“Democratization” in the Gulf? Saudi and Emirati Style

Commentary by Riccardo Dugulin – 8 October 2011

Semantics matters. International media and commentators have a negative propensity to easily depict the Gulf Monarchies, and especially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as absolutist systems. Such a definition does not take into consideration the active political life and inter-familial distinct tendencies that shape the policy-making process of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. In Kuwait and Bahrain voters have concrete constitutional powers and the month of September witnessed elections in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These facts should not be over interpreted, as none of the Gulf Monarchies may be coined as liberal democracies.

Nevertheless, the strong interconnection between interest groups, religious establishment, tribal affiliations and royal family make the political life of Saudi Arabia and the UAE vibrant while the continuous negotiation between influential spheres tends to generate a consensus-oriented political process.

On one hand, Saudi Arabia has a royal family counting thousands of adult princes; a majority of those enter into business or social relations with non-royal elites. Patronage, professional relations, and familial kinship are at the base of a nation-wide network, which fosters the interests of a majority of Saudi families. On the other hand, the United Arab Emirates are designed as a federal state with each emirate having its own ruling family and defending the special interests and sensitivities of each respective society.

The wind of change that is now blowing across the Arab world tends to make both of these nations political systems appear as radically closed and unrepresentative. Yet a more informed look is bound to provide a different set of conclusions. In fact, the perceptions of these systems often result from misunderstandings. The Gulf Monarchies are not to be labeled simply as monolithic religious structures surviving through donations made possible by oil and gas wealth. The sociological diversity represented by the great variety of groups and tribes (in Saudi Arabia or the UAE), the sometimes clashing traditional understandings of various interests groups and the stability-oriented political institutions, require an attentive analysis of the ongoing evolutions, and not merely the detached hope for a revolution.

Saudi Arabia: Family struggle as a root of ‘democratization’

Much has been said and written about the recent decision taken by King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz to provide women with the right to vote in the 2015 municipal elections. Comments range from depicting this act as mere hypocrisy meant to quell any revolutionary spirit with an overly symbolic, yet mostly useless move, praising the open mind of the present monarch.

Saudi Arabia is undergoing a period of unprecedented internal changes and threats. The House of Saud is not experiencing any direct risk, but every period of transition in the Kingdom has proved to be a problematic affair between competing branches of the ruling family. King Abdullah is 87, Crown Prince Sultan is 83 (diagnosed with colon cancer) and Prince Nayef is 78. The well tested tradition of passing power amongst the sons of the founder of the Third Saudi Kingdom, Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saoud, is slowly coming to an end. The time is now for a showdown between competing branches of the Al Saud family with the final aim of guaranteeing a strong position to the sons of the previously mentioned three power actors.

The succession struggle will involve the internal struggle between the conservative and powerful Sudeiri branch of the Al Saud, challenging the weaker branch of King Abdullah.

The Sudeiri branch already gave the Kingdom King Fahad Bin Abdulaziz. Today the Sudeiris can count on Sultan (Crown Prince and Ministry of Defense) Nayef (Minister of Interior), whose sons Muhammad (deputy Ministry of Interior and director of Counter Terrorism), and Prince Salman (the governor of Riyadh) represent the new power elite in the Al Saud family.

On the other hand, King Abdullah is part of a weaker but expanding branch. His son Prince Mutaib is the Commander of the National Guard, an elite unit considered more effective and loyal than the Saudi National Army. His daughter, Princess Adila, is one of the very few Al Saud women with an openly public role advocating for women rights.

These considerations are meant to underline the context within which socio-political reforms are expected to take place.

King Abdullah, since the days he was Crown Prince, has been working towards a more equalitarian and just society, all within the boundaries of the Kingdom’s interpretation of Shari’a law. Nevertheless, he was widely quoted when he stated that reforms in Saudi must come at a pace with which Saudi society can accept them. For this, given his age, it is likely that his sons will be the one conveying his message of modernity. The achievement of steps such as the creation of King Abdullah University of Sciences and Technology, the development of King Abdullah economic cities, the enhancement of inter-faith dialogue and open support for women rights is a way of putting into stones changes which his competitors may not be able to remove once the succession phase will have ended.

Partial democratization of Saudi Arabia is then to be considered in the same way as the events that took place in late XIX century Europe, when aristocrats entered into political battles with wealthy traders about the shaping of a new political system.

Social elites are siding with certain branches of the royal family. The more liberal and trade oriented Bin Laden family will possibly support actions meant to facilitate the economic development of the country. On the other hand, the religiously conservative Al Sheikh family is known to be prone to defend socially restrictive policies.

‘No representation without taxation?’ or the appearance of a new paradigm

On the other hand the UAE have a very different situation with regard to the democratization of their society. With only 20% of the total population living in the UAE being Emirati, the major issue the federal government is facing is having a policy which may be dimmed “too open”, a policy from which non-Emiratis might try to take advantage and upset the local social order.

For a long time it has been a common notion that societies, such as the Saudi and Emirati ones, by not paying taxes and being largely subsidized by their government wealth, would not be concerned by entering politics. Notwithstanding, representation may in this case be considered as a top-down process. Municipal elections in Saudi Arabia and the Federal National Council elections in the UAE were not produced by an inherent social protest demanding democratic rights. They came as a result of a ruling class objective to generate a more cohesive and inclusive political system for locals.

In this optic, the inclusion of women in Saudi elections for 2015 and the multiplication of the electoral base in the UAE (from 7000 in 2006 to 120 000 electors in 2011) is meant to serve as a key to modernization, inclusion, and a quest for enhanced governmental stability.

Conclusion: Concrete limitations to the present drive /to political reforms

While downplaying the ‘absolute’ power of the King or the Emirs and highlighting the energy created by inter-familial friction, one should not conclude that Gulf Monarchies have a system that may foster in the long-term true democratic reforms. Elections and improved representation, at least for the moment, appear to be well calculated decisions, matured over time to ensure the stability of the present government even if not drastically changing the balance of power. While talking about the GCC countries, two limits to ‘democratization’ should be underlined.

A first key to understanding the slow pace of reforms in Gulf countries is a general social apprehension for change. Stability is widely considered as preferable to any turmoil. As reforms have to be accepted by wide parts of the local society, they tend to be forged by a slow process aiming at ultimately setting a fait accompli that is tacitly accepted, or at least not rejected, by many members of the local families, tribes and interest groups. King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz is a great example of such a mechanism. In 2006, the King stated that women would, in a non-defined future, be able to vote. In 2011, the King officially gave the right to women to vote and be elected; and in 2015 they will actually do so. Counting the previous unofficial discussions for such a reform, more then ten years have passed, providing the Saudis with more then a decade to adjust to this change.

On the other hand, there are major inadequacies in the institutions, which do not encourage a democratic public participation. In the last FNC elections in the UAE, a very low percentage of voters turned out to the polling stations. Two reasons are linked to low participation. Societies do not yet consider voting as a legitimate way of expressing their feelings about public policies. Further, the organs for which they are asked to vote do not have sufficient powers to effectively captivate the public debate. The FNC in the UAE or the municipal shura in Saudi Arabia will not anytime soon influence in any major way the policy-making process.

In an original way, democratization or any possible form of representation may seem to be more of top-down process in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In 2011 while the “Arab street” is becoming a political actor, the Gulf may be on the verge of major changes led by a modern type of despotes illumines (illuminated despots). Any reform will anyhow be the result of a long fought inter-familial power struggle. The oil rich Gulf Monarchies do not appear to be a fertile land for popular uprising. Change will come as an aggregation of frictions, brought by all parts of the society, to the present status quo.

Riccardo Dugulin is a Master Student at the Paris School of International Affairs (Sciences Po) specialized in International Security. He is currently working as a trainee at International SOS (Paris). In December 2010, he published a paper for the Gulf Research Center (Dubai): Dugulin Riccardo, A Neighborhood Policy for the Gulf Cooperation Council, Gulf Research Center, Dubai, 2010.


1 Comment

Filed under English, Gulf states, Saudi Arabia

One response to ““Democratization” in the Gulf? Saudi and Emirati Style

  1. the saudi’s did show on TV there budget. which has never been done before a guess that is a step.
    I think the Saudi’s are definitely going to become more like a Roman republic. were alliances are more important than individuals

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