di Giuseppe Dentice e Maria Serra
The Arab protests in 2011 have redefined the regional role of Saudi Arabia and, more in general, of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Member States. Notwithstanding these Monarchies have always tried to make Arabian Peninsula impermeable to external factors, using their own economic and financial power – depending above all on oil –, they, eventually, faced up with the effects of the so-called Arab Spring. The reaction was twofold: from a regional side, they utilized a mix of repressions and massive economic aids to prevent the growing of popular unrest (powered by unemployment, corruption and social immobility); from the international side, they took a more definite position, as in the cases of the Peninsula Shield Forces in Bahrain or the behavior towards Syria. But there is more.
We talked about external and internal dimension of the Gulf Monarchies’ policies during the Festival of Internazionale 2012 with Sultan al-Qassemi, journalist from United Arab Emirates, member of the Dubai School of Government and contributor to several international newspapers, as The Financial Times, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, Open Democracy, The Guardian, The Independent, Gulf News, and The Huffington Post. Recognized for his use of the popular social networking site Twitter during the events of the Arab Spring, Al-Qassemi was listed in the “140 Best Twitter Feeds of 2011” by TIME magazine.
During the months of Arab protests we have seen the rise of GCC Monarchies. Let’s think about the intervention in Bahrain or the attitude towards Syria or the economic aids towards North African countries. But these aren’t the only main aspects. What is the role of Gulf Monarchies into international arena and what is, in your opinion, the role of the media, like Al-Arabiya or Al-Jazeera, in the Arab protests?
Over the last decades we have seen a shift of political power from the traditional Arab States, like Iraq, Syria and Egypt, to other States. These are all powerful and militarist States, they have a lot of population but they are almost disappeared from the scene (except Iraq and Syria,-I’m thinking of Egyp-, now committed in resolving its internal and economic problems) in favor of some Gulf States like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Except Saudi Arabia, these are quite small States but they have a lot of money depending on oil: they can sell oil and this fact gives them a lot of money and a lot of power because the can buy weapons from United States and from West countries (for example Riyadh closed a contract of 6 billion dollars for arms and weapons with Washington). But, as you say correctly, they have the power on the media, they can control information. Due to this fact, Gulf States can influence Arab and Muslim people. In the past, particularly from the ‘50s to ‘70s, people listened to the Egyptian radios and they know the news from the Arab world. Today the news arrive from other parts: from Gulf region to the West and to the rest of Arab countries. This is an added power. Power is not only in the economic and military shift, but also in the media and cultural ones.
Qatar is actually increasing its strength in the main international issues: from the protests in Bahrain to the Syrian civil war, from the revolts in North Africa to the efforts to guarantee peace in Afghanistan and Palestine. What is the task of Qatar, what is its role in the world and what will be its next strategies?
Qatar has aligned itself with the rising power of the political Islam. So they see that the dictatorships are dying one after the other, but now you have democratic forces – conservative forces – that we call political Islam, included the Muslim Brotherhood. So Qatar has aligned itself with them in order to have a large influence in the region, notwithstanding the very small number of citizen of the country. I believe that Qatar wants to see these countries prosper but also they want to see prosper with them: they are trying to build up long term strategic partnerships because they are small too and they need to survive. Qatar doesn’t want to disappear one day. Then, Qatar next year is going to have its first parliamentary elections but, just like other Parliaments in the Gulf – except in Kuwait – Qatari Parliament won’t have a real power, because it remains in the hands of the Emir who will determine the direction of the country in next years.
You mentioned Kuwait. Well, it is certainly the most democratic country in the region, even if in the last 7 years its Parliament was dissolved several times due to the many political impeachments in which al-Sabah family was involved. What do you think about Kuwait and why is it so different from the other countries of the region?
I think that Kuwait is essential in the Gulf because of its democratic assets. Kuwait is different from the other countries basically for its education system introduced by its governors earlier that the other States. For example women rights movements in Kuwait started earlier, the civil society movements stared earlier perhaps because of the proximity to Iraq, the ancient and the major civilization in the area: many Kuwaitis went to study abroad like in Iraq or in Egypt, so they came back to Kuwait with more experiences and cultural progress. Unfortunately, over the last few years, the Parliament hasn’t been able to solve its function. Kuwait became an ungovernable country with many political actors: tribes, moderates, seculars, religious groups and they are against each other. We don’t have a single Parliament that could finish its mandate because, after six months, there is a new election. This give a bad image to the rest of the region and the paradox is that if you talk with Gulf leaders asking them how they want a Parliament, they answer “look at the Kuwaiti Parliament”. The democratic image of Kuwait is damaged by these dynamics.
But one of the most important players in the Gulf region is UAE, fully committed in the economic differentiation (we think to renewable energies first of all) but also in a greater openness to civil society. What is Abu Dhabi’s role in this context?
UAE is the second largest Arab economy. It represents a bigger economy than Algeria, Iraq or Egypt. And for a very small country, this economic power is the main factor for success (let’s think about the fact that they produce 2,5 million of barrels of oil a day). Dubai is the heart of the country because it became the major hub for services, logistic and financial services of the whole region. But UAE is active in more than one way: it is a modern, secular and cultural State. I think about women rights: we have women ambassadors, women judges, women in many Ministers. Not only: Abu Dhabi is participating in Guggenheim and Louvre’s Museums, so they present themselves on the cultural front too. I think UAE is very committed to a multiple diplomatic offensive and these are all positive messages for all Middle Eastern countries.
Finally, how we must consider the role of Saudi Arabia? Notwithstanding their many internal problems, they maintain their influence on the region thanks to repression and oil diplomacy. How do you explain the strategy of Riyadh: is it referred only to Arab Peninsula or is it addressed to make the Monarchy a real global player?
I think that Saudi Arabia in the next few years will be more concentrated on internal patterns. In particular, Saudi monarchy has got a serious problem with its hereditary model of power transmission. The King and the Crown Prince are old, their brothers are not very young and, probably, the power will be transferred to their sons. But who will be the next king? And are they able to guarantee cohesion within the al-Saud family and within the country? For these reasons, I think that Saudi Arabia is going to look more on its inner contradictions. Indeed, they have influence over more than one billions of Muslims, from Russia to Indonesia, from Africa to Europe. All of them look at Saudi Arabia like their point of reference. They pray towards Mecca. So the Monarchy has a great power – the religious power – and they need to preserve it, they need to avoid any kind of destabilization, they need to avoid any kind of interference.
* Giuseppe Dentice è Coordinatore editoriale OPI e Research Fellow (Head) area Grande Medio Oriente