The saying that the Gulf’s destiny is to unite and that what it really needs is to cooperate is not political flattery or mere small-talk. It expresses political, geographical, economic, and social facts and more. Over the last few days, this became increasingly evident as I traveled between Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. However, I will only comment about Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the last two countries I visited and will write about what I witnessed and experienced.
In Kuwait, after days of heated debate between the government and the opposition in parliament regarding reform of electoral constituencies, parliament divided into two camps. One part consisted of those who were for having only five constituencies and the other camp was against this. Consequently, Kuwait’s ruler Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah announced that he would constitutionally dissolve parliament. The new elections will take place in one month.
Sheikh Sabah stated that he was unhappy about taking this decision, which was imposed on him as a result of the irresponsibility of some people. Regardless of the details of the Kuwaiti confrontation, Al Sabah’s statement to the editors of Kuwaiti newspapers after dissolving parliament caught my interest. In the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Qabas, Al Sabah said “we should stop and take a breath; the rest of the Gulf is worried about the situation as these countries continue to ask about it.”
The Emir of Kuwait’s highlighting of the Gulf’s concern and questioning represents a state of intertwined interests between the Gulf States especially with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait due to the social, geographic and historical ties between the two countries. On the other hand, we saw how King Abdullah, the Saudi leader during his last meeting with journalists from the Gulf, stressed the destiny of unity and the interrelatedness of interests of the Gulf countries.
The Saudi monarch reminded journalists of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and how Saudi was at the forefront in the battle against Saddam’s army, how it hosted the coalition forces and financed the war to the extent that its own treasury was shaken. He emphasized that in addition to the fact that this was a moral obligation towards a neighbor, this position was taken in the interest of Saudi Arabia, as the defense of Kuwait is also the defense of Saudi Arabia.
Today however, there remain challenges of a different kind. What I noticed was that there are political forces in Kuwait that seek a faster change and a higher ceiling for reform as opposed to the government. In Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, the picture is different as we see the government is more enthusiastic towards reform than some effective political forces in society. There are many examples. Despite that there are no two identical countries, the observer cannot help but notice this difference. In Saudi Arabia today there is a king who is occupied with reform and development. In Saudi Arabia, decisions such as the most recent to establish a huge investment fund for citizens have become anticipated.
Within a few months, King Abdullah made a number of important decisions such as the increase of salaries, providing of loans, the resuming of sending exchange students to study in America, the lowering of gas prices, the establishment of the citizen investment funds, and the founding of King Abdullah Economic City. The latter project was costly, however, it was decided that the project would be established in cooperation with the Emaar real estate development company based in the United Arab Emirates. Thirty percent of this company’s shares were then offered to citizens to buy. The governor of the Saudi Investments Authority, Amr Al Dabbagh said that the Authority has licensed the largest shared project in its history with a cost of 27 billion US dollars.
Let alone the financial city of King Abdullah in Riyadh that has been active in making the financial center that is located in the north of the capital and that extends over 1.6 million square meters the largest financial capital in the Middle East. Prince Salman the governor of Riyadh said, “All indicators assert that Riyadh will soon witness wide investment prospects.” The Saudi ship is being steered by a skillful captain who will depend on developments in economic revenue as well as high credibility concerning foreign policy. More importantly, he will depend on a high level of popularity locally.
But is the picture all pleasant and rosy? No. I believe that the intentions are sincere and that these are backed by strong motivation. The road is tough but not impossible. There are several challenges ahead. There is the challenge of education, which suffers from much carelessness in its methods as well as the resistance to reform to bring together religious education and the spirit of reform and tolerance. There are other problems related to the status of women and the appropriate legislation that may permit her to trade and to travel as well as legislation that would improve family laws regarding custody, divorce etc. This issue should not be neglected under the pretense of sensitivity and traditions especially that there is a wide spectrum of opinions in Islam. There are campaigns of fear against such reforms by certain forces of society that play on traditions and are scared of change. They neglect the fact that women in early Islam were leaders of armies, for example, Aisha leading the Battle of Jamal (otherwise known as the Battle of Basra), and would deliver lectures, which is far more serious than selling clothes in a shop, driving a vehicle, or attending a conference.
There are many more external and internal challenges. However, the most important is to be able to establish a permanent prosperous environment for reform and progress. The world will not wait for those who lag behind. In each era, Saudi Arabia has had a different set of challenges to face. During King Abdul Aziz’s era, it was the challenge of union and establishment. King Saud dealt with the challenges of continuation and institution building. During King Faisal’s era, there were the challenges of external dangers and supporting institutions. For King Khaled, there was the economic boom. During King Fahd’s reign, there was the infrastructure, development and the Gulf war. For King Abdullah, there will be reform and the leading of awareness in the age of globalization and information technology. In addition, there is the confrontation with terrorism.
The challenges are truly difficult and the burden heavy; however, what gives us relief is knowing that King Abdullah’s perspective and decisions are quick responses to a vital question that has to be answered promptly so as not to fall behind and that question is do we belong to the present and are we up for its challenges? The images are varied but the common factor is that the Gulf societies are growing and developing. Sometimes the state is faster than the people and vice-versa. One should not worry about the future of the Gulf and its core, Saudi Arabia, with its levels of awareness and activity. The future will tell…