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Why an elected Majlis in Qatar will not work 11, May 2014

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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The following Tweet simply and succinctly sums up for me why an elected Majlis in Qatar that actually has any power will not work.

It refers to a story in a local paper here in Doha quoting elected members of Qatar’s toothless ‘Central Municipal Council’ complaining and arguing against a recent hike in the price of diesel fuel. The core of the complaint is that the price hike will effectively be passed on to consumers in one way or another. While there may be some logic to this concern, I am struck by the similarity of this complaint to the exact genre of complaint that has so paralyzed Kuwait’s Parliament in recent decades.

Discussions about democracy in the Gulf unerringly come back to ‘the Kuwaiti example’. In short, though many in the Gulf may admire the relative freedom of action afforded to Kuwaitis and the power of its Parliament, potentially a real check on Emiri authority, few would actually want Kuwait’s system given its lamentable recent experience. As I wrote in 2011, 2012, and 2013 [and I suppose I’m now due to write the same article in 2014], there are fundamental problems at the heart of Kuwait’s democratic style of politics. In short, the issues are:

  • A ban on political parties frequently forcing candidates to make their own platform, which are typically so-called ‘service’ platforms i.e. parliamentarians promising to deliver more subsidies and other goodies for their constituents;
  • ‘Service’ platforms feed off historical differences in Kuwaiti society: in short, groups enfranchised in recent decades see this as an opportunity for them to get ‘their share’ of Kuwait’s wealth, which has been monopolized by other segments of society who have had far longer access to wealth and power;
  • The Prime Minister is appointed and he appoints to the Cabinet. Without the formalized input of the elected Parliamentarians, there is often little ‘buy in’ to the Cabinet and an antagonistic tone is set;
  • Before the Arab Spring, Kuwait’s politics was energized by growing youth movements, which were even more catalyzed by the Spring itself, which lent greater impetus to those seeking change and a greater access to wealth;
  • The only method available to the Government to keep the show on the road in recent years has been the increasing dispensation of cash. For example, from 2005 to 2013 government wages have risen from $6.7 billion to $17 billion. Though Kuwait’s oil revenues increased during this time period, there have been repeated and increasingly concerned warnings emanating both from within and outwith Kuwait as to the dangers of such levels of spending. The IMF, for example, predict that if the current spending rates are maintained, Kuwait will have exhausted all its oil savings by 2017.

While only some of these factors may be at play in Qatar – there are, for example, no similarly large cleavages in Qatari society as there are in Kuwait – the fundamental issue is the same. Would-be MPs in Qatar, in the absence of political parties, would inevitably fall back on a ‘service’ platform, which as the Kuwait experience has shown all too clearly has a caustic influence on long-term decision making and planning.

 

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14% of Emiratees to vote in elections 10, July 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Emirates.
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Around 129,000 or 14% of Emiratees will be eligible to vote in the elections on 24th September 2011 to elect half of the members of the Federal National Council.

To put this another way, only 1.6% of the entire population of the Emirates will be voting. Or, to look at this more positively, considering less than 7,000 Emiratees were eligible to vote in the last elections, clearly some progress – albeit from an absurd base – is being made.

Yet there are greater issues afoot. Not only is the Federal National Council one of the region’s most rubber stamping of rubber stamping institutions, but there are serious problems to do with freedom of expression currently plaguing the UAE, from the removal of the Gulf Research Centre to a severe crack-down on those who – politely – request more democratic freedoms. I’ll let the Economist take up the story.

Kuwait arrest Aussie for insulting Emir 23, April 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait, The Emirates.
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Until recent developments in Iraq, Kuwait was usually considered to have had the freeest press as well as the most democratically advanced political system in the Gulf. Recently, however, there have been strains on the Kuwaiti political system, resulting in the Emir acrimoniously dissolving the Parliament and calling for new elections for the third time in three years. Some reports stated that at the heart of the matter was the ruling families inability to countenance the notion that they might be called to account for their actions. Their belief that they are utterly and unequivocally above cross-examination or explanation jars with fundamental democratic principles.

Indeed, another example of the exalted place of the ruling family can be found in the Kuwait Times. An Australian woman and a former Kuwait citizen has been arrested and sentenced to two years in prison for insulting the Emir. Again, this highlights just how precious the ruling family view themselves. These types of laws are to be found throughout the Gulf. The UAE is even currently trying to bring in a law to make it punishable if one writes negative comments about the economy.

It is easy to sit in the West and mock these kinds of crass examples of an archaic system that it doomed to eventual failure. What must not be forgotten, however, is that in their current political make-up many of the Gulf states are but a few hundred years old and some far less that that. Thus they are in the early stages of political evolution. They are simply going through the growing pains of working their way through and out of notions such as the divine right of kings that European states went through centuries ago.

Miliband reclaims democracy promotion from the dark side 15, February 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Foreign Policies.
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The British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband recently made an impassioned speech at Oxford University calling for the promotion, maintenance, and protection of democracy to be one of the central pillars of British Foreign Policy. Needless to say, this is a controversial topic. Few would disagree with the promulgation of such a noble goal: the disagreements begin when it comes to its implementation.

As Miliband points out, something strange happened a few years ago in American politics. Many of those on the right in America went from being conservative to being neo-conservative and with it an about face in their foreign policy. No longer was the right half of America bemoaning American forays into Somalia or Yugoslavia in the name of spreading democracy or indeed simply saving lives; indeed, now they were hawkish advocates of more extreme policies. The notion of regime change ‘for the better’ became a tenet of their policy, that is, however, only as and when dictated by their perceived national security requirements.

Miliband is, therefore, attempting to retrieve the cause of democracy promotion from it having being sullied and ridiculed under the stewardship of the neocons, as – the critics would argue – little more than a fig leaf for neo-colonial invasions. Just to make his stance suitably distance from the neocon position, he opens his speech acknowledging that Iraq and the issues surrounding it have ‘clouded’ the debate and continues by maintaining that democratic norms ‘cannot be imposed’ and that ‘without hubris or sanctimony’ we must support democratic trends wherever possible.

Becoming of an Oxford PPE graduate with a first, he goes on to set out his plans, point by point, issue by issue, taking on the criticisms and countering them largely effectively.

Setting the scene he points out that democracy has come about in waves. In the third wave, from the 1970’s onwards, there have been groups of convertees to the democratic way: Portugal, Greece and Spain in the 1970’s; those from after the fall of the Berlin Wall; and various countries in Latin America and Africa in the 1990’s. However, the hubris encapsulated and exemplified by Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ (the notion that liberal democracy has ‘won’ and is now the inevitable future of all societies) has now been thoroughly discredited with the drying up of conversions to democracy from the Millennium onwards, he maintains. Indeed, Miliband makes a prescient point by suggesting that China and their staggering economic success offer an alternative version of development, which, obviously, does not include democratisation to any meaningful degree. Therefore, more steps are needed to be taken to make sure that democracy is seen once again – to dismember Churchill’s dictum – as the best worst alternative for a government.  

Further separating himself from the neocons on this issue, Milliband suggests five ways of promoting democracy, none of which include shock and awe. Firstly, he trumpets technology and its ability to disseminate ‘impartial’ news, to facilitate social discussions via blogging, and the opportunities it affords a country to disseminate its soft power (i.e. the UK spreading its cultural ideas etc via the British Council or BBC Farsi). Secondly, the globalizing raw power of finance and economics, not only ties countries together thereby making wars less likely but can also increase social mobility and with that usually comes a desire for more governmental accountability. Furthermore, the introduction of China, for example, into the world economy means that their society necessarily becomes more open and transparent because of the exigencies of countless international institutions, bodies and mechanisms. Thirdly, he sees aid as a weapon which can promote democracy. He cites the examples of money given to women in Pakistan and Bangladesh being used to help them stand as candidates in local elections as just one such instance. Fourthly, the promise of joining international institutions such as the EU or the World Bank can act, as Vaclav Havel said, as ‘an engine that drives democratisation.’ Fifthly, Miliband concedes that hard power will play some kind of roll. Targeted sanctions or security guarantees, for example, could be used to penalise backsliding or to promote democratisation, as argued by Paul Collier.

All of this sounds good, plausible and the morally correct thing to do. However, there are those who see democracy as an insidious form of cultural imperialism, as summed up in the former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamed’s notion of ‘Asian Values’. Or indeed those who see the initially often destructive nature of democracy and thus relent from its implementation. In answering these charges, Miliband perceptively point towards Amartya Sen’s work which shows that well before the Italian city states were beginning their experiments, peoples of all cultures across the world frequently came together to discuss communal affairs. This is, of course, the essence of democracy and an effective counter point to the distasteful notion of Asian Values.

As for the question of assuaging the initial democratic convulsions, all Miliband can come up with is platitudes: “In countries such as China seeking a stable path to political reform it’s important to recognise that democracy is not a threat to stability but a way to guarantee it.” Really? If China held elections tomorrow Tibet, Taiwan, and Hong Kong would probably vote for independence, not to mention calls for significant autonomy for the various minorities in parts of Southern China and Xinjiang, and how would the rest of the 1.2 billion Han Chinese react to the break up of the motherland?

History has shown that time and again the birth of democracy is initially a painful experience but that it is undoubtedly the best of the worst. The question is whether Miliband has proposed enough carrots and has enough sticks to help persuade countries to follow the path.