There are many studies and books on the subject of civil societies in the Gulf countries. Some of them suggest there are more than 10,000 associations, private enterprises and such civil society bodies working in Gulf countries. However, with the outbreak of Arab Spring, and the Gulf states’ support to the struggle for freedom, justice and human dignity, an important question is being asked: Do the Gulf countries have enough civil society bodies that can create space for exercising freedom?
Let us first define a civil society. According to the World Bank and a number of research centres, “the term civil society refers to a wide range of non-governmental and non-profit organisations that serve the public and bear the burden of expressing their interests and values, based on ethical considerations, cultural, political, scientific, religious and charitable factors.”
In this sense, civil society organisations include local community groups, NGOs, trade unions, indigenous groups, charitable and religious organisations, professional unions and foundations.
In the past two years, there have been significant developments in the Middle East which led to significant changes in societies. As the Gulf countries are an integral part of the Arab world, these changes have a direct and indirect impact on them, especially with the widespread use of new media and social networking platforms which raised the ceiling on freedom of opinion.
Associations and civil organizations have existed for a long time in the Gulf, but were dominated by charitable institutions or associations concerned with the family, women and children, and public interest institutions, which get indirect governmental support.
There are tight restrictions on forming independent organizations in the Gulf countries – except in Kuwait - in line with international standards, which explain the absence of political parties, trade unions, associations, political and professional bodies, in the region. These restrictions could perhaps be attributed to the fact that the GCC economy is dependent on oil, which makes it easier for governments to control the economic and social life of the population.
Nothing should stand in the way of the development of civil society in our region– whether it’s the political and tribal structure of the Gulf population, or the impact of regional events in the past and present, like the Iraq-Iran war, the invasion of Kuwait, the Gulf War, the Afghanistan war, the war against terrorism, and now Arab Spring. It is difficult to talk about effective democracy without having civil society organizations that can contribute to and participate effectively in the process of nation building.
In order to develop a clear vision for the future of our region, it is essential to remove all obstacles in building active civil society organizations. Therefore, parties, governments and people need to work jointly on a road map for building effective civil societies. We need to frame legislation to keep pace with the developments taking place globally, especially because all Gulf governments have signed international conventions on respecting human rights. The media has to play an important role in this: by creating awareness and highlighting the importance of civil society bodies to achieve the goals of freedom, development, and progress of our nations.