Since the start of the Arab Spring in late 2010, the winds of change have been blowing near the Gulf states. However, customs and tradition are blocking their way. People are still not in a state of despair and more time is needed before these winds can enter. These winds remain in a state of suspension, courting the people and taunting the rulers, making progress at times and receding at other times. They are tempted by those seeking change, yet repelled by those who show excessive loyalty to local chauvinists.
There are two sides looking at this issue, each from its own specific angle. One side believes that the Gulf states are immune to the aftershocks of the Arab Spring for a variety of reasons, including the fact that there is a lack of revolutionary spirit in Gulf societies. Throughout their modern history, these states have not witnessed any notable opposition to the rulers, with the exception of the Dhofar Rebellion in Oman in the late 1960s. This was more of an ideological revolution in a particular region that later spread to popular revolutions throughout the Gulf countries. For centuries, the Gulf people have been accustomed to coping with a “daily fear” for food and shelter. The concept of a “total revolution” was missing from their lexicon, because they never experienced totalitarian rulers, and their daily demands never went beyond the right to food and a homeland.
The nature of economic life in the Gulf states is also among the reasons preventing revolutions from happening in these countries. The majority of people in the Gulf are of good economic standing, and enjoy a somewhat comfortable lifestyle. They are not prepared to lose this quality of life during a transitional period that could be lengthy. Most revolutions in the world are based on daily dietary needs, an issue that is almost nonexistent in the Gulf.
The third main reason for a lack of revolutions is the lack of general injustice or systematic persecution of the people on the part of the authorities. They do not experience persecution against their freedoms or their religion. All Gulf rulers, without exception, deal with their people under the logic of a parental umbrella, or as a guardian ruler, who is looking out for the well-being, safety and security of his people, yet from a specific context and through a particular point of view. Throughout the decades, the Gulf states have never witnessed systematic violations targeting a certain sect or minority. They have not adopted the practices of the intelligence services in neighboring countries against their people. The situation is based on mutual respect and the common interests of the ruler and the ruled.
However, the other side believes that the Gulf states are not immune to the impact of the Arab Spring. In spite of their unique ruling systems and the extent of the loyalty that they enjoy from their people, in the end these states are grappling with the reality of the modern era. They affect and are affected by what is happening around them. This side thinks that there are many reasons that make the Gulf States fertile ground for the Arab Spring. These include an increased popular political consciousness, as well as a growing desire among the people to participate — alongside the ruling family — in governing the country, all while maintaining the royal palace for the historical ruling families. Furthermore, international pressure — aimed at encouraging people to represent themselves — is increasing. Many foreign organizations are now working to install a democratic infrastructure in local Gulf societies. They encourage citizens to pursue their political rights, which sometimes contradict the “concept of a state” among the ruling authorities in the Gulf. A popular awakening could also be among the primary reasons that bring the Arab Spring to the Gulf states.
During the middle of the last century, this awakening — led by elites who were not in touch with the general populace — tried to change the ruling regimes in the Gulf, similar to what was happening in the other Arab states. Although this awakening thankfully failed, its extensive popularity at present could make it one of the reasons that the wide wave of the Arab Spring could move into the region.
Each side — and I represent them both — currently view the ruling families as legitimate rulers. However, at the same time they do not stop to ask: What will the future be like, with or without the Arab Spring?
These ruling families had pivotal roles in establishment of these countries. They pulled the fragmented pockets of the populace from the desert — which were spread out, fractured and weak — and put them into templates of modern states. They provided all the makings of a decent life, particularly after the discovery of oil. Moreover, the ruling families have tried to be complimentary to the people, and have not viewed them as inferior. This is clearly evidenced in the stories that our ancestors circulated about their rulers, and how they managed the day-to-day affairs of the people using public councils focused on the concept of service, not rule. This fact helped the ruling families in the Gulf states avoid the revolutionary tide that swept the region in the middle of the previous century, which gave the people of the region nothing but destruction, poverty, and dictatorships disguised as free republics. Many wealthy countries fell into this hole — Iraq, for example — as a result of democratic aspirations that claimed to call for progress and freedoms. However, these movements were secretly masking repression, authoritarianism and a desire for one-party rule.
In contrast, as these states were being established, Gulf citizens showed loyalty and obedience toward their rulers, as a result of an urgent need for stability, as well as their beliefs regarding the characteristics that a transition from the “zone of fear” to the “zone of security” would entail, including the size of such a transition. The Gulf masses rallied around their rulers, as more of a human unification than a territorial unification. They saw their rulers as unifying symbols that could bring together tribes, villages and cities that had previously been divided. In the middle of the 20th century, when the wave of nationalism began to strike the region — sometimes in the name of progress, other times in the name of fighting imperialism — the people affirmed their ties to these supreme figures. They also developed a specific system that placed the ruler at the top of the social network. This system was assisted by tribal and semi-tribal concepts that are rooted in the minds of people from this region. At that time, the ruler was merely a tribal leader who could not be disobeyed. Thanks to this, these fledgling countries were able to peacefully come out of the womb and avoid the Arab revolts that affected the rest of the region in the middle of the last century. This fact is reflected in the level of prosperity in which we now live.
However, just as the ruling families had important roles in the founding of these nations, they now must rescue their people from a sea of confusion and dark thoughts. They must work on installing social, economic, political and ideological barriers to protect their countries from the waves of the Arab Spring, whose negative effects could drastically surpass its positive ones. Those in the Gulf are no longer worried about their rights to food and a homeland, and Gulf society no longer enjoys a tribal structure where the tribal leader has absolute authority. However, at the same time, they will not imitate the experiences of other Arab nations, the final results of which have yet to become clear.
If a Gulf union were to be formed, it would constitute an appropriate first step toward changing the parliamentary systems in the Gulf. This union could also build a solid foundation, providing for accountability, supervision and the transparent management of public funds; it could also help to create a new understanding between the historical Gulf rulers and their people. This would provide them with many more years of rule, and at the same time would spare their people from “conscious chaos,’ as I referred to in my previous article.
If such a union is not formed during the next five years, each state — individually — will be responsible for determining its own form of governance, in which the state protects itself through legitimate weapons and the integrity of its domestic and foreign positions.
Real and fruitful change lies in the hands of the ruling family and no one else. At present, it is not acceptable for anyone to counter change coming from a foreign organization or local forces if their exact goals are unknown.