As a naive young college student in the late 1980s, I predicted the demise of the Arab world's monarchies by the end of the twentieth century. To a teenager watching movies like '2001 – a Space Odyssey,' the twenty-first century seemed a long way off.
Monarchies seemed an anachronism in the modern world of the nation state, a system comprised of citizens with a clear social contract between citizens and the state.
|The six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council|
Not unusually, I was hopelessly wrong with my prophecies. It's 2011 and the same royal Houses sit atop the political pyramids of the Gulf Arab states.
Undoubtedly, change is on its way to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The GCC groups the wealthy oil exporting countries of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain. Historically, the GCC states are Kingdoms with rulers who exercise varying degrees of control over their subjects.
Since the GCC nations gained independence in the post World War II era, the political contract has been quite simple: the rulers spread enough largesse in the form of development across their respective populations to maintain social stability and perpetuate the political status quo. At least in the wealthier states of Qatar, Kuwait and UAE, the state provides a cradle to grave welfare system. The same is true to a lesser degree in the remaining three nations of Saudi Arabia, Oman and Bahrain.
Hence, it is no surprise that the knee-jerk reaction by the GCC states to social discontent has been to dispense more cash to their citizens. In the case of Oman and Bahrain, the two poorest GCC member states, an aid package of USD ten billion has been structured by the wealthier nations to facilitate such spending.
Surely, money is generally an effective way to co-opt dissenters into the state structure. The Gulf's citizens are no exception. The blunt edge of dissent will certainly be softened by the infusion of cash.
However, there are other forces at play in the modern Gulf.
Today's generation did not grow up in the desert. They were not raised solely on a diet of dates and goats cheese. This generation was also weaned on cable television and the internet. The Gulf now enjoys universal literacy. Its citizens travel the world spending bountiful petrodollars.
Certainly, jobs and the quality of life are part of the equation. But the discontent is also about a desire to have a voice in national affairs: political efficacy. The debts owed by the previous generation to ruling sheikhs do not figure in the calculations of the Gulf's contemporary urbanized youth.
The modern civil contract between citizens and the state is not sectarian. Theoretically, the state is indifferent between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. While this may not be the case entirely in parts of the Arab world, witness Saudi Arabia, it is also incorrect to view the discontent entirely through the Sunni – Shia prism.
Clearly, there is a limit to which Gulf Arab protestors are willing to express their discontent. Unlike protestors in Egypt, Tunisia or Yemen, subjects of the Gulf countries have a stake in the patronage systems operated by the ruling families. Ordinary subjects are unwilling to risk these benefits through violent change.
However, change is coming. The Gulf Arab monarchies must take heed. The ability of ruling elites to operate in an unrestrained manner has been irreparably affected. The momentum towards reform, albeit evolutionary and not revolutionary, has begun. Over time, a new social contract between the Arab state and its citizens will be established.
Protests have forced the Arab world's ruling elites to take a crash course in accountability and change. Hopefully the lessons will be learnt fast enough to avoid more disruptive change forced by an increasingly impatient population.