The popular uprisings and protests that have shaken the North African countries of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have spread to the oil-rich Gulf region. Initially, it was widely believed that the oil-rich Gulf Sheikhdoms would be able to shield themselves against such protests because of their extensive social and economic welfare policies. The recent violent protests in Bahrain and Oman, however, indicate popular dissatisfaction with the undemocratic and authoritarian political systems and the existing socio-economic inequality in these countries. There have been small incidents of protests in Qatar and Kuwait. In the oil-rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia a group of Shias protested and demanded the release of prisoners being held without trial. These incidents are a challenge as well as a wakeup call for the rulers of the Gulf Sheikhdoms. The demands being raised by the protesters are economic, social and political in nature. In particular, the protesters have demanded employment, better standard of living, political reforms and better human rights conditions.
The rulers of Gulf countries maintain authoritarian regimes with very little opportunity for the people to participate in the affairs of the State. Blessed with huge oil reserves, they have continued to maintain their rule by liberally distributing oil wealth among their citizens. They have also gone a step further by maintaining tax free regimes for citizens, providing free education and health care facilities, extensive social security programmes, and so on. Over the decades oil wealth has been used as a legitimising tool to prolong their rule as well as to bring stability to their regimes.
Despite such welfare measures, Gulf countries face internal dissent and opposition in varying degrees. The dissidents have made demands for political reforms, better human rights conditions, religious freedom, more jobs and a share in the decision-making of the State. In the past, dissident leaders have also submitted petitions to the rulers demanding more reforms. Suffering from legitimacy deficit, and being oversensitive to demands for political reforms, rulers of Gulf countries have tried to either accommodate the protesters in the system or have tried to deal with them in a heavy handed manner, often putting them behind the bars or sending them into exile. But, at the same time, to acquire support of the population the rulers have adopted extensive welfare measures.
Faced with rising protests the rulers of Gulf countries have announced economic incentives and packages to appease the people. The Bahrain government has offered cash payouts of around 1,000 dinars to each family in the country and announced a 30 per cent reduction in the mortgage costs of 30,000 households. To appease unemployed youths, the Omani government has issued orders to provide 50,000 jobs and granted each of them 150 Rials per month till they gain employment. Similarly, the Emir of Kuwait Sheikh al Sabah has granted each Kuwaiti citizen 1,000 dinars and free distribution of basic food items from February 2011 till March 2013; an initiative that was ostensibly taken to mark the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence, the 20th anniversary of its liberation from Iraqi occupation and the fifth anniversary of the Emir’s coming to power. In addition, the Kuwaiti government has also raised the basic salary of servicemen by up to 115 per cent. Saudi Arabia has announced plans to raise the number of employed Saudi citizens by more than one million within the next two years. An additional 75,000 Saudis will be hired by public sector bodies. The Saudi government has also announced a 15 per cent allowance for its employees to help them cope with the high cost of living. The King has allocated 1.2 billion Saudi Riyals (SR) to increase the number of beneficiaries of social development funds and to establish vocational training programmes for women. SR 15 billion has been allocated for the Saudi Housing Commission and SR 100 million granted to support co-operative societies. He has also promised an increase of 50 per cent in the assistance provided to charitable societies. Another SR 476 million has been allocated for the Ministry of Education’s needy students’ programmes while students studying abroad at their own expense will be covered by the government’s scholarship programme.
These incentives announced by the rulers of Gulf states in the face of protests reflect their oft-repeated successful strategy of flooding the people with cash and other social security measures to appease the rising discontent among them. They have also called for dialogue with the protesters to deal with the situation. At present, it appears that they will succeed in handling the protesters. But these protests clearly indicate that the social and economic measures adopted by these governments are inadequate and that popular aspirations in the region go beyond economic incentives. This poses a challenge for these rulers, in terms of both, buying the loyalty of the people and further strengthening their regimes.
While the social security and financial needs of the people may be promptly addressed by the government, the core issues of political reforms, governance, ruler-ruled relationship, participation of the people in the decision-making process, human rights situation, etc. still remain unaddressed and the rulers of Gulf states are hesitant to make concessions on these issues. These questions are likely to rise again in future. They must understand that the acceptability of leaders among the people, acknowledgement of the aspirations of the new generation of youth, social and economic equality, political and constitutional reforms are all essential for rulers to maintain stability. The ongoing protests are a wake-up call for the rulers of Gulf states who need to look beyond ad hoc measures and to initiate reforms for accommodating the voices and aspirations of different sections of their societies.