Arab rulers take steps against uprising

What happens in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman and embattled Bahrain could depend on the stance adopted by Saudi Arabia towards the revolutionary turmoil in West Asia and North Africa.

At the peak of the crisis in Bahrain, Gulf rulers met in the capital, Manama, to demonstrate solidarity, urge the kingdom’s heriditary rulers to take a firm line against protesters, and warn their own subjects not to follow the bad example of the Bahrainis. There is little doubt that Saudi Arabia, the heavyweight of the Arabian Peninsula, convened this gathering with the aim of preventing people’s power from spreading to other countries in this strategic oil-rich region.

While there is certainly considerable concern in Riyadh over developments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and the other countries beset by uprisings, the Saudi ruling family is unlikely to alter traditional domestic or external policies to meet the challenge of the revolutionary zeal sweeping North Africa and West Asia.

On the internal front, one analyst argues that Saudi Arabia’s stability is ensured by the country’s ancient tribal culture combined with Muslim values which form the bedrock on which the Saudi regime is founded. He says that the slow evolution of the kingdom since oil began to flow after World War II shows that this cultural-religious foundation has survived the social, economic and political changes the regime and populace have faced as the country modernised.

Sect affiliations

On the external front, however, Riyadh cannot ignore unrest in neighbouring Bahrain. As a wag quipped, “Riyadh did not build a causeway between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia because Saudis want to party in Manama on weekends”. Saudi Arabia provided a route that could put its troops into Bahrain on short notice to quell unrest in the island state which has suffered from sectarianism for decades. Riyadh fears the uprising in Bahrain and, to a lesser extent, those taking place elsewhere in the Arab world could infect already restive Shias in the oil-rich eastern province.

The underlying cause of Bahraini unrest is the divide between the Sunni ruling family and the the 70 per cent majority Shias. They claim that the Sunni establishment discriminates against Shias applying for jobs in the army, police and civil service as well as in education and housing. Government promises of increased spending on welfare programmes and offer of family subsidies of $2,700 did not impress protesters calling for reform and, after force was used against them, regime change.

The change protesters demand could, in the case of Bahrain, involve change in behaviour rather than the ouster of the Khalifa family which has ruled since the early 19th century. Bahrainis of both sects seek to be regarded as citizens with rights and ligations to the state and want to be partners with the king in governance, perhaps, in a constitutional monarchy. Bahrainis, like Arabs everywhere, also want an end to cronyism and corruption, jobs, and decent wages.

So far, the UAE, Oman and Qatar have weathered the political storm gripping the region. They have done so for a number of reasons. These countries are small and solidly Sunni. They have tiny, highly privileged native populations which have reaped the  benefits of rapid development. Educational levels are high and many citizens are employed in the civil service, army and police. The societies are tightly knit. Facebook, Twitter, mobile phones are tools for social rather than political networking. In Egypt and Tunisia the internet connected democracy activists who triggered the uprisings.

The poor, downtrodden residents of the Gulf are generally unskilled or semi-skilled expatriate workers who cling to jobs that provide them with more money than they can earn in their home countries. They do not present a united front but represent many nationalities and speak many languages, making it extremely difficult to raise the banner of revolt. If they did, efficient local security forces would crack down very hard.

Kuwait may be the only state in the Gulf with an elected parliament because democracy has not been a primary demand of the people of the region, particularly the UAE and Qatar. UAE political scientist Ibtisam al-Ketbi argues that severe restrictions on political activity means that expression of grievances is not “well developed. The people do not have the ability to push” for reform and change. She warned however, that the UAE and Oman are ‘not immune’ to infection from the the revolution virus.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has distanced India from the upheavals in North Africa and West Asia, arguing that he has to consider the welfare of five million Indian workers employed in the Gulf and elsewhere in the region.

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