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The Gulf region has relatively been an oasis of peace amidst the chaos and instability that the Arab Spring uprisings have unleashed throughout the Middle East. With the exception of Bahrain and Oman, protests and conflicts have been scarce in the Gulf since the revolutions started almost two years ago in Tunisia. However, the peace has been under threat in recent months with the latest events unfolding in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Last week, Kuwait was rocked by a series of protests which turned violent. On Thursday, demonstrators marched to the country’s Central Prison to demand the release of former parliament member Musallam Al Barrak after he was arrested over a speech he made during a protest rally in which he criticised the Kuwaiti Emir. Barrak was eventually released on bail of 10,000 Kuwaiti dinars ($35,574). However, this did not deter activists and youth groups from organising another protest under the banner of “Dignity of the country 2” last Sunday despite a ban on public gatherings of more than 20 people. The government had imposed the ban after recent clashes between police and protesters during a demonstration against changes in the 2006 electoral law which the Emir enforced with Cabinet approval. Around 2,000 people participated in the rally that was dispersed by the security forces with teargas and stun grenades.
Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, protests by Shias have also escalated, especially in the eastern province of Qatif, which has resulted in the death of 14 civilians and two police officers since the beginning of 2011. Last week, 19 people were prosecuted for staging a demonstration near Tarfiya prison for the release of detained family members. Tensions continue to rise in the kingdom as the minority Shia community presses for more rights.
In the UAE, friction between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood over the Islamist group’s increasing influence in the political affairs of the country has led to a war of words between the two. Dubai’s Police Chief, Dhahi Khalfan, has been very vocal about the Brotherhood’s activities and accused the group through Twitter of plotting regime change in the GCC states.
Most recently, the UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan has confirmed the country’s apprehension over perceived interference by the group when he called other GCC countries to work together in order to prevent the Brotherhood from undermining governments in the region.
Although Qatar has escaped the turmoil rocking the region, with the internal situation remaining peaceful and stable, there may be an external risk especially since the country has been very supportive of the people in Arab Spring countries and due to the country’s role in aiding Syrian civilians who are caught in a bloody conflict in their country.
Recently, Iran’s Chairman of the Armed Forces Chief of Staff Major General Hassan Firouzabadi said in a statement that the US is looking to provoke more conflict in Syria and advised Qatar “not to further jeopardise its security by being lured into the Americans’ trap.” Firouzabadi’s remark is a veiled threat to Qatar that its continued support for the Syrian people may have dire consequence to its security and stability.
All these events, in addition to the ongoing sectarian protests in Bahrain and rallies over unemployment in Oman, do not bode well for the region’s future. The area is now facing unprecedented threats not only to its stability and security but also to the continuity of political systems.
The growing trend in the region is people demanding more rights and freedom than what their existing political system is willing to give them. Because of this, there is a great possibility that the GCC will eventually reach a point where they have to transform themselves into a constitutional monarchy system like in the UK, Spain, Japan and Thailand, where the monarch operates within the framework of the constitution, in order to survive politically and continue in power.
Kuwait and Bahrain have already made steps towards becoming constitutional monarchies by having elected parliaments but the ruler still has the power to appoint the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, which usually has more power in making legislation.
However, this situation will probably change given that people want more democratic reforms partly due to the influence of the Arab Spring uprisings. Having a Prime Minister elected by a parliament is not a far-fetched notion for the GCC countries in the future.
Nevertheless, enjoying more democratic freedom by transforming into a constitutional monarchy will not completely solve the problems and issues facing each Gulf state.
In fact, it may even exacerbate it, particularly because the GCC states do not have the tradition of political parties similar to the West, where people support parties due to political ideology. The GCC has to build a system wherein parties are not formed based on religion, sects and tribes but on platforms and policies so that it does not create further division among its people.
We have seen during the Arab Spring Islamists, liberals, socialists, men, women, children from different tribes coming together to stand against tyranny and fight for freedom, justice and dignity. During an interview with Financial Times in 2010, the Emir H H Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani remarked that democracy has to be achieved “step by step” and “needs good education, good analysts”.
The challenge facing the GCC now is in educating its people to go beyond sectarian and tribal alliances that they have been used to and support political parties and groups based on the programmes they want to implement to develop their respective states.
Change is inevitable in the region. The Emir had foreseen this when he quoted President John F Kennedy during his first US visit in 1997: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” The Peninsula