Gertrude Bell once wrote: “Of what value are the pan-Arabic associations and inflammatory leaflets that they issue from foreign printing presses? The answer is easy: they are worth nothing at all. There is no nation of Arabs”. Bell’s words could equally describe what is now happening in some Gulf streets, where slogans are being shouted, foreign concepts are being borrowed, and phrases are being repeated that may not reflect the reality of those countries. In this context we can ask the following necessary question: Do the Gulf states need to pursue radical policies to achieve political reform? Or do today’s slogans – no matter how attractive they seem – harbor sharp contrasts that will come to the fore in the near future and expose the hollow promises pledged by some opposition figures in the Gulf?
There are obvious cases of incitement amidst the political discourse of some opposition factions in more than one Gulf state. There are several reasons for this, and the means vary according to the size of the groups and the characters within, but what unites them – unfortunately – is the growing phenomenon of verbal and physical escalation, sometimes to the extent that some of their behavior represents a threat to peace and national unity.
Unfortunately, some of the radical features of the Gulf opposition are a negative product of what happened and is happening in the region. Here I am talking about the popular uprisings against totalitarian or fascist regimes, some of which have transformed into civil wars, and others which have ended in hasty elections won by unstable coalitions led by religious parties.
The Gulf states have avoided this experience so far, but the psychological impact is still prevalent. With regards to this there are two views, one which is excited about what happened, even advocating it in the Gulf – as a few have done so far – with aggressive behavior, claiming that current reform does not live up to certain visions of what the state and society should be. On the other hand, there are those who warn against the attractions of the – utopian – “revolutionary” model, especially among the young generation. Some even argue that there is an attempt by some politicized religious movements – the Muslim Brotherhood in particular – to apply pressure and achieve political gains through a temporary alliance with contradictory coalitions of the traditional opposition. There are those who would say that what has happened recently in some Gulf states is a deliberate clash with the security services, and a deliberate attempt to question the impartiality of the judiciary, by focusing divisive political issues, which in turn creates conflict between one party and another.
There is no doubt that criticizing the opposition’s practices in the Gulf states is not popular in this environment, particularly as criticism of the ruling authorities has become less expensive and more attractive than it was in the past. For example, a passionate sermon from a preacher or a borrowed phrase posted by an internet blogger can make one to feel that a historical transformation has taken place. Yet mere rhetoric in the virtual world cannot change the real world.
The Gulf states share many common values and interests, but there are differences in the history politics and society of each one, and because of that they are able to learn from each other though each has its own course,, and each must change and develop at its pace.
The debate today about the cohesion of the Gulf regimes or the challenges that lie ahead is nothing new. Ever since the 1950s, when the region was swept by a wave of nationalist and Baathist military coups, efforts have been made to define the future of the Gulf societies. In his book “All in the Family: Absolutism, Revolution, and Democracy in the Middle Eastern Monarchies” (1999), Michael Herb refutes the explanation of the “rentier state” – relating to oil – which is usually used to explain the durability and stability of the Gulf’s Arab states. Instead, Herb points out that the modern civil transformation in the Gulf did not abolish the historical rules governing the relationship between the ruler and the ruled, but rather it has developed to varying degrees to adapt to the monarchical system. In comparison with other examples where the failure of monarchies has led to disastrous results, such as in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen and others, Herb emphasizes that progressive, evolutionary development is the safest option for the Gulf states compared to the radical, revolutionary change.
Unfortunately, there are those who are betting on the second option. They are a partisan minority, aspiring for power even if it comes at the expense of the public. Yet what really arouses concern is that this minority harbors an authoritarian impulse that contradicts its slogans of rights and individual liberties. However, this minority has been able to win over some and enter into political alliances with others. Yet behind this alleged “peaceful” exterior, some of these forces and personalities have a history of hardline positions which others have failed to scrutinize.
Unfortunately, the opposition in the Gulf has numerous defects, for it does not have the sustainability of past successful development projects, nor does it offer clear economic programs for the future. The opposition seems indifferent to the regional threats stemming from the Iranian or the Syrian regimes. Indeed, some figures currently active in opposition movements used to laud Hezbollah’s role and encourage Hamas’ rise against democracy in Gaza. Some members of the current Gulf opposition have even explicitly rejected the freedom of expression, women’s rights, and justified terrorism.
The Gulf societies must learn from the recent “Arab Spring” experience, whereby liberals and independents participated alongside the Islamists in the Tahrir Square demonstrations, under the pretext of unity to topple the regime, but when the regime was overthrown, the Islamists seized power unilaterally. The rest went back to their social networking websites to lament their misfortune.