Wednesday
Mar022011

Revolution in the Gulf States

With Omani protestors out in force in the northern city of Sohar, and out on the streets of Buraimi - Abu Dhabi's doorstep - the inevitable tide of democracy edges closer and closer to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the two final bulkwarks of traditional monarchy in the Gulf.  Fed up with unaccountable elites and their offspring, all of whom receive generous state subsidies, never need seek meaningful employment, and enjoy lavish 'double lives' in foreign capitals, the ordinary people of the Gulf are waking from four decades of slumber and near total political acquiesence.  Granted, they are not impoverished, nor are they living in shanty-like conditions, as many Egyptians and Tunisians have been suffering. But they are increasingly aware of the billions and perhaps even trillions of dollars of what should be state managed wealth that is being siphoned off at source by the strangleweed-like dynasties sitting at the top. 


With peak oil on the horizon (or already passed, if one considers recent Wikileaks), only decades of Gulf oil exports are left.  And with stalled diversification programmes due to poor planning, corruption, and nepotism - all by-products of the undeveloped political system - the monarchies' economies are going to be tied to oil for the forseeable future.  As a result, the grandchildren and even children of present-day citizens are being doomed to a rather bleak future.


Bahrain has already provided a glimpse into this ugly fate, as its oil reserves are now pretty much finished.  Unable to shift to an extractive state and alter fiscal policy due to decades of subsidizing citizens in return for no representation, the ruling family has run out of options and the Bahraini people have made their move.  And with the Al-Khalifa sanctioning the use of live ammunition (warning: video includes scenes of death) and deploying Pakistani-origin mercenaries on the very first day of protests, the regime has exposed itself for what it really is.


Offering immediate moral support and agreeing that all security options and capabilities should be used to suppress protestors in Bahrain, both the Saudi Arabia and UAE regimes have made their position quite clear.  Both of these governments are counting on "stakeholder populations" that can continue to be kept in their houses by subsidies, but for the reasons above, financial benefits are unlikely to keep working.  Indeed, Saudi protestors have already dismissed King Abdullah's latest offering - US$36 billion in benefits - as an insult.  They have now set a date for their first Day of Rage - 11 March - which explicity calls for an end to the Al-Saud regime.  If live ammunition is used, it will only spur the protestors. 


Similarly, plans are underway in the UAE to organize protest marches.  Long neglected by wealthy Abu Dhabi and Dubai, there are hundreds of thousands of UAE nationals living in modest (at best) conditions in the poorer, "northern Emirates".  Most are frustrated with an increasing wealth gap within the federation, their effective exclusion from federal-level politics, and some are curious as to why large tracts of beachfront land have been handed over to foreign developers.  Moreover, as with Saudi Arabia, there is a substantial population of stateless persons (or "bidoon") in the UAE - people whose parents and grandparents were born and brought up on the land, but who can never or rarely aspire to even basic rights of citizenship.  This is puzzling for them, as loyal, longstanding friends of the regime - including Indian and even western expatriates - have on occasion been granted citizenship.     

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