Those who think that the Gulf States are not aware of their people’s aspirations cannot be more wrong. And those who cannot see realities on the ground — such as economic, social, and cultural changes — are committing another mistake too. A quick look reveals the key changes are ubiquitous. For instance, the number of TV satellite stations has mushroomed, many world-class universities have come up and new ideas have spread. If anything, this has broadened the vision of the citizens and officials alike.
Nonetheless, it is the way Muslim Brotherhood has run things in both Egypt and Tunisia that has forced Arabs in the Gulf countries to renounce chaos and to think of reforms within the system as the best way forward. For this reason, some of the Gulf countries are geared up to present a package of political reforms such as parliamentary elections, increasing the representation of people, transparency in financial institutions and increasing the scope of freedom of expression.
Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah’s speech addressing the leaders of the GCC in the recently held summit in Manama, Bahrain, was very transparent. King Abdullah admitted that the accomplishments that had been realized are suboptimal and do not meet the aspirations and ambitions of people. The brief message was eloquent and had some political connotations.
The big ambitions include huge economic capabilities, stability, qualitative education, socioeconomic unity, and common defense system. At the Gulf level, observers see that the external pressure — whether in public and in private — will not yield any benefit to speak of. There is a rejection of any interference in internal affairs.
The common view is that reforms can only take root if they come from within. This is the only way where societies can agree on interim agreements to develop the system in such a way that could protect the economies form collapse and anarchy.
At the Saudi level, there is a social awareness that the country is witnessing reforms that are consistent with the need of the country. Some even goes far to say that the regime is considering election for the Shoura Council. The king himself said previously that the state had the intention to empower women to be active in the Shoura Council. This move, if it materializes, is a smart political step that will help break the monopoly of the conservative view that still rejects any political presence for Saudi women. This step was mooted after a series of calculated moves to keep the conservative view at bay which is also reflected in the appointment of Abdul Latif Al-Asheikh as president of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Al-Asheikh is well known for his moderation and tolerance. He rejects extremism regardless of its nature. His policy was clear from the get-go when he restructured the commission and purged the extremists by introducing more institutionalization and internal accountability. This measure brought back the commission to its original educational objectives. There were those who tried to impede the work of the commission but its head succeeded in his new job.
Saudi Arabia as well as the rest of the Gulf states realize that the rearrangement of the internal house is a source of strength which can help face any external challenge. Also, these countries see that economic and social development and spreading education would pave the way for new social transformations. First and foremost, it will wipe out violence, extremism and terrorism. Furthermore, these countries think that the speed of technology and management of small businesses will contribute in realizing security and internal stability. It also helps qualify the society to move from the traditional authority to the rational and legal authority. It seems that the Gulf societies have learned the lessons of other countries. In 1960s and 1970s, these countries shunned away all contending ideologies and instead set up some independent, intellectual and cultural projects. This has produced more realistic elite to deal with the other. These countries were vindicated when the USSR collapsed and the communists transformed into some orphans begging for foreign fund. Today, Saudi Arabia is on the verge of a new era that will lead to a new social and political contract based on realities on the ground.
Just a few days ago, I read some odd analysis in some Western press that tried to stir some security misgivings in the region. Interestingly, Saudi Arabia and the rest countries in the Gulf region have their own reform plans that suit their internal need. In Saudi Arabia, there is no dearth of literary works and intellectual elites. There are some 18 literary clubs. The administrations of these clubs are elected directly by members. The intention is there to restore some civil practices in university administrations too. Needless to say, there are some human rights and consumer rights associations in the country too. Additionally, people are put on trial publicly and the level of criticism and freedom of expression is high in the Saudi press.
When Jeffrey Feltman said that the Gulf countries will face real challenges if they do not expedite the reform process, he is totally wrong. Indeed, Saudis — Shiites or Sunnis – are aware of these challenges despite the futile attempts on the part of Iran to interfere. The Shiites in Saudi Arabia are loyal citizens and they will strongly defend their country to the extent that pushes others to do some recalculations. That said, there are some calls for reform as evident in the daily newspapers in the country. These articles call for revising policies, reconstruction, and economic challenges such as unemployment, housing and reinforcing the relationship between the ruler and the ruled.
As far as the sources of external threats are concerned, the Gulf countries are conducting themselves wisely. They are aware of the Iranian role and Tehran’s interests in destabilizing the region, and yet, they act swiftly and wisely. Not only the Gulf countries ceased to support the Iranian revolution but also they no longer take the Iranian threat seriously.
Interestingly, the mere announcement of Gulf support for the conference of friends of Iranian people enraged Tehran and made it feel vulnerable. The internal weakness is evident and Iran has always created troubles externally to stifle internal pressure. Iran does not pose a genuine threat to the Arab region despite of what has been taking place in Iraq. Iran is begging the Kurds of Iraq to keep Al-Maliki in power and is trying to control the Shiite politics. And yet, the south of Iraq is rejecting Iran and is trying to emasculate Iran especially after they discovered that Iran stood behind much of the acts that targeted people and shrines.
Just a few years ago, we had a meeting in Damascus with some experts and politicians and they told us that some of them refused to have a relationship with Tehran. It is obvious that Iran deals with Syrian as if the latter is a satellite state for the former. Take Bahrain for instance, a heavy weight Shiite intellectual said that the Shiites are Arabs and therefore they refused to be outpost for Iran. He argued that the Shiites, on the whole, were against Iranian intervention in Bahrain. He also mentioned that the percentage of those who identify with Iran among the Shiites does not exceed 5 percent. Nonetheless, they were for citizenship and freedom and definitely against Iranian project in the region.
Yemen was present in the Gulf summit. The vision of the Gulf states was obvious and they supported legitimacy of Yemen and urged it to implement the Gulf’s initiatives. They also supported the restoration of all institutions hijacked by individuals. It also affirmed its support for stability in Yemen, its fight against Al-Qaeda and rejection of any regional interference in the Yemeni affairs.
It should be noted that Yemen is in its way out from the tunnel toward stability. Also the unity of Yemen is cemented through reinforcing the state of law, institutions, fighting corruption and building an interim plan to fight poverty and unemployment. This is very important as Yemen is overseeing a very important strategic waterway and therefore Yemen deserves the support of the international community to safeguard the security and stability of the routes for energy and the world economy.
(Ali Bluwi is a columnist at the Saudi-based Arab News, where this article was published on Dec. 29, 2012. The writer can be reached at: email@example.com)