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Civil Society in the Gulf 27, September 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Gulf.
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Sultan Al Qasseimi has authored an excellent article on civil society in the Gulf. Replete with many examples from around the region, the article is well worth a read for anyone with any interest in the area.

Initially, he notes that

At first glance it seems as though the six Gulf Cooperation Council monarchies have no civil society movements to speak of, but scratching the surface unveils a complex layer of organisations that exist side by side with the governments and in some cases have been merged into governmental structures.

Kuwait, rightly, gets a good examination.

In Kuwait, the social phenomenon of dewaniyas is a unique model for civil society. The Kuwaiti dewaniya differs from the rest of the majlises or men’s reception areas in Gulf in the sense that is more institutionalized where entire families contribute financially to its upkeep and tribal leaders can receive guests and visit with others. The significance of the dewaniyas in Kuwaiti society was evident when during his visit to Kuwait in 2007 the Saudi Crown Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz called upon a number of dewaniyas including those of Al Shaya, Al Marzoog, Abdul Aziz Al Babtain and Mubarak Al Hasawi, leading Kuwaiti businessmen. It is not customary for Gulf leaders to casually visit the majlises of tribal leaders in each others countries, the custom would often dictate that they are visited at their place of residence but thus is the power of the dewaniya in Kuwait, its institutionalisation has cemented its importance. These majlises have even played the part of breeding grounds or incubators for political movements, ideas and civil society causes.

On the ‘threat’ that they can be perceived to pose

Today, the rise of Islamic movements in the Gulf has greatly hampered the work of civil society associations. Most Gulf governments are weary of civil society movements and fear they may be either affiliated with external elements or have Islamic tendencies. It is not uncommon to hear of arrests in some GCC countries of unnamed individuals who may later receive pardons by the ruler. For instance in Oman in 2005, 31 university professors and Islamic scholars were arrested and sentenced to jail terms of up to 20 years for “setting up an illegal organisation, raising funds and recruiting members”, essentially starting a civil society movement. Their charges of aiming to overthrow the government appeared to be increasingly unlikely since they were pardoned the following month.

An interesting development in Bahrain is the pragmatic nature in which the official sanctioned parties have started so called offshoot movements that are managed by young members of the association. For instance, Al Wefaq, the largest religious and political society in Bahrain, which controls 17 members in the 40-seat lower chamber of the bicameral parliament, established the Bahrain Youth Center that is headed by Habib Marzooq. In an interview with The National Mr Mazrooq highlighted the importance of social networking sites including Facebook and Twitter to attract young voters to the party. The Marxists Bahraini Progressive Democratic Tribune, also known as Al Minbar, also founded the Al Shabeeba Society or Youth Society headed by Isa Al Dirazi to attract young voters.

On their failures

I have argued in two articles in The National and The Guardian that a failure to develop civil society in the UAE and in Qatar in non-charitable initiatives, commendable as they are into areas such as human rights and democracy may be due to a continuous stride for capitalism in society. The UAE and Qatari media, along with the favourable existing commercial environment have also contributed to a feeling of apathy in the generations that were born in the post independence era of the 1970’s.

And the key point

Because a large number of the civil society movements heads are appointed by the governments in the Gulf they cannot be classified as grassroots movements.

This is very much what I’ve come across. The Qatari government, for example, will (relatively) lavishly support emergent civil society movements. For this support they install a Chairman or Patron (or some such figure) on the board. (In fact, it could be that new movements and groups are mandated to have a Chairman/Patron. I think I’ve heard this…any confirmation?) This inevitably inhibits the movement. Though, as Al Qasseimi notes, it’s not as if many/any of these civil society movements in Qatar or the UAE are anything more then altruistic-cum-environmentalist groups.

Hat tip: The irrepressible Illinoisian Imam


1. Haya - 16, September 2014

Thank you for the article!
Do you have any idea where I can find an up-to-date list of NGOs in the Gulf? or a tentative count for that matter.

thegulfblog.com - 17, September 2014

Nope, sorry.

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