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No Taxation, No Representation (Part Four of the Economist's survey of the Gulf States
Economist ^ | 03/21/2002 | Correspondent

Posted on 03/26/2002 6:45:01 PM PST by lds23

No taxation, no representation

Mar 21st 2002
From The Economist print edition

Absolute monarchy lives on in the Gulf. But for how long?

SEEN from afar, the Gulf states look very much alike. They are all hot, dry, dripping with oil and ruled by conservative monarchs. Yet there are many more internal political differences among them than meets the eye.

It is true that, unlike in most of the world's surviving monarchies, rulers in this part of the world really do rule. Their families control every provincial governorship and senior military command. The prime ministers and the defence, foreign and interior ministers in all six countries belong to the ruling clans. In Oman, Sultan Qaboos himself officially holds every one of these posts, though lower-ranking ministers of state, all cousins of the sultan, are in charge of the day-to-day business. The sole, tiny exception is the United Arab Emirates, where the current minister of the interior happens to be a commoner, but more by accident than by egalitarian design.

The Gulf's ruling families are big. There are around 25,000 al-Sauds, though only 5,000 are princes, and only a hundred or so are senior princes. One in every 500 Kuwaitis is an al-Sabah. The same sort of ratio applies in most of the other states, although the al-Thanis of Qatar make up almost one in five of that country's citizens.

The sway of these families does not end with government. In the style of modern royals, the Gulf's princes and princesses, sheikhs and sheikhas are active patrons of sport, charity and the arts. What is less modern about the Gulf is the hazy distinction between government budgets and royal purses. The value of the stipends that each of the states pays to family members, including quite distant relatives, is mostly unknown. They also enjoy such perks as free travel on national airlines, free utilities and ownership of prime property.

Certainly, most of the Gulf's ruling clans have amassed large, and in some places truly colossal, fortunes. Part of this is simply luck: they happened to be in charge at a time when sudden oil wealth tipped the balance between the merchant classes and the sovereigns. But the big money has often come not directly from the oil wells but from private businessmen who seek the royals' patronage. “You can do business here without a partner from the family,” says an investor in one of the emirates. “But it sure smoothes the way.”

Most outsiders assume that the Gulf states are stifling autocracies. This is not altogether wrong, but needs to be tempered by an understanding of the region's unique history and social structure. To begin with, all the region's ruling families have held authority for a very long time. The al-Sauds trace their lineage back more than 30 generations, although they did not emerge as powerful princes in central Arabia until the mid-18th century. At different times they were allies of the Qawasim, who now rule the small emirates of Sharjah and Ras-al-Khaimah, and of the al-Sabahs of Kuwait, who gave refuge to the al- Sauds when they were briefly ousted from their lands in the 1880s. That debt was repaid during the Gulf war in 1990, when the al-Sabahs fled south from the invading Iraqis. Sultan Qaboos of Oman is the 12th descendant of the al-Busaid clan, whose founder controlled a vast Indian Ocean empire. The al-Khalifas of Bahrain conquered their pleasant island in 1783, leaving their poor cousins, the al-Thanis, to inherit Qatar, a desolate peninsula that turned out to hold more natural gas than all the rest of Arabia.

The Gulf's tribal, arch-patriarchal society bolsters royal rule. In every country a web of marriage alliances links ruling clans to other leading families. The al-Sauds, for example, are closely intermarried with the descendants of Muhammad Abd-al-Wahhab, an 18th-century religious reformer whose puritan version of Islam is sometimes called Wahhabism. Across the region, the tradition of the majlis, or open meeting between rulers and subjects, is held up as an effective form of popular representation. Outsiders may think that having a prince in charge of every Saudi province is feudal, but the al-Sauds argue that local majlis meetings keep the family attuned to the needs of their people. Sultan Qaboos, one of the most unfettered autocrats in the world, takes a caravan of ministers to a different region of Oman every spring where any petitioner can meet him face to face, seated on the floor of his tent, and see justice done on the spot.

Saudi Arabia and Oman are large countries with diverse native peoples, but the other Gulf monarchies are, in effect, city states where rulers and ruled are physically so close to each other that intermediaries are often unnecessary. Their citizens tend to identify more strongly with the sovereign than with the state.

Father figures

By and large, and in spite of the clumsy personality cults cranked up by the region's ubiquitous ministries of information, Gulf rulers are quite popular. Sheikh Zayed of Abu Dhabi, now 84, is revered at home and abroad, and not just for his fabled generosity and gruff desert wisdom. (He once told a French interviewer that he found it useful to meet his subjects personally, “Because our secret police don't get it right half the time.”) It was his vision that created the United Arab Emirates, and his charm that is largely responsible for holding the union together. Sultan Qaboos, too, is seen as the father of his nation, which Omanis readily admit was a medieval backwater before he overthrew his own father in 1970. Even Sheikh Jaber al-Sabah of Kuwait, though long-ailing, inarticulate and ineffectual, brings out spontaneous crowds of well-wishers on every return from a foreign sanatorium.

The institution of monarchy, with its centralised powers and long periods of reign, has stamped each Gulf state with the personality of its rulers. Oman is as neat and proper as might be expected of a place run by a Sandhurst graduate. The famously jovial demeanour of Dubai's Sheikh Rashid al-Maktoum, who ruled from 1958 to 1990, has left its mark in the emirate's laisser-faire attitude to business and social mores. The steely will and public-relations savvy of his son, Sheikh Muhammad, is the driving force behind its current boom. By contrast, the sense of drift evident in Kuwait, and until recently in Saudi Arabia, stems as much as anything from their rulers' lax attitudes and failing health.

Many of the Gulf's people recognise that it is not a good thing for their countries' fate to depend on rulers who may or may not be wise. Anxiety for the future is not much of a problem in countries with relatively young and dynamic leaders, such as Bahrain or Qatar, but it is a worry in several states where succession is a pressing issue. King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and Sheikh Jaber of Kuwait, both largely incapacitated by strokes, currently have able stand-ins. Yet Crown Prince Abdullah is already 78, and the Kuwaiti emir's brother, Sheikh Sabah, who runs day-to-day affairs, is also elderly and has 40 years of public service under his belt. In neither country is the path by which the next generation will come to power clearly defined. Saudi Arabia, in particular, looks set for a bout of brief reigns as the baton passes among the dozen or so remaining elderly sons of the kingdom's founder, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud. Unless, that is, Abdullah assumes the throne soon and anoints a junior prince as his heir.

Plenty to be grateful for

Given all this uncertainty, the Gulf's citizens might be expected to want a bigger say for themselves. Pressure for democracy, however, is surprisingly weak. Aside from the weight of habit and history, the Gulf's people accept their rulers because they have been getting a pretty good deal. It is easy to say that this is only because oil wealth has made generous patronage possible. Yet it is also easy to understand that when your children's life expectancy is half as long again as your parents', as it is across the Gulf, and when the house that you live in was paid for mostly by the state, you tend to accept the status quo.

Another good thing about the Gulf is that its people pay no income tax. “I would love to pay tax,” sighs a would-be democrat in Saudi Arabia, “if only so I wouldn't have to pretend to be grateful all the time.”

All this means that demands to limit kingly powers are heard less frequently than calls for rulers to rein in their relatives, or at least to define their rights. In Saudi Arabia in particular, commoners point to continued royal extravagance despite straitened times. Businessmen complain that the country's plethora of princes elbow aside competitors. In an unprecedented sign of concern, Crown Prince Abdullah has tried to curtail princely commissions on public-works contracts.

Imposing family discipline is no easy task, however. The reforming emir of one state who had slashed his relatives' handsome stipends was forced to reinstate them when they threatened to revolt. In Bahrain, where the ruler, Sheikh Hamad al-Khalifa, changed his title from emir to king this year, observers say he was trying to sharpen the distinction between himself and his wider family so that he could trim their privileges at a later date.

More common than demands for democracy are calls for bolder, more responsive autocracy. “What we need is daring leadership that is receptive to criticism, accommodating to dissatisfaction, yet prepared to lose popularity,” says Abdullah Bishara, a former Kuwaiti diplomat and former secretary-general of the GCC.

This may sound odd coming from a noted liberal in a country that has by far the most deeply entrenched democratic institutions of any Gulf state. Yet Mr Bishara's opinion is the product of experience rather than of sentimental attraction to kingship. Like many Kuwaitis, he feels that the country's parliament, despite the healthy atmosphere of open debate it creates, has been more of a hindrance than a help to progress. Kuwait's 1962 constitution provides for an elected legislature, but for an executive government appointed by the ruler. This often results in a logjam. “Everything here gets kibitzed to death,” says a diplomat, citing a litany of important legislation, including a bill to grant women the vote, that has been blocked by parliamentary grandstanding.

It could be argued that the emirate's troubles could be solved by more democracy rather than less. Even so, Kuwait's experience has dampened enthusiasm for democracy elsewhere in the Gulf. Oddly enough, the biggest strides towards popular participation have been taken by the rulers themselves. Qatar, the first Arab country to have abolished its ministry of information, held municipal elections under universal suffrage in 1999, and its emir is thought to favour an elected legislature. Oman's Shura Council is directly elected, though its powers are purely advisory. Even in the rich, complacent United Arab Emirates there are whispers of reform.

The star reformer is Bahrain, a country that was wracked by violent unrest in the early 1990s, and whose Shia majority has long resented rule by a Sunni dynasty. Since coming to power in 1999, however, the then emir, now King Hamad, has emptied jails, freed the press, invited 1,000 exiles to come home, given them jobs and won over 98% approval for a charter of reform in a credible referendum. Local elections will be held this spring and national ones in the autumn. The result may not be a full transition to constitutional monarchy, because the king will still appoint a powerful upper legislative body, but Bahrainis seem optimistic that they have put their political troubles behind them.

Ripe for reform

Other Gulf leaders must envy the near-hero status that King Hamad has gained in such a short time. Yet perhaps Bahrain's example shows that some degree of trauma is needed to bring about dramatic change. The giant of the region, Saudi Arabia, may be in for just such a shaking. The kingdom is the Gulf's political laggard, with no representative institutions of any kind, a heavily restricted press and fearsome security services. There is no shortage of Saudis who want reform, including many within the ruling family. So far, any progress has been hobbled by the tangled matrix of interests at the centre of the Saudi power structure. But now, with oil prices slumping and demographic pressure mounting, the country finds itself squeezed as never before. Crown Prince Abdullah has himself spoken of a “suffocating crisis”. To enable them to escape from this predicament, the al-Sauds may have to secure a mandate from their people after all.

TOPICS: Culture/Society; Editorial; Foreign Affairs
KEYWORDS: arabs; clashofcivilizatio; constitutionlist; geopolitics; gulf; mideast; monarchistsonfr; taxreform; zionist
This is Part Four. Part Three, with a link to previous parts, is here: People Pressure
1 posted on 03/26/2002 6:45:01 PM PST by lds23
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To: lds23
Bump for later.
2 posted on 03/26/2002 6:48:29 PM PST by StriperSniper
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To: lds23
Oh, THOSE "Gulf states."


3 posted on 03/26/2002 6:48:53 PM PST by newgeezer
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To: lds23
Thank you for publishing this on FR. I worked in the Gulf during all of 1992 and 1993, and resided in Muscat, and traveled to all GCC countries except Saudi. I also had Yemen and Jordan in my territory.

I loved Oman. Yemen was also a treat. Very different.

4 posted on 03/26/2002 7:12:59 PM PST by StopGlobalWhining
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To: lds23
Apologies for not being able to post links to all six parts before:

Part One: Time Travellers
Part Two: Middle Earth
Part Three: People pressure
Part Four: No taxation, no representation
Part Five: The Pen and The Sword
Part Six: Beyond Oil

5 posted on 03/26/2002 7:26:36 PM PST by lds23
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Comment #6 Removed by Moderator

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