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Money and might unlikely to quell Gulf reform demands

Money and might unlikely to quell Gulf reform demands

Gulf pledges $20 bln for Bahrain, Oman; Saudi sends troops; Small concessions but scant movement on bigger demands.

March 16, 2011 12:23 by

Gulf Arab states led by Saudi Arabia are relying on money, and now military might, to quell protests in their oil-exporting region but are unlikely to halt the unrest without making significant political concessions.

So far, the autocratic rulers of the Gulf show few signs they are willing to make game-changing moves toward democracy, let alone share their near-absolute powers with their citizens.

Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain on Monday as part of a Gulf force that would also include police from the United Arab Emirates to help calm weeks of protest, mainly by the Shi’ite Muslim majority. Bahrain’s opposition called it a declaration of war.

The move came days after Gulf states pledged $20 billion in a so-called “Marshall Plan” to Sunni-led Bahrain and Oman, which has also seen a wave of protests by Omanis demanding jobs and a greater say in government in the normally sleepy sultanate.

“This is the first time in this entire popular uprising where a monarchy is actually really threatened … If a monarchy falls then all the monarchies are subject to that kind of pressure,” Dubai-based security analyst Theodore Karasik said.

“It shows authorities will not put up with this kind of behaviour like we saw in Bahrain,” he added.

But the move is a gamble. Even if this combination of carrot and stick succeeds in quelling Bahrain protests for now, governments across the Gulf region are increasingly exposed as calls for democracy in the Arab world gain momentum.

Besides Bahrain and Oman, that is perhaps particularly true for Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter and most powerful Gulf state, which fears concessions to largely Shi’ite demonstrators in Bahrain could embolden its own Shi’ite minority just across the water.

Saudi Shi’ites have already held small protests over the past three weeks in the east, centre of the Saudi oil industry, to demand the release of long-held detainees. Kuwait — which has a sizeable Shi’ite minority — has also seen protests. Only the UAE and Qatar have so far seemed immune.

“It is going to be very difficult to see your neighbour change while you maintain the status quo,” said Saudi activist Mohammed al-Qahtani, saying he didn’t foresee protests stopping despite the decision by Saudi Arabia and its allies to raise the stakes.

“At some point they will realise they must basically institute certain changes.”

Gulf states, often with growing young and web-savvy populations whose demands for change grow bolder by the day, appear willing to make some reforms, but so far not ones that would substantially alter the political playing field.

Gulf countries need to create thousands of jobs to deal with unemployment, despite large oil and gas revenues. Governments are used to hiring large white and blue collar expatriate populations and have trouble finding jobs for nationals.

Around 60 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population of 18 million is thought to be under 30 and the country has some eight million foreign residents. Youth unemployment could be as high as 39 percent, according to John Sfakianakis, chief economic at Banque Saudi Fransi.

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