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Journal of Democracy 13.4 (2002) 41-47

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Democratization in the Arab World?

Emirs and Parliaments in the Gulf

Michael Herb

Talk of democracy in the states of the Persian Gulf often inspires skepticism. There is, first and foremost, the anxiety that even modest moves toward democracy will lead to their Talibanization. But fears that an Islamist takeover will result from a partial transition are exaggerated. As much as the sad experience of Algeria shows the very real dangers of ill-considered attempts at democratization, it is unlikely in the extreme that an Algerian scenario will play out in the Gulf: The ruling families there are too deeply ensconced to be ousted by Islamists. In each country, the ruling family holds a monopoly on the cabinet portfolios of defense, interior, and foreign affairs (the "ministries of sovereignty," as they are called), along with numerous other posts—all of which afford the dynasties tremendous political security. To be sure, the intrafamilial diffusion of power that results can and does lead to disputes within the dynasties, but because each also has effective mechanisms for internal dispute resolution, they remain durable. 1

The resilience of the Gulf autocracies makes full democratization a distant prospect, but there is a silver lining of sorts to this: Monarchical stability lowers the risks of partial democratization in the form of free elections for a parliament of limited authority. Among the Gulf states, only Kuwait has extensive experience with such a legislature, its parliament having sat in most years since 1963. Nor can this parliament be dismissed as mere window dressing or as a token of liberalization without democratization. Elections matter in Kuwait. Its parliament has substantial legislative powers and more influence still in setting the public agenda, although only limited control over the cabinet. And other states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman—are moving in the same direction. Parliamentary elections are scheduled [End Page 41] for October 2002 in Bahrain, and for sometime in 2003 in Qatar. Oman's Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council) is already elected, though under restrictive conditions that ensure results amenable to the government.

Islamists form the single largest political tendency in the Kuwaiti parliament, and they swept the May 2002 local elections in Bahrain. The Kuwaiti National Assembly is best known in the West for its 1999 rejection of the emir's proposal to allow women to vote. Islamist illiberality on other issues should not be underestimated or glossed over. On issues related to religion or to the role of women, the ruling families are still generally more liberal than many of those who are—or might be—elected to parliament. All of this prompts further skepticism about parliaments, and gives grounds to wonder if there is a serious disconnect between democracy and liberalism in the Gulf: Modestly democratic parliaments generate a good deal of illiberal policy.

On balance, however, parliamentary life does more good than harm. Kuwait's system of government is far more transparent than that of, say, Saudi Arabia. Citizens (or some of them) have a voice in how they are governed. Liberals and other non-Islamists have a public platform from which they can set out their views, something Saudi liberals lack. And, at least in these Gulf monarchies, parliamentary life does seem to promote some degree of moderation among Islamists. In Kuwait and Bahrain, they plainly benefit from liberal political freedoms—the alternative being ruling-family repression. For there to be free elections, there must be substantial freedom of the press, speech, assembly, and so forth, and Islamists recognize that they depend on these freedoms. This creates an arena for public debate in which Islamist ideas can be contested. Kuwaiti women are not free to vote, but they can publicly argue that they ought to be. And the most durable victory for women's suffrage will be achieved when most Kuwaitis are convinced, via public debate, that women should have full political rights. In a region where autocracy tends to clear civil society of all groups but Islamist ones, liberals and others in Kuwait are...


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