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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



RELYING ON OIL WEALTH

In Bahrain, where the most mainstream protesters are demanding a constitutional monarchy, the government has sacked several minor cabinet ministers, and offered a national dialogue and more jobs.

But it has not caved in to demands that it sack the entire government or the prime minister, a member of the ruling family who has been premier for 40 years. Oman’s ruler has also made some changes, sacking ministers and agreeing to cede some legislative powers to a partially elected council. The move was met by protesters with both hope and scepticism, and it was unclear how much would be changed.

A cabinet shuffle has been expected in Saudi Arabia that could bring in some younger faces, while in Kuwait parliamentarians have promised to discuss giving more rights to stateless Arabs. But none of these moves would make governments significantly more democratic or threaten the all but absolute power of kings and ruling families.

The Gulf states, all allies of Washington which has urged reform in the region, are trying to use oil wealth to quell dissent by exchanging relative prosperity for political quietude, a tradeoff that has helped keep their governments stable for decades.

“I think the money is good, that it alleviates suffering of people. But at the same time it has to come up also with other forms of relaxation,” said Khaled Maeena, editor of the Saudi daily Arab News, referring to the GCC aid package.

Last month, Saudi King Abdullah returned to Riyadh after a medical absence and announced $37 billion in benefits for citizens in an apparent bid to curb dissent. Other countries like the UAE and Kuwait have also offered financial perks, but have taken pains not to link them to Arab dissent.

Gulf Arabs do complain about economic deprivation. Bahraini Shi’ites complain of jobs discrimination, while Omanis say too many jobs go to foreigners. Saudis complain infrastructure development does not match the country’s vast wealth.

But financial measures alone do not appear to be enough to pacify a younger generation of Gulf Arabs.

“The huge age gap between the young population and the ruling elite makes it nearly impossible for the ruled and the rulers to communicate and understand each other. We practically speak two different languages,” Saudi blogger Ahmad Al Omran wrote in a recent op-ed piece in The Guardian.

“We are sick and tired of the status quo; we want change and we want it now. The demands are clear and simple: a constitutional monarchy, the rule of law, justice, equality, freedom, elections, and respect of basic human rights. Is this too much to ask in this age and time?” he added.

(By Cynthia Johnston. Editing by Samia Nakhoul)



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