By Alaa Shahine and Vivian Salama
Bloomberg (click here to view original)
Persian Gulf rulers say they understand that this year’s wave of pro-democracy uprisings has changed the Middle East. So far, they haven’t allowed it to change their own countries.
None of the region’s monarchies has taken steps to broaden political participation that match the spending pledges they have offered since the start of the unrest that toppled Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali andEgypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Instead, the rhetoric about a new era in the Arab world, and the cash handouts for homes and social security, have been accompanied by police repression.Protests have already reached Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and the eastern province of Saudi Arabia this year. The reluctance of the Gulf Arab leaders, who control about two-fifths of the world’s oil, to loosen their grip on power may leave more of them vulnerable to the wave of unrest that has already pushed crude prices up more than 20 percent.“What we have learned from the uprisings in general, and from Tunisia and Egypt in particular, is that it’s really a matter of when,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at Brookings Institution’s Doha Center, in a telephone interview. “Autocracies don’t last forever.”Oman’s Foreign Minister Yusuf Bin Alawi Bin Abdullah told Arab counterparts in Cairo last month that regional leaders need “new thinking” to deal with the “Arab renaissance.” In Abu Dhabi, then-GCC Secretary-General Abdul Rahman Al-Attiyah said that “political participation has become a key demand for development.”
Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, said in February that change was coming to the region and that Europe shouldn’t support “hydrocarbon dictatorships” in return for economic benefits, according to Al Sharq newspaper. He didn’t say which countries fall into that category.Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the other three Gulf Cooperation Council members are listed as authoritarian regimes in the 2010 Democracy Index of the Economist Intelligence Unit.The region’s leaders must convert ideas about change into concrete steps that will “improve the relationship between the state and the people,” said Prince Turki Al-Faisal, former Saudi ambassador to the U.S. “We have to change words into actions, actions that are arduous,” he said in a lecture in Abu Dhabi March 21.Some countries have begun to act. Sultan Qaboos of Oman agreed last month to boost the powers of the nation’s consultative council; the United Arab Emirates announced Sept. 24 elections to the Federal National Council, an advisory body; Saudi Arabia said it will hold municipal elections in September, while backtracking from earlier signals that women would be allowed to vote.
Those measures, though, don’t involve real transfers of power, Hamid said. Repression has been a more typical response, with Saudi Arabia as “the leader of the Arab counter- revolution,” he said. “They are fighting change tooth and nail.”Saudi Arabia’s Information Ministry declined to comment and no one was available to comment at the Saudi Foreign Ministry or the U.A.E.’s federal government or Federal National Council, in response to repeated phone calls over two days.The prospect of unrest spreading to the world’s biggest oil exporter drove the benchmark Saudi stock index into a 13-day losing streak through March 5, the longest since 1996. Crude for May delivery rose above $112 a barrel last week, the highest since September 2008.
‘Not Very Worried’
The political upheaval in the Middle East has left markets “pricing in an element of uncertainty,” said Arthur Hanna, an industry managing director at Accenture Plc.Saudi oil wealth will help it escape the wave of unrest even though unemployment is high and civil rights limited, said Kai Stukenbrock of Standard & Poor’s. “We are not very worried about that scenario,” Stukenbrock, S&P’s director of sovereign ratings for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said March 7.Simon Henry, chief financial officer at Royal Dutch Shell Plc (RDSA), also backed the kingdom to navigate through the political tensions. “It has the resources, it has the established capability to handle some of the unrest it may face,” Henry said on March 8.One risk to Saudi stability is the succession to King Abdullah, who turns 87 this year, Henry said. Crown Prince Sultan is also in his 80s. Next in line is Prince Nayef, the septuagenarian interior minister who filled central Riyadh with police to block a planned demonstration March 11, after rallies by Shiite Muslims in the oil-producing eastern provinces.
Saudi rulers offered asylum to Ben Ali, backed Mubarak before his ouster, and sent troops to Bahrain to support a crackdown by Sunni royals that has left more than 20 protesters dead, mostly from the country’s Shiite majority.The violence in Bahrain showed unrest can be expensive even when it doesn’t lead to regime change. It pushed borrowing costs more than 150 basis points higher and Bahrain’s credit rating at Standard & Poor’s three steps lower, and dented efforts to compete with Dubai as the region’s business hub.Qatar and the U.A.E. both sent troops to Bahrain to help the government quell protests. InLibya, they are on the opposition’s side, backing a U.S.-led military campaign to help the rebels fighting Muammar Qaddafi. Qatar will “look at” the possibility of providing defense equipment to the insurgents, Prime Minister Hamad bin Jasim Al-Thani said yesterday.
‘Digging In Heels’
Dubai police on April 8 arrested Ahmed Mansour, a human rights campaigner, promptingHuman Rights Watch to criticize the U.A.E. for “digging in its heels” against democratic reforms. Two more activists, including an economics professor at the Abu Dhabi branch of France’s Sorbonne university, were arrested in the next two days. In Oman, two people have been killed as police broke up protest rallies.Saudi Arabia has also led the spending spree. King Abdullah ordered $128 billion of measures, including $90 billion on house-building and home loans, that will help the economy grow 6.6 percent this year, Standard Chartered Plc estimates.“The enormity of the stimulus package will help the region overall,” as it’s too much for the Saudi economy to absorb alone, and reduce the risk of civil unrest, Said Hirsh at London-based Capital Economics said in a March 21 report.GCC spending is another reason to expect high oil prices, according to John Sfakianakis, chief economist at Bank Saudi Fransi. Saudi Arabia needs a price of at least $80 per barrel, higher than previous breakeven figures, to finance its budget, he calculated.
‘Money Lying Around’
The GCC has promised $10 billion apiece to Bahrain and Oman to help assuage protesters. The U.A.E. allocated $1.6 billion for water and infrastructure projects in northern emirates that lag behind Dubai and Abu Dhabi.Spending conceived as a way of avoiding political change may end up fuelling popular demands, said Christopher Davidson, author of “Power and Politics in the Persian Gulf Monarchies.”
“You have the people in Saudi Arabia, for example, now asking: ‘If all that money was lying around all this time, why wasn’t it used on us earlier?’,” Davidson said. “These rulers are just reacting to the events around them, and their citizens know it.”