Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Why Do Gulf States Prohibit Political Parties? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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During the opening of the new Kuwaiti parliamentary term for this year, the Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah repeated his government”s refusal of the establishment of political parties. He referred to the constitutional rules that ban such &#34free formations.&#34 It is well known that the demand for the recognition of political parties in Kuwait is as old as its democratic experiment, which began with independence. It is also important to note that even though political parties are banned in Kuwait, they are in effect practically accepted and are openly active. Moreover, the ruling family, as well as the government both deal with the parties as real entities that cannot be neglected.

However, the legal restrictions have been imposed on these formations to function only as cultural or civil NGOs even if everyone realizes their clear political features. For example, it is a fact that the Kuwaiti Salafis are organized behind the Association to Revive Heritage. The Muslim Brotherhood on the other hand, takes the Social Reform Society as a banner to hide behind. The Nationalist Leftist current is in turn organized behind the &#34Democratic Forum.&#34 In fact, this dynamism has given the Kuwaiti democratic experience, a very lively flavor.

The Bahraini case is very close to the Kuwaiti one. In Bahrain, and since the marked frankness in 2002 after the announcement of the constitutional monarchy, several NGOs and associations have been practicing political activity. The most recent Associations” Law in Bahrain has permitted the transformation of the civil associations and NGOs to political organizations albeit, with the maintenance of the prohibition of political parties. Yet, it is well known that the Islamic National Accord Association is the forum for the main Shia currents of Bahrain. It is also similarly known that the leftist and nationalist trends are represented by the Association for National Democratic Action and that the Ba”athists gather under the Association National Democratic Grouping. The situation of the rest of the Gulf States is different however, the common nature of the socio-economic structures in all gulf countries has caused many points of resemblance.

Such euphoria has undoubtedly had an impact on cultural life. For example, this impact is felt strongly in the publications and activities of the Saudi literary clubs that are spread across the major Saudi cities. Most of these clubs adopt an open modernist approach while several others are controlled by the Islamist currents. This open dynamism has been highlighted by the conferences of national dialogue that was held repeatedly over the last few years inside Saudi. The realistic and positive reaction of the government towards these conferences is something to its own credit.

In the other Gulf countries, except Saudi Arabia, the issue revolves around two points. First, the fact that that the political-intellectual debate is centered on the issue of modernization vs. authentication. This is not just an issue for the Gulf however; the debate was and still is more intense in the Gulf due to the tribal conservative social structure and composition, which was deeply troubled by the necessities to open its doors to the outside world as a condition for the maintenance of the oil economy. In addition, the vast majority of the Gulf region was strongly influenced by the fundamentalist thought of the 18th century and at the same time, was delayed from modernization and intellectual openness more than the rest of the Arabs; all for well-known historical reasons. The second point is that the social effects of the oil economy that created a large middle class included the majority of the population. This class is well educated, integrated, and open with regards to the global balances. This class has started to organize itself in the form of a civil institution that raises the demands for reform and modernization. Among the clearest examples are the Gulf Chambers of Commerce that in fact play semi-political roles in some countries of the Gulf. This is evident judging from the annual economic forums that are held in the main Gulf cities like Jeddah and Dubai.

Some of the individuals in this sector chose to invest in media, which today represents one of the pivotal factors in Arab political decisions. Others chose to have an effective and diverse presence in civil forums such as human rights NGOs, strategic centers, and think-tanks. If the Gulf political dynamism is that vital, why continue the ban of political parties? The result would be that these parties are nothing but organizational structures that do not differ in essence and content from the already established organizations.

Despite the conservatism and traditionalism of Gulf societies, they are still the most exposed to the outside world among Arab societies. These societies have also achieved the highest rates of development at the Arab level (in terms of education, health, and other vital services) They do not suffer from political crises or wars, and to hear of prisoners of opinion is rare. Thus, these societies are more ready than others are to establish a sound political arena in which a multi-party system exists.

It is true to say there will always be a fear of social and factional divisions, and that tribalism would take over. However, the same fear resides in many Arab countries whose social and demographic fabric is very similar to that of the Gulf States, and yet established and maintained a stable multi-party system. Jordan is a very good example. The matter is not about the invention of pluralism that does not or did not exist. It is about recognition of an already present plural diversity that has already been recognized culturally and socially. What remains however is for it to be recognized politically.