Bridging the gulf

The need to reform the relationship between the state and society in the Gulf states

The Gulf states exist in one of the most volatile regions of the world. Three major interstate wars since 1980, Iran's nuclear and missile programme, Iraqi instability, transnational terrorism and cross border criminal networks all make it a difficult neighbourhood to live in. Yet despite predictions of their demise, the six monarchical oil states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, endure.

dubai_highwayToday, new non military threats are emerging which will require a new and broader approach to national and regional security. According to Dr Kristian Ulrichsen from LSE's centre for the study of global governance, the concept of 'Gulf security' in coming years and decades will need to shift from a focus on protecting the ruling regimes to incorporating security for all communities and levels of society.

Creation of more inclusive and sustainable political systems, for example, will be vital if these states are to face successfully challenges such as rapidly rising populations, unemployment, spiralling inflation and food, energy and water security.

Dr Ulrichsen says: 'All the Gulf States have reform programmes of varying degrees –  some of which are more serious than others. But unless and until they are forced to reform they won't. Money from oil provides a powerful cushion against any reform. Over the last five years there has been a huge increase in oil prices and this has actually slowed the pace of change in many countries.'

He argues that attempts to introduce a participatory element and a measure of pluralism to politics have so far amounted to little more than an exercise designed to renew the legitimacy of ruling elites and co-opt oppositional groups. Government directed control has persisted and, with the partial exception of Kuwait, the balance of political power remains vested in the ruling families and their neo-patrimonial networks.

Yet a reformulation of the relationship between the state and society as the  Gulf states undergo a transition to post-oil political economies is essential. For example, the generous 'cradle to the grave' welfare systems funded by oil are unsustainable in the long term. Charges for basic services such as water and electricity will need to be introduced and the ruling elites fear that this could lead to social instability.

Dr Ulrichsen explains: 'A 60 year old in Dubai today would have grown up in poverty, possibly in a tent with camels to provide milk and sustenance. That generation worked hard at manual labour – they had to toil. But this incredible wealth has happened so quickly, allowing every part of citizens' lives to be subsidized, it has eradicated any work ethic. While the welfare system has been a good way of buying the loyalty of citizens, as you move down the generations you lose any focal point of reference. The danger is that a privilege becomes a right.'

The threat of social unrest is exacerbated by rapid population growth and inadequate employment opportunities. The Gulf states contain one of the youngest and fastest-growing populations in the world, putting pressure on their regimes to generate enough jobs for them.

But employment opportunities for citizens remain limited by stratified labour markets. Divisions exist between men and women, the public and private sectors, citizens and expatriate labour, and people are able to work and communicate in English and the rest.

Added to these potential sources of tension are the challenges of food, water and energy security. Water tables are dropping throughout the Middle East as demand from rapidly urbanising and industrialising populations outstrips supply from fossil water and local aquifers. The 'knock on' implications for food security are obvious. Civil strife between ethnic, tribal or sectarian groups resulting from the concentration of resources with one group while others experience scarcity has already been an issue in the region.

The Gulf is also particularly vulnerable to the threat of climate change because of coastal patterns of settlement and development. In February 2009 the World Meteorological Organization warned that even a 5 cm rise in sea levels would have major consequences for marine life and coastal development. Rapid urbanization and land reclamation projects further increased the level of threat from natural disasters.

Strengthening internal cohesion within the Gulf states will be vital to dealing with these longer term challenges to security. And Dr Ulrichsen is optimistic that the Gulf states will be able to adapt. He says: 'They have big problems facing them, but they have shown themselves to be very durable and pragmatic. The ruling families have always been guided by strategies of survival – and they've done this successfully, in incredibly challenging circumstances, for more than two centuries.'


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For more information about Kristian Ulrichsen and his work visit his entry in the LSE Experts Directory: Dr Kristian Ulrichsen|