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The political and economic upheaval triggered by the Arab uprisings of 2011 continues to reverberate across large swaths of the Middle East and North Africa. More than six years have passed since the outbreak of mass protests and fall of longstanding leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, and the start of the devastating civil war in Syria. Regional and international stakeholders continue to struggle to devise sustainable policy solutions to myriad challenges that encompass state collapse and military conflict in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, the fragmentation of political authority in Libya, ideological polarization in Egypt and Tunisia, and longer-term economic and sociopolitical challenges facing the comparatively more oil-rich Arab states. Underpinning these seemingly disparate national crises is a region-wide weakening of brittle institutional structures and authoritarian political models without a clear consensus on how or what to replace them with.
Conditions in the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—differ, in some ways substantially, from other areas of the Middle East and North Africa. Together with Morocco and Jordan, the Gulf states are some of the few remaining monarchies in the world that retain political power and governing authority. Scholars and policymakers have, for years, engaged in robust debates over the resilience of monarchical power structures and examined whether and how these states have proven more durable than their (similarly authoritarian) republican counterparts. All eight monarchies—the GCC six plus Morocco and Jordan—avoided regime change in and after 2011, although the ruling establishment in Bahrain was shaken to its core and needed regional support to restore order. While the mere presence of a monarch is not sufficient to explain the political survival of this regime type, having members of extended ruling families spread across all key areas of state control did make monarchies less vulnerable to the “decapitation” of a single presidential authority.
A characteristic that distinguishes the GCC states from Morocco and Jordan is the existence of significant (albeit highly varying) levels of resource wealth. Once again, this does not place the Gulf monarchies into a category of their own as resource-rich Libya experienced regime change in 2011 and, historically, the possession of oil reserves did not save the monarchies in Iraq or Iran. Furthermore, there is such a wide variation in resource endowments across the GCC states themselves that there are at least three subcategories among them: 1) Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE, which combine massive reserves with very small populations, particularly of citizens; 2) Saudi Arabia, where the largest reserves of all are spread across a much larger population; and, 3) Bahrain and Oman, whose reserves are by far the lowest and are expected to be the first to deplete. Even these categories are far from watertight, as within the UAE 95 percent of the oil is located within the emirate of Abu Dhabi, a factor that propelled Dubai’s leaders to rapidly diversify in the 1990s and 2000s.
It is, rather, the decisions on how to utilize the revenues from oil (and, in Qatar’s case, gas)
that have been key to the construction of elaborate “welfare” systems in GCC states that have recast the government as a distributor of resources to, rather than extractor of wealth from, its citizenry. As Aaron Wildavsky noted in his acclaimed 1964 study of the United States, “Budgets are political processes and budgetary decisions are answers to central political questions.” While this is true of governments of all types, it is especially relevant today in the Gulf states as the post-2014 fall in oil prices has forced each of the six to consider politically sensitive changes to the economic relationship between state and citizen that has been a pillar of the region’s political economy since the 1970s. With much of the “low hanging fruit” (such as increased charges and fees on expatriates and corporations) having been plucked, policymakers in GCC states have identified the need for “transformative” changes to economic structures along the lines of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030.
Each of the strategic visions and long-term plans unveiled in GCC states over the past decade seek to ring-fence, as far as possible, economic reform from political change. In modern times, only China has managed to isolate the political and economic aspects of transformation in such a way. As policymakers in Gulf states move down pathways with potentially far-reaching consequences—ironically utilizing Western consultancies that hardly envision a “China model” in their strategic outcome for Gulf economies—it is critical that they get decisions on key issues right. The recent anti-corruption drive in Saudi Arabia illustrates the double-edged sword that faces ruling circles in GCC states as they move not only to confront high perceived levels of corruption but also broad skepticism about their sudden willingness to address the issue. While the Gulf monarchies marked themselves as the great survivors of Arab politics by co-opting the pressures of modernization as they entered the oil era between the 1960s and 1980s, moving toward a more sustainable post-oil transition is likely to be a far more delicate proposition in coming years.
This report highlights the results from an expert survey carried out as part of a two-year research project on pluralism and inclusion in the post-Arab Spring regional landscape, funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The questions generated a layer of policy-relevant responses that provide nuanced insight into key public policy challenges in state settings that—Bahrain apart—did not experience significant political upheaval after 2011 but nevertheless are not isolated from the broader drivers of political or economic grievance. The results add to and move beyond the findings of region-wide surveys—such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Arab Experts Survey, Asda’a Burston-Marsteller’s Arab Youth Survey, or the Arab Reform Initiative’s Arab Barometer—as they focus specifically on the subset of Gulf countries where questions of economic (un)sustainability have the potential to develop into major determinants of political (in)stability in the years ahead.
Groups that work in and on the Middle East and North Africa in professional capacities— encompassing students and scholars, policymakers and practitioners, civil society leaders, activists, and journalists—completed two expert surveys online through Survey Monkey during spring and summer 2017 as part of the initial phase of the project. The survey that is the subject of this paper is focused on economic inclusion in GCC states and was completed by 167 respondents between March 28 and June 9, 2017. The experts were drawn from academic and policy networks and included nationals of GCC states, expatriates residing in Gulf states, and regional experts based abroad, in roughly equal measure. Experts were not randomly selected, and their views do not necessarily represent broader opinion in the Gulf states. Participants answered an array of multiple-choice questions on key policy areas and were also given the option of providing open-ended responses to each of them. The appendix provides the full list of survey questions and data for reference. This survey was available in English and Arabic but every respondent selected the English version of the survey, and not every expert responded to all of the questions.
General Policy Takeaways
Economic reform and unemployment are the most urgent policy issues facing governments in GCC states, but progress is likely to be limited if economic and political vested interests are not tackled at the same time.
Relations between state and citizens will be impacted by austerity measures that are likely to lead to calls for greater transparency and accountability in state spending, even as governments attempt to separate economic change from political reform.
Effective and realistic tools of implementation are required to put strategic visions into practice and address the deep-rooted obstacles to meaningful reform of GCC states’ public and private sectors and the relationship between them.
Perceptions of freedom, security, and equality in the GCC have worsened in the six years since the Arab uprisings in 2011, but while governments have become more responsive to citizen demands in selected areas, perceptions of corruption remain high.
Despite much debate about the eastward shift in the international outlook of GCC members, European and North American states remain the preferred partner of choice that can best support economic transformation in the Gulf.
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