Thursday, 17th September 2015

GSN View: The challenges of transition and conflict

The Mena region’s polities are very different from the post-colonial nation states and newly independent emirates created during the Cold War that moulded geopolitics in GSN’s formative years. Challenges from non-state actors and the evolution of city-based ‘benign autocracies’ now point to alternative political configurations

It is legitimate to question whether Gulf monarchies based on pre-colonial tribal and family structures will persist beyond the coming decades, in a region buffeted by ‘non-state actors’ such as Islamic State, and riven by sectarian conflicts and demands for a more equitable distribution of resources. Beyond the stability promoted by Dubai and other futuristic gated communities, many of the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region’s nation states face the challenge of remaining relevant within their post-colonial boundaries.

In the GSN zone, the established statehood of Iraq, and especially neighbouring Syria, are profoundly challenged. But while the emergence of new nations is probably not imminent, even in the case of the Iraqi Kurds (GSN 998/3), further convulsions of the sort that have made Syria, Yemen and Libya candidates for ‘failed state’ status might eventually see the eruption of new polities. One lesson of the 2011 Arab Spring was that leaderships have to continually transform their governance, and the terms of social contracts with their predominantly young populations. Efficient delivery of services and resources is essential for ruling elites to survive. Eventually, greater broad-based representation will have to follow. However, as GSN 1,000’s round-up of electoral politics in the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) shows, this is not an option being promoted by leaderships.

In many respects, Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates are the very models of the post-colonial nation state. However, within the region, another parallel form of polity has emerged in the form of city states such as Dubai and Qatar, which represent a form of ‘post-modern’ organisation, where authoritarian government mixes with liberal economics and globalised leisure activities; all of this is implemented by cosmopolitan populations.

Dubai’s genius has been to plan an urban hub that looks beyond the traditional nation state. Within this air-conditioned zone of discreet high security, a sophisticated public relations machine has purred on as Middle East crises have driven ever more traders, investors and other members of the global elite to buy into off-plan estates and high-rise mega-structures. This model weathered the 2008-09 global financial crisis, which threatened to diminish the Al-Maktoums and their glass pleasuredomes; instead, many creditors await repayment as funds are used to kick-start projects that will make the emirate even bigger and better than before

Dubai has been reimagined by its Al-Maktoum leaders, most notably Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid (MBR), whose close aide Mohammed Ali Alabaar studied how Singapore emerged as the hub of South-east Asia; then a tight-knit group around MBR improved on the model. Other emirates that were just coming to terms with independence as GSN was created have taken note, investing to establish themselves as global cities. The most prominent examples are Qatar, with its cultural and sports politics, expected to reach its zenith with the 2022 Fifa World Cup (corruption scandals permitting), and Abu Dhabi, whose Louvre and Guggenheim museums provide a global statement of cultural politics. These models of the post-modern city state contain a huge proportion of their jurisdiction’s population and GDP.

The promotion of western-style democracy has not been a happy experience. Politics tend towards the angry, and policy implementation has most often moved at a glacial pace in Kuwait, home of the GCC’s oldest and most independent parliament. A government dominated by the ruling Al-Sabah family is confronted by a National Assembly whose longstanding tendency has been to block economic reform. This is regretted even by such thoughtful participants as parliamentary speaker Marzouq Al-Ghanim (on which more in GSN 1,001).

The Kuwaiti example is used across the region to highlight the pitfalls of too much representative democracy, which was falling out of favour even before the Arab Spring revolts created a climate of fear among GCC leaderships – culminating in the Saudi-led intervention in Bahrain. Critics who focus on Kuwait’s constitutional shortfalls usually admire leaderships whose economic policy is efficiently implemented by tight-knit, unelected elites. There are parallels elsewhere: GSN’s sister publication African Energy has charted the rise of authoritarian ‘developmental states’ like Ethiopia and Rwanda; they are winning praise from western governments whose focus on human rights previously seemed more rigorous. A similar trend is apparent in Egypt under the authoritarian rule of GCC ally President Abdel Fatah El Sisi.

Benign autocracy is creating jobs and investment in cities where the majority expatriate population has no vote, and where ‘national’ communities transmit their concerns through the diwan, majlis and other ‘traditional’ mechanisms, as well as via e-government portals. The prevailing social compacts between rulers and their subjects/citizens are being updated, but not radically. Thorny questions – such as representation for long-term expatriates or equality of opportunity for Shia and other ‘minority’ communities – are pushed to the margins.

Beyond the borders of these wealthy enclaves, conflict and societal breakdown pose potentially uncontrollable challenges – as the new leadership in Riyadh recognised by mobilising the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. In a region that has experienced four decades of arguably unprecedented transformation, how the GCC’s populations transact their politics in coming decades remains in the realms of speculation.

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The Gulf region: economy and society

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Iraqi Kurdistan hydrocarbons infrastructure map

Revised in January 2015, this map provides a detailed overview of hydrocarbons infrastructure in the Kurdistan area of Iraq.

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The 2nd Annual Corporate Restructuring Summit

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