April 22, 2011

In recent decades, the six Gulf Cooperation Council states have been a pillar of stability in a dangerous neighborhood. But the political change sweeping the Middle East has left its mark, as the situations in Bahrain and Oman underscore. The other GCC nations — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar — have been affected. The Gulf monarchies must come to understand the repercussions of the “Arab Spring.”

So far, protests in GCC states have largely been limited to calls for reform from within, not for regime change. The Arab Gulf monarchies understandably enjoy a high degree of legitimacy: Ruling families have guided their populations through such tumultuous events as the discovery of oil and the subsequent economic transformation, the end of colonialism, and the advent of globalization and its social impact. Crises in the region, meanwhile, included the Iranian Revolution, the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, the invasion of Kuwait and the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. The ruling families that were able to bring their societies into the modern age deserve credit.

It would be folly, however, to think that the arrangements of the past can last indefinitely. The Arab Spring has opened the door for a new era of political relations in the Middle East from which the GCC states cannot separate themselves. The social contract that has long defined the relationship between rulers and citizens — the unspoken trade-off of economic wealth for political power — is coming to an end. Similarly, the tribal traditions that had served the GCC states well are no longer applicable. With their legitimate demands for greater political rights and participation, the people of the Gulf are setting the stage for a fundamental reevaluation of the relationship between rulers and subjects.

If the ruling families of the Gulf want to maintain their legitimacy, they need to adapt quickly to the changing times and enact substantive political reform that reflects their people’s aspirations. Time is no longer on their side. If they wait too long, their rule cannot be assured.

Past efforts to expand political participation in GCC states have been inadequate. Shura councils or parliaments have been created by ruling families, but with the intention of solidifying the rulers’ power and representing their interests. Apart from, to some degree, the Kuwait experiment — where the parliament has taken a functional role in governing — other cosmetic steps toward reform that have been implemented have not been endorsed by the public. The guiding principle has been selection, not real election by the people. Similarly, key positions of power, from prime minister to the main ministries, remain under the ruling families’ control. Political power stays concentrated in the hands of a few.

Gulf citizens today are financially rich but politically poor. The economic incentives that governments have unveiled since the protests began this year will ultimately prove ineffectual. Those financial packages in no way tackle the Gulf economies’ structural problems: They will not lower chronically high levels of unemployment or narrow the wealth inequities that have grown in past decades. Many in the Gulf are satisfied economically with their state support, and new handouts do not address the real demand: greater political participation.

Gulf monarchies that hope to endure should recognize, in writing, the people’s demands for active participation in their governance, transparency and accountability. Vague, spoken promises of reform are no longer sufficient. The monarchies must craft constitutional mechanisms guaranteeing the people’s right to freedom of expression, the rule of law, and expanded political participation. In the immediate future, this means empowering legislative institutions. Other possible steps include naming as the head of government, or prime minister, a person from outside the ruling family.

The Arab monarchies should consider forward-looking and progressive political reforms both because their people demand them and because the GCC governments are ultimately not equipped to handle a widespread popular uprising. Rulers’ priority so far has been to protect themselves from a possible military coup; they have been largely successful, with relatives in charge of the various security services. But the region’s governments are not immune, and the role that security and military forces played in Egypt and Tunisia is instructive. The fact is, the threat now is of a people’s coup — not a military coup.

It should also be noted that now that the genie is out of the bottle, the United States will, in the end, support the aspirations of the people. U.S. principles and interests require recognition of political reform as necessary and unavoidable. Although Washington may have adopted a wait-and-see approach, the Gulf’s ruling families can no longer trust that they have a permanent American insurance policy should their populations become restive. Gulf monarchies must heed the clear message: Real reform can no longer be postponed.

The writer is chairman of the Gulf Research Center, an independent think tank with offices in Dubai, Geneva and Cambridge, England.