Backing winners

Nerves about the Arab Spring are misplaced—people want democracy, not extremism
May 25, 2011
A protester carrying the pre-Gaddafi Libyan flag. Picture: Collin Anderson

For those, like me, who have an enduring appetite for politics, the Middle East and the Gulf provided a feast even before the spate of popular revolts. The uprisings, as much about economics as politics, are an inevitable result of globalisation. As borders collapse, there is a freer flow of ideas, people and information—as well as trade and investment—and a growing convergence of values, aspiration and demands. This process does not make us all identical but it does make those denied the basics of income, respect and a vote more likely to be spurred into action to claim what is rightfully theirs.

I have recently made a return visit to Kuwait and, for a longer period, to Qatar. What is interesting about both these Gulf states—or, in reality, these highly sophisticated and wealthy villages—is that while people elsewhere are prepared to risk and lose their lives for the democratic cause, in Kuwait, for some, the gloss and appeal has rather come off their parliament, and in Qatar, with no directly elected parliament, people, in the main, so far seem content to stay as they are without the accoutrements of democratic politics.

What accounts for the difference? After all, the ubiquitous influence of social media is capable of spreading the word almost equally in all places. My hunch is that, throughout the region, three factors explain the differences in stability. One is critical mass, the second is degrees of repression and the third is the political horse-sense shown by the rulers.

In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria (and, I suspect, Algeria to come), the regimes score badly on all three. In Qatar, Kuwait, UAE and Oman, the populations are comparatively tiny and repression is relatively slight. Bahrain is also small, but the insensitivity of the government towards the Shia population tipped the balance.

Where does this leave Iran and Saudi Arabia? These regional giants fill all the others with trepidation bordering on panic. Both, to varying degrees, are at risk on my three criteria. Either could descend into chaos (Iran more likely than Saudi) and spread instability across the Gulf (Saudi more than Iran, although if Iran gets the capacity for nuclear weapons, any regime in Tehran can disrupt the region). Many in the Gulf hope for the first and fear the second; they want Iran’s regime to change and the Saudi royal family to survive as rulers.

This reflects the Shia (Iran) and Sunni (Saudi) makeup of these countries: all Gulf states except Iraq and Bahrain are majority Sunni. Yet the outcome may not be as simple as hoped. The capability of Saudi’s ruling family should not be underestimated: I remember their members as formidable negotiators when I was trade commissioner. But the Gulf’s wise heads feel that only if the Saudi royals show efficiency in sorting out the succession to the widely respected but ailing King Abdullah—possibly skipping a generation or two—will they be likely to show sufficient skill in managing the deeper and inevitable demand for political change facing the country.

True, Saudi Arabia has huge reserves of wealth to spend on its physical fabric and public welfare. But the country’s burgeoning young population wants more than the monarch’s generosity, nor is that likely to buy their acquiescence. Yes, they want secure, well-paid jobs. But many also want greater freedom in their personal lives, without the religious and security establishment keeping them in order.

As for Iran, one can only speculate how and when the hated regime will collapse or be overthrown. Its condition does illustrate one thing well, however. It gives the lie to those who contend that the spread of democracy in the region opens the door to radical Islam (the oft-quoted fear about the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during the rule of President Hosni Mubarak). I understand the anxiety, but it has not happened, for example, in Iraq. The Arab Spring has an overwhelmingly secular thrust. Genuinely open democracy is a check on theocracy and extremism, for the simple reason that the majority of people in the region don’t want either of these things. Theocracies, remember, need unaccountable power to survive. So we should not allow too much caution to cloud our judgement and, in the meantime, join with others in the region by firmly supporting those putting their courage before their safety.