The Gulf beyond oil

Elizabeth Kiefer, a master’s student at SAIS, reports on the Carnegie Endowment discussion this week of the Chatham House report Future Trends in the Gulf.

Jamil De Dominicis, Coordinator, Middle East and North Africa Program, Chatham House

Kristen Smith Diwan, Visiting Scholar, Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University and lecturer at American University’s School of International Service

Jane Kinninmont, Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Program, Chatham House

Matar Ebrahim Matar, Former Member of Parliament, Kingdom of Bahrain

Frederic Wehrey, Senior Associate, Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Jane Kinninmont provided a brief summary of the new Chatham House report. While the Gulf States are often seen as a bastion of stability,  a number of factors that have generated tensions between civil society and Gulf governments such as high population growth, increased internal migration, lavish economic spending, government nepotism, the public’s dissatisfaction with current land ownership policies, lack of employment opportunities for women, and the uneven distribution of wealth. The proliferation of information via Twitter and satellite television has created the expectation among Gulf citizens of greater government transparency and generated calls that citizens be included in international and domestic policy debates.

While the Gulf States were originally receptive to change in the wake of the Arab Spring, these regimes are now less likely to accommodate local demands for openness as a result of the turmoil that has accompanied transitioning states. Governments are now repressing civil dissent and resisting calls for political transformation. Some of the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, have increased social spending in an effort to buy off local dissent, but this strategy is not sustainable in the long-term due to declining oil revenues and poor economic policies.

Kinninmont argued that these regimes must pursue economic policies that move beyond oil to create knowledge-based economies. Such a shift must be accompanied with parallel public discussion about what a “new deal” with a state that provides fewer subsidies and expects greater inputs from its citizens entails.

Western countries are sending mixed messages to Gulf states. Continued military and security assistance, without pushes for democratic reforms or increased social spending, have reinforced negative Gulf behaviors.

Jamil De Dominicis noted the space for constructive political dialogue in the Gulf States has decreased since 2011. He is particularly alarmed about the practice that many states are pursuing of revoking the citizenship of political dissidents. Dominicis advocates that Gulf states take a long-term approach towards transition that redefines the relationship between the state and citizen beyond the accumulation of wealth.

Kristen Smith Diwan noted that the West needs to view its strategy with Gulf states beyond the lens of oil and gas. The new security environment in the Middle East will make Western political concerns in the Gulf more difficult to address. Many Gulf states are using new legal frameworks and media laws, enacted under the guise of anti-terrorism efforts, to crack down on peaceful opposition. She highlighted the use of such tactics in Kuwait and Bahrain, where several moderate clerics who spoke out against government policies were sentenced to prison. The parliaments in many Gulf States are now less representative of the region’s political landscape due to free speech restrictions.

Diwan echoed Dominicis‘ concerns about taking away citizenship, noting that revoking citizenship is a highly effective and symbolic tactic to repress dissent. Policies that drive peaceful political dissent underground risk creating violent extremist groups in the coming years.

Matar Ebrahim said Gulf youth are increasingly following economic, human rights, and democracy issues on Twitter. Their governments are increasingly committing human rights abuses and even torture against those who protest. The current political environment is not sustainable and is driving foreign companies out of the region due to security concerns.

Ebrahim said that there were three scenarios that could play out in the region. The first is continuation of the status quo, which he believes is not sustainable and would ultimately precipitate inevitable but difficult political transitions in Gulf states. The second scenario involves a political “opening up” in Saudi Arabia, which would have ripple effects in the region. The third and most likely scenario is a political transition in a small country such as Bahrain, which could serve as a model for others. Ebrahim noted that the time for change was now, as the economic outlook for Bahrain is particularly bleak.

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