The UAE is the most complicated of the six states given that is a federation of seven emirates.  Only one of these still commands significant hydrocarbon reserves and it is likely this will lead to increasing economic and political centralization.  Given the proud histories and carefully guarded autonomies of the other constituent emirates, this may result in significant tension within the state.  Already there have been signs of growing unrest in the poorer, outlying emirates, as significant numbers within their populations are uneasy over the ambitions of the current generation of the richest emirate’s rulers.