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Chatham House - Significant political change is coming to the Gulf

Significant political change is coming to the Gulf monarchies, often seen in the West as bastions of stability, argues a new Chatham House report entitled Future Trends in the Gulf.

The Gulf states are already undergoing dramatic demographic and economic changes – changes which are being accelerated by lower oil prices.

The current political systems in the Gulf have been defined by the oil era, enabling governments to provide extensive economic benefits and no taxation, while maintaining a monopoly over political power. As the economic role of the state changes, its political role will change too.

Even at a time of plenty, pressures for political change have been rising. Significant changes in the availability of information, the surge in social media and women’s education are driving new demands for transparency.

Political protests have been most visible in Bahrain, but calls for change and reform have been growing in all of the Gulf countries. Raif Badawi, the blogger recently flogged in Saudi Arabia, is hardly an isolated case: campaigners for constitutional monarchies and elected parliaments have been facing severe punishments for years. 

The report author, Jane Kinninmont, says:

'The US and UK underestimate the significant leverage that they still have in the Gulf compared with most other countries, even if it is less than in the 20th century. As much as Asian countries are strengthening their trade links with the Gulf, they are reluctant to step forward as the security allies that the Gulf countries need.' 

Combating instability, extremism and sectarianism in the wider region requires looking hard at the pressures for change and insecurities inside the Gulf states. These help explain, for instance, why Qatar and the UAE have backed different sides in the intensifying civil conflict in Egypt.

The report, based on three years of research, argues that:      

  • It is time for the GCC countries to seize the opportunity to carry out gradual and consensual political and social reforms towards more constitutional forms of monarchy. 

  • Western countries, especially the US and UK, need to diversify the base of relations with the Gulf beyond the existing elite – and reach out to a broader base among the increasingly well-educated and aspirational new generation.

  • Defence cooperation with the Gulf needs to be placed in a wider political context, where respect for human rights is not seen as being at odds with security imperatives, but as part of ensuring sustainable security. The UK and US policy of expanding their military bases in Bahrain has sent a strong signal that political reform is not their priority. 

  • A fresh discourse on Gulf security needs to take account of the need for people to feel secure vis-à-vis their own governments, for instance by ensuring the police are held accountable by independent judiciaries, and ending lengthy detention without trial.

  • In partnering with Gulf countries against extremism, Western allies need to broach sensitive issues such as religious education in Saudi Arabia, or the impact on Western publics and Muslim communities outside the region of flogging a blogger for insulting Islam.

Editor's notes: 

Read the report Future Trends in the Gulf by Jane Kinninmont, MENA Programme. Read the executive summary here

This report will be launched at an event at Chatham House on 19 February.          

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