Sunday

17th Feb 2019

Opinion

The Gulf exception

News of elections in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain was upstaged by the unexpected announcement by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia that women will be allowed to vote and run for office in the municipal elections scheduled in four years time and that they will be able to join the Majlis Al-Shura, the appointed consultative assembly.

The EU, if it takes note at all, will probably cluck approvingly at these events. Relations between the EU and the Gulf States remain low key and focused on economic and trade issues, strikingly disconnected from the type of partnerships offered to the Mediterranean states where political reform is touted as a key objective.

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  • UAE woman in Starbucks. The trick is to show just enough willingness to reform to win support (Photo: Stephan Geyer)

Not that Bahrain or the UAE make it much into the news anyway. Not that the results of the elections are expected to change anything. In both instances, votes were being held for advisory bodies with no real legislative power. In the UAE, an electoral college composed of 130,000 hand-picked citizens (representing around 10 per cent of the national population) votes for 20 out of the 40 members of the Federal National Council (FNC); the other 20 are appointed.

In Bahrain, by-elections were held for 14 of the 18 seats (the other four had been filled by candidates running unopposed) of the lower house of parliament, which the opposition group al-Wefaq vacated after its mass resignation in February in protest at the violence with which demonstrations in Bahrain were suppressed.

Why hold elections for bodies lacking any real power? Why allow women to vote while they continue to be the wards of their male relatives and are barred from driving?

It is all part of a facade, one that provides cover not only for the ruling regimes but also for their European cohorts. Such a facade attempts to create the illusion these regimes are slowly, at a pace presumably marked by the conservative nature of their societies, moving towards greater political reform, accountability and openness.

The trick is to show just enough willingness to reform to win support. It is a farce the EU willingly buys into, having decided the Gulf constitutes a parallel reality, an exception, where the aspirations of the Arab uprisings do not merit support. Energy riches, financial wealth and security concerns all militate against the defence of civil and political rights.

Fear of the spread of the Arab revolts has seen the Gulf regimes pivot between oppression and concession while the EU looks the other way. So in the UAE while the number of eligible voters was increased exponentially, from around 7,000 in 2006 to close to 130,000, only two days after the elections five political activists were to go on trial accused of publicly insulting the country’s rulers.

They were detained after a petition signed by more than 100 nationals was delivered to the government calling for the FNC to be elected by all nationals.

In Bahrain, a harsh crackdown which included 34 people killed, more than 1,400 arrested, 3,600 fired from their jobs, torture allegations and four deaths in custody was to be followed by meek conciliatory gestures including a National Dialogue, dismissed by the opposition as a sham, and an Independent Commission of Inquiry (due to deliver its conclusions at the end of October). In both countries significant monetary outlays were also used to prevent or mitigate calls for reform. This is also the case in Saudi Arabia, where a first response to the revolts was a $130 billion dollar expenditure programme followed by somewhat schizophrenic gestures veering from media restrictions and further empowerment of the conservative religious institutions to the recently announced extension of the vote to women.

No wonder the citizens of the region cannot be bothered to vote. Only 28 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots in the UAE while in Bahrain the turnout was even lower, at around 18 per cent. What is the point of voting for powerless institutions? But most importantly, why buy into a game where the rules are set so arbitrarily? The hand that giveth might just as well be the hand that in a couple of months or years taketh away.

Today King Abdullah decided to grant women the vote in much the same way as yesterday - he decided to postpone municipal elections for two years. Until Gulf nationals are treated as citizens worthy of rights and duties rather than subjects upon which concessions are bestowed or revoked, it will be hard for rulers to consolidate their legitimacy.

The EU nurtures this sense of Gulf exceptionalism at its own peril. There is no easy way out. Stability will only be achieved through political reform and social reconciliation.

Ana Echague is a researcher at the Madrid-based think tank Fride

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