The princes of the Persian Gulf may not really be serious about introducing democracy to their family-run countries. But at a minimum, they've figured out how to talk about it in Washington. In the past month potentates and spin doctors from a number of Gulf states have made the rounds of the administration, Congress and media to discuss the postwar Middle East. They've made the usual noises about the need for stability in Iraq and progress on a Palestinian state -- but they've also had a surprising amount to say about political change in their own domains.
First to arrive was Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa Thani of Qatar, who has the odd distinction of playing host both to the Saddam-symp journalists of al-Jazeera and the U.S. military headquarters from which the war on Iraq was conducted. Since deposing his father eight years ago, the portly, 53-year-old sheik has been seeking to modernize his gas-rich emirate at a breakneck pace -- he's invited in Western investors, had his education system redone by Rand and even imported a branch of Cornell's medical school. Just before coming to Washington, he appointed the country's first woman minister, created an independent human rights commission and held a referendum to ratify Qatar's first constitution, which provides for free expression and the democratic election of 30 out of 45 members of a new parliament.
The Qatari leader was a little cautious about describing all this in public. But in his private meetings, his analysis of the Middle East sounded more neoconservative than al-Jazeeran. Democracy, he argued, is the key to peace in the region -- including peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Not only is it a workable formula for Iraq, but a democratic government in Baghdad would also bring about a more stable and secure Persian Gulf. Just about any question Hamad was asked drew a response with the word "democracy" in it -- in striking contrast to the more conventional Arab wisdom retailed by his famous satellite network, for which all stories eventually lead to "Israel" or "Sharon."
A diplomat who knows the Qatari ruler well told me the motive for all this reform is relatively simple: The sheik, like all of his ancestors, wants to hand power off to his son a decade or two from now. But the British-educated Hamad is smart enough to realize he won't get away with it unless he liberalizes his political system -- and so he does so, hoping to stop just short of a full constitutional monarchy.
That managed democracy appears to be Gulf's emerging political formula. It is embraced also by Bahrain, whose crown prince, Sheik Salman bin Hamad Khalifa, arrived in Washington a couple of weeks after his neighbor. Bahrain already had a free election for one house of parliament last October; the other is appointed by the king. Though radical Muslim parties had called for an electoral boycott, 54 percent of eligible voters turned out. Bahrain embraced President Bush's recent offer of free trade agreements for Arab states -- following behind Jordan, which already has one, and Morocco, which has been negotiating one.
The Bahraini prince insisted that limited democracy works, even with boycotts. "We just had a huge budget debate" in the new parliament, he recounted. "It's wonderful to have that controlled chaos moving forward. It makes people very aware of their interests." Salman has little doubt that the model of the small sheikdoms will soon be followed by the big one. "The potential for that kind of political reform exists all through the Arab world," he said, "including Saudi Arabia."
It's difficult to believe him -- and yet the Saudis who visit here have begun to say it themselves. Adel Jubeir, Crown Prince Abdullah's silver-tongued adviser for foreign affairs, appeared in Washington shortly after the Riyadh terrorist bombings to argue that the attacks had been a breakthrough for reformers. "A lot of the changes that have been talked about -- economic reform, political reform, creating a civil society -- have suddenly become a lot more urgent," he said. "The go-slow critics have come around to the view that this has to happen quickly."
Jubeir and others describe a reform agenda that sounds a lot like the limited-but-real change underway in Qatar and Bahrain. First, perhaps within a year, would come economic reforms aimed at obtaining Saudi membership in the World Trade Organization -- something that would mean an end to any boycott on trade with Israel, among other things. Elections could soon be allowed in professional organizations of journalists and doctors, as well as in universities; then would come municipalities. Eventually Abdullah foresees allowing the partial election of the quasi-parliamentary advisory council he now appoints. "If we move deliberately and we do all the right steps I don't see why we can't have a society with rule of law and civil liberties and elections," said Jubeir.
"This is not a public relations gimmick," added the suave counsel, once nicknamed "the Sultan of Spin." "This is the only way we can maintain Saudi Arabia as a state. It's a wave -- you either get ahead of it or it will overwhelm you."
He's right about the wave, of course. History will tell if the sheikdoms' model is enough to stem it.