Succession in the Gulf

Succession in the Gulf

Succession in the Gulf - a system under strain?

Anthony Billingsley  

"It is characteristic of this (the Arab tribal) system that there is no clear and unambiguous rule of succession." (Gellner , E. 1990 111.)

This paper is based on a PhD thesis that is looking at the constitutional and legal frameworks supporting political succession in the Arab world and the forces, practices and traditions underpinning those practices. Starting with an examination of the formal constitutional and legal measures in place in Arab countries and the political practices that accompany those measures, the thesis proceeds to examine the underlying cultural and historical influences that have provided the bases on which the resulting systems have been built. These include Egyptian, Roman, Byzantine Greek, Islamic, Persian, Mamluke, Ottoman and Western, including liberal democratic, socialist and even fascist elements. Of particular interest, however, is the Arab tribal system of governance. The thesis argues that the result of these experiences and influences is a political tradition based on autocratic but just and pious rule and that the tradition enjoys a measure of support in the Arab world, despite the regular recurrence of brutal despotisms. In this context, the tradition is reinforced by a range of current factors, including concerns about stability, a desire for a return to a remembered or imagined period of greatness and a related fear of Western, especially American, dominance.

In this broad Arab context, this paper will look at the process of leadership succession in three countries of the Persian (or Arabian) Gulf region - the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and Saudi Arabia. It will discuss the importance of succession practices in the political process and their longer-term viability. It will also look at changes occurring at the constitutional and political levels in the three countries and the impact of those changes on the traditional processes of leadership succession.

It is accepted that other Arab countries have, arguably, more complex histories and political systems than the three being considered here and that some, such as Egypt, have been more influential in Arab history. But it will be argued that the three countries display in their make-up key characteristics that the Arabs took with them when they broke out of the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century AD. These characteristics have persisted throughout the region that gave them birth and make up an enduring and, in some instances, fundamental part of the broader Arab political tradition.

"A place of stagnation, resentment and violence"
Arab governments have long been harshly criticised from outside and within the Arab world. They are accused of being undemocratic, nepotistic, unaccountable, brutal, corrupt, inflexible and inefficient. The region's undemocratic systems of governance are blamed for its perceived economic decline, political instability and complicity with terrorism. This issue was highlighted by US President Bush in November, 2003, when he told the National Endowment for Democracy that

"Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe - because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export. And with the spread of weapons that can bring catastrophic harm to our country and to our friends, it would be reckless to accept the status quo." (Bush 2003)

Fouad Ajami describes the Arab world as suffering from "the congenital condition of a culture yet to take responsibility for its self-inflicted wounds" and describes Arab rulers as people "who have never taken their populations into their confidence". (Ajami 2003) Some of the criticisms seem to suggest that, for various reasons, Arabs are inherently incapable of organising themselves to run adaptable, efficient and legitimate political systems and, therefore political, social and economic reform needs to be sweeping in order to rectify the region's many ills. The 2002 "National Security Strategy of the United States of America" set out the goal of introducing significant changes in the way Arabs run themselves based on Jeffersonian principles of democratic government. (US Government 2002:6)

Others argue conversely that Western democracy is inconsistent with the Arab and Islamic traditions of the region.
"The general failure of liberal democracy to take hold in Muslim societies is a continuing and repeated phenomenon for an entire century beginning in the late 1800s. This failure has its source at least in part in the inhospitable nature of Islamic culture and society to Western liberal concepts." (Huntington 1998:114)

"Such central issues of Western political development as the conduct of elections and the definition and extension of the franchise, therefore, had no place in Islamic political evolution. Not surprisingly, in view of these differences, the history of Islamic states is one of almost unrelieved autocracy. The Muslim subject owed obedience to the legitimate Muslim ruler as a religious duty. That is to say, disobedience was a sin as well as a crime." (Lewis 1993)

And even some Arab commentators have adopted this line:
"In the light of on-going events, it appears that the Arab psychology has become addicted to the dictatorial model of life. Indeed, all the Arab peoples - all of them - have become completely addicted to dictatorship, oppression, and regimes that beat (the people) on their heads with their shoes and hit them below the belt. ... I do not exaggerate by saying this because, within each of us, there is a little dictator who feels gratification when he is repressed by those stronger and more brutal than he and who, at the same time, does not refrain from acting this same way, in his milieu, towards those weaker and inferior in status." (Rashid 2003)

Those on the Islamist right tend to regard liberal democracy as an anti-Islamic, Western intrusion, perhaps to be exploited and then abandoned. The deputy leader of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front welcomed the Algerian Government's announcement that it was to hold general elections in early 1992, declaring that, having won power, the Front would not be holding any more elections. This prompted the comment by a former American diplomat, Edward Djerejian, that, while the West supported the idea of "one man, one vote", it nevertheless opposed an alternative that boiled down to "one man, one vote, one time". (Asa 2001)

At the heart of the various criticisms lies the issue of whether there is a cause and effect relationship between the nature of Arab governments and the persistence of perceived problems in the Arab world - including poverty, backwardness, instability, religious fundamentalism and terrorism. This possible connection provides a framework for the investigation of problems associated with the distribution of power, the degree of legitimacy enjoyed by governments and the objectives driving those in pursuit of power. Organisations such as the Ibn Khaldoun Centre for Development Studies in Egypt, various Western think tanks, especially in the United States, as well as multilateral organisations, including the World Bank and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), have conducted major investigations into the negative impact of Arab power structures on national development.
"At the root of MENA's growth gap is its governance gap. Indeed, simulations find that if MENA had matched the average quality of administration in the public sector for a group of good-performing Southeast Asian countries ...., its growth rates would have been higher by about one percentage point a year. (UNDP 2002:8)

A major factor underlying the focus of these studies is the manner of the transfer of power from one leader or leadership group to another. A question - often implicit - behind these examinations is whether the transfer of power takes place according to the will of the people in the context of fair elections, freedom of expression and an open political class or whether it is closely controlled by a small group, which is not accessible to the majority of citizens, which does not respond to the demands of an electoral process and which does not tolerate criticism and diversity of opinion. The United Nations Development Programme answers this question in the case of the Middle East by drawing attention to the region's 'freedom deficit' (UNDP 2002:27) At the heart of this issue is whether the legitimacy of the succession process is dependent on the popular will, is it something that is achieved through the ruler's willingness to use force or is there another basis for regime legitimacy in Arab politics?

The assumption on the part of observers based in the West is that Arab regimes lack legitimacy and are fundamentally flawed (Lewis 1996:59-60). This assumption further reflects a dominant Western perspective in favour of liberal democratic ideals:
"If there is one globally hegemonic ideology, it is the idea of representative government. The call for representative government has become a world-wide demand, a belief system shared by developing countries, subordinated peoples, international organisations and Western politicians alike."(Baylouny 2004:1)

The solution to this state of affairs, therefore, is for liberal democratic ideals and practices to be introduced into the Arab polity. This is to be achieved by supporting and empowering those Arabs who are committed to the liberal-democratic way. There is, however, a question about whether Arab supporters of liberal democracy, while popular and respected in the West, accurately reflect popular thinking in Arab countries and whether they have the capacity to effect and maintain change even with extensive external support. Alterman, for example, argues that the Western idea of implanting democratisation in the Arab world, based on a core of like-minded liberal reformers in the region is misguided. He notes that the liberals of the Arab world are aging, decreasing in number and increasingly isolated from mainstream political activity. (Alterman 2004) They are being supplanted by people who often have close links to the military and have not enjoyed education in the West (or even the East bloc). These people are, therefore, less influenced by the Western model but are instead steeped in the older traditions of the Arab political experience. It could be argued that this process of retreat from Western political ideals can be detected in the early years of Arab independence, for example, with Nasser's coup in 1952, and that it gained momentum after the June War of 1967.

Importantly, such an approach ignores the possibility that there might be another, idiosyncratic and "native" tradition reflecting the region's long historical experience that enjoys a measure of legitimacy among rulers and ruled in the Arab world. This tradition may represent the future for the region.

An Arab political tradition
A native Arab political system would necessarily be an amalgam of the range of influences noted above, from pre-Islamic tribal Arab, to the most recent colonial force based on liberalism and socialism. In all the influences on the Arab world over the millennia, except the liberal democracy of the West, there has been a strong element of authoritarianism, which can find a degree of endorsement in the Quran:
"Believers, obey God and obey the Apostle and those in authority among you." (Dawood 1999:Sura 4 (59))

But there have also been persistent elements of egalitarianism and inclusiveness, which can be traced to Arab tribal societies. Some modern Arab leaders have shown interest in modernising their societies through democratisation. For example, Egypt's President Nasser and King Feisal of Saudi Arabia considered measures that would have taken their countries along a democratic path, but both pulled back, fearing a descent into chaos as elements, such as the Moslem Brotherhood, sought to take advantage of the change and structural weaknesses in their societies to impose their own dictatorships. (Hudson 1977:395) Instead, Nasser and Feisal both resolved to control and limit opposition to their systems, an example that has been followed by their successors for the same reasons.

The tribal tradition
As noted above, tribalism continues to underpin and mark out the Arab political tradition.
"Both patrimonialism and neo-tribalism lie behind what most of all differentiated Islamic from European political thought: the absence of the concept of political office, of the state as separate from individual rulers, and of a distinction between public and private. ..... In the Islamic world, authority remained tied to the outstanding individual and dynasty." (Black 2001:350-351)

Tribalism accompanied the Arabs in their conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries and persists even in the most revolutionary of modern Arab political systems. For example, Libya's Colonel Ghaddafi attempted a number of measures, such as the establishment of People's Committees, in an ostensible attempt to change the nature of his country's society. Ultimately, however, he has tended to fall back on tribal groups to defend his hold on power. In the years following the United States' first war with Iraq, Saddam Hussein made extensive use of the country's tribes to help him maintain order - this after having spent considerable time attempting to destroy the tribes as a political force. After their overthrow of Saddam in 2003, the American occupiers found the tribes to be among the most important (and unpredictable) forces in the country.

Tribal politics is extraordinarily complex and unpredictable and the power of a tribal leader is always precarious. The societies remain based on the family which is characterised by the tendency for family members to live in close proximity to each other, for lineage to be determined by descent along the male line and for the family elders to play a major decision-making role in family matters. The Arab leader secures and holds power on the basis of his ability to maintain his followers' support. Until relatively recently, this was achieved by the sheikh's skills as a conciliator, his ability to lead his followers on raids against neighbours in search of booty and honour through battle. Now, it is effected through the distribution of largesse. The leader can claim legitimacy once he has secured power and has demonstrated his (or, rarely, her ) ability to hold onto it. The regime survival in this context is determined on very personal grounds, given the intimate nature of this political structure. ".... The leader must demonstrate his personal competence if he is to earn the traditional oath of allegiance." (Hudson 1977: 19).
"It (a tribe) has a permanent leader only when a man, through feats of warfare or judicial wisdom, has gained such distinction that, by virtue of his charisma, he is recognised as a sayed.... His example and verdict will be honoured by the sibs only so long as he proves his charisma. .....Under certain conditions, however, the political grouping of a tribe ... can turn into a relatively firm structure. This may occur when a charismatic prince succeeds in securing for himself and his sib a position of permanent military authority. In the nature of the case, this is possible only when the warlord receives a fixed income .... and tribute and when his income allows him to maintain a personal following." (Weber 1967:11- 12)

An important manifestation of tribal practices is the paramount sheikh's majlis, at which tribal and clan representatives seek, through direct audience, redress for grievances, support in disputes with other tribes or families and even assistance with relatively mundane and petty issues, such as help in selling camels. In this context, a political leader's role is to achieve consensus on major issues as much as it is to "run" the tribe.

In many ways, the Arab tribes are the personification of the Islamic Umma, the community united by its acceptance of the message of the Quran. An effect of this concept is that the idea of the nation state has not established the same level of acceptance in the Arab world as it has in modern Western societies. Arab tribes reflect this attitude through their refusal wholeheartedly to conform to the ideas of the nation state. Arab tribes do not reflect national boundaries in terms of where their loyalties lie and where they live. Especially in Iraq, they do not even respect the fundamental Shi'a and Sunni divisions. They ignore state boundaries and, to the extent they can, state laws. In most Arab countries, most citizens have a tribal affiliation and, as was seen in the 2003 Iraq war, many return to those ties in times of stress. The persistence of the Majlis is a further acknowledgement that tribal, confessional and even regional loyalties continue to assume greater importance to Arabs than their state, especially when the state is under pressure.
"Family loyalties continue to compete with loyalty to the state and it is probably safe to assume that most residents of the Middle East place the interests of the extended family far above the interests of the state." (Palmer 2002:14)

Traditional Autocracies
The countries of the Arabian Peninsula represent the most obvious model of the Arab tribal tradition. For much of their history, the area that now comprises the countries of the Gulf were largely insulated from the direct impact of foreign influences. Most conquerors of the lands of the eastern Mediterranean failed for various reasons to establish lasting control over much of the Arabian Peninsula. Importantly, therefore, the limited imprint of the various empires, with their bureaucracies and armies, means that the Gulf states represent less complicated examples of tribal systems of rule - systems which continue to influence political processes in the three countries and, it is argued, which can be found in more "sophisticated" Arab governing systems elsewhere. These states are changing as the outside world and the increasing complexity of their societies impinge on their processes of government. The Saudi Arabian system, in particular, increasingly bears resemblances to systems operating elsewhere in the Arab world, especially Jordan and Morocco (Owen 1992:68). Nevertheless, that tribal foundation remains a, perhaps the, central feature of their governments.

The three countries selected for this paper - the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar - are in many ways typical of the Arab countries of their region. They have relatively small populations, blessed with significant petroleum-based wealth. Personalised, family-based politics is a prominent feature of their societies and governance. Their governments still rest on the traditional elements of usage, custom, and history. They are authoritarian, potentially arbitrary in their exercise of power and personal in character. Their legitimacy relies heavily on popular acceptance, and they continue to enjoy an appreciable measure of support among their people, despite the increasing pressures on government. Dissent is usually dealt with subtly and resort to the open repression of challengers to their dominance is avoided for fear that excessive repression would risk destroying the basis of their control.

Despite the high-rise skylines of Abu Dhabi, Doha and Riyadh, the countries of the Arabian Peninsula are newcomers to the nation state system and their experience of modernity is recent. Saudi Arabia did not come into being until 1925, with the departure of the Hashemite family from the Hijaz area around Mecca and Medina. Even then, the country remained largely a personal fiefdom of King Abdel Aziz ibn Saud and his family and was largely cut off from the outside world. Saudi Arabia was ruled in the late 1950s in much the same way as it had been in the 1930s - with a few hundred officials and advisers supporting the king. (Owen 1992:57) The UAE was not formed until 1971, when the seven Emirates joined in a federation - largely in response to the withdrawal of Britain from the region. Older citizens still remember active conflict between the leading Emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The President, Sheikh Zayed, witnessed the killing of members of his family by members of a rival family. Qatar has been ruled by the Al Thani family since the mid-1800s but it was not until 1995, when the current ruler overthrew his father, that the country began to assume the characteristics of a modern political system.

To an extent, however, the three countries display different responses to pressures for change and some of these differences can be seen in the formal, constitutional paths they have taken. Initially, there were no formal constitutional structures in place in any of the three countries - Islamic law based on the Quran serving as the fundamental document of state. In 1971 after federation, the UAE adopted a provisional constitution but a permanent instrument was not adopted until 1996. Qatar's Ruler introduced a provisional constitution in 1972 but the country had to wait until 2003 before a permanent constitution was adopted. And the Saudis did not adopt their constitutional document, the Basic Law, until 1992. (The Basic Law states that the Saudi constitution consists of the Quran and the Sunna (the habits and religious practices of the Prophet Mohammed) (Article 1). The Basic Law is meant to be the distillation of the constitution.)

In spite of the trappings of modern governance, including the constitutional frameworks, the tribal/patrilineal pattern and the relationships involved persist in these three countries today. The sheikh (be he king, president or emir) has power that is only limited by religion, tradition and the influence of his family members. At a time when processes are being introduced to regulate the activities of ordinary citizens, the ruling families of the three countries remain untouchable and unaccountable. There is no sense of parliamentary or public supervision or accountability as far as the ruler and his family are concerned. Qatar's Al Jazeira television network has alienated half the rulers of the Arab world (not to mention a number of American politicians as well). But the network never criticises the ruling family nor does it provide a platform for opponents of the family. (Gambill 2000) Instead, it serves as an important instrument in Qatar's foreign policy, playing a part in Qatar's complex relationship with Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries.

The influence of individual members of the ruling families can be considerable as they often represent significant centres of power and are difficult to discipline. The ability of Prince Nayef, the Saudi Interior Minister and a senior member of the Al Saud family, to survive in his role as head of the Saudi security forces despite deteriorating internal security in his country is perhaps one of the better examples of this aspect of the countries' systems. (Whitaker 2004)

In such a context, succession can be a complicated and fraught political issue. In any political system, of course, the process can be hotly contested. States can address the process of change in a variety of ways. Many countries include the procedure in a written constitution. This legal framework might be supplemented by various statutes or by convention, which has the force of law. In Lebanon, for example, while the constitution is silent on the issue, convention dictates that the senior government positions of the President, the Prime Minister and the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies are allocated to the confessional groups of the country - the Presidency to the Christians, the Prime Minister's office to the Sunnis and the Speaker's chair to the Shi'a. In Canada, the Liberal Party tends to alternate between Francophone and Anglophone leaders. A major goal of such measures is to provide an element of confidence in and legitimacy to the procedures among potentially antagonistic groups.

Despite modernising aspects of their countries, when it comes to leadership selection, the rulers of the Gulf states hardly pay lip service to their formal constitutional structures and continue to adhere to traditional approaches. These traditional approaches, however, have not necessarily worked smoothly and, over the centuries, succession has posed major problems for rulers of major states in the region. Leadership succession has always been a problem for tribally based Arab societies. Jon Peterson remarks that "Succession is a problem faced by nearly all Arab states, regardless of the type of political system." (Peterson 2001b: 581)

"The absence of rules such as primogeniture made succession problematic under Islam. This affects political culture and practice today, making a peaceful transfer of power and the introduction of new blood through elections very difficult. Electoral democracy presupposes the authority of offices rather than individuals. In Islamic society, there was no attempt, prior to sustained Western influence, to replace Imamate or Sultanate with constitutional monarchy or a republic" (Black 2001: 351).

Strong leaders in the Arab world have regularly sought to establish effective procedures for the transfer of power to their chosen successors. The Omayyids, for example, established the first model of dynastic rule under Islam. This attempt was rejected by the Abbasids, who came after them, and eventually Sunni Arab jurisprudence came to favour the succession to power of the strongest claimant - that is the man who is able to seize and hold power - to an extent, this is a continuation of the tribal approach to succession discussed above. Such a claimant would, ideally, seek to possess or present many of the key elements or traits underlying the right to succeed and legitimacy of rule in the Arab world. These might include individual and family virtues, noble lineage, heroic or noble deeds, qualities of leadership and descent from the Prophet. But deserving or not, based on accepted principles or not, the path to power for an Arab ruler has tended to be marked by violence.
The consequence is that at the demise of a given chief, the selection of the successor depends on the balance of power and prestige rather than on the simple application of a rule." (Gellner 1990)

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar reflect traditional principles when determining succession and have even sought to clothe these principles in constitutional regalia. But, in practice less formal procedures can be followed within the ruling group. Succession tends to be decided by members of the ruling family behind closed doors. This is despite specific constitutional provisions outlining a more formal process of selection. In Saudi Arabia, for example, the Basic Law provides that "the King choses the Heir Apparent and relieves him of his duties by Royal order" (Article 5.c). In practice, however, the decision is made by the inner circle of the ibn Saud family. This process worked smoothly in 1975 when King Feisal was assassinated by a family member during a majlis session. The family moved quickly to appoint a successor. Similarly, the inner circles of the families were intimately involved in 1966, when the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Shakbut, was replaced by his brother, Sheikh Zayed, and in 1995, when the Ruler of Qatar, Sheikh Khalifa, was replaced by his son, Sheikh Hamad. And, while the processes were conducted in considerable secrecy, it is almost certain that the families' roles extended beyond simply endorsing the decision. Rather, they would have been actively involved in the decision that a change was necessary and in agreeing who was to take over. (Peterson 2001a: 174).

The apparent coup d'etat conducted in 2003 by Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr Al Qassimi, a younger son of the Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah (one of the Emirates making up the United Arab Emirates) against his brother, the Crown Prince and Regent, was determined by the ruling family, according to residents spoken to by the author and supported by media commentary (The Telegraph of India 2003; Al Jazeira 2003). No constitutional process was involved - simply an announcement in the name of the Ruler. The Federal Government in Abu Dhabi supported the action with the deployment of tanks and troops, suggesting the ruling families throughout the country still regarded this arbitrary process of leadership succession to be appropriate but also that there were others who were less impressed by the decision. In these contexts, the constitutional process has value or relevance simply as an attempt to increase the new Ruler's legitimacy.

Often, the final decisions have involved extensive (and sometimes uneasy) compromise within the family, reflecting the competing claims of various family members. The rivalry and machinations of the different wives of the rulers on behalf of their children is a significant feature of Gulf Arab politics. This element is becoming increasingly apparent in the case of the Saudi Arabia with different branches of the family positioning themselves for the succession. (Peterson 2001b: 580-583).

Complicating the three countries' approaches to succession is the long-standing Arab tribal tradition that a ruler does not have the right to name his successor but that power should go to the strongest claimant, who is able to secure power (Peterson 2001b: 2). Article 5 of the Saudi Basic Law acknowledges and attempts to address this factor by specifying that the oldest candidate should succeed. It also specifies, however, that this person must be the most fit ('upright").

In this context, it is of interest to note that, as he has begun to recognise his impending mortality, Sheikh Zayed of the UAE is reported to be attempting to determine who his successor will be. His oldest son, the long-standing Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Khalifa bin Zayed, is not young, is reputed to be in less than perfect health and is not seen as strong enough to maintain the Al Nahayan family's political dominance over the country. Zayed is rumoured to have appointed a younger, tougher son, Mohammed, as Deputy Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. The speculation is that Mohammed will be able to exploit that position, possibly with a death-bed endorsement from his father to secure the top job. If the rumours are accurate, Zayed's actions would suggest a recognition of the traditional tribal processes but also a desire to pre-empt and guide them.

Changing Autocracies?
The ruling families of the Gulf area have begun to adopt the mantra of constitutional reform and are doing so for a number of reasons. The more insightful members of the families recognise that they need to be doing something to respond to the significant economic, social, political and strategic changes that are occurring in their region. Some maintain a genuine belief in the efficacy of some of the modernisation measures they are pursuing. And more generally, the process of government is becoming more complex, less personal. While there are no real signs that the population in any of the three countries has lost its faith in the current government systems, (Kapiszewski 2002:27) leaders, such as the Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, are mindful of the threat posed by the current guerrilla campaign in Saudi Arabia and of the desire of significant elements to destabilise that regime. Others, such as the Dubai ruling family, the Maktoums, are aware of their vulnerability to the terrorist threat. Osama bin Laden has made explicit his desire to see the house of Saud overthrown and the Shi'a of eastern Saudi Arabia have begun to shake off their traditional quiescence and to demand greater rights. In the UAE the widely revered President, Sheikh Zayed, resorts to Moroccans to provide his personal security - an indication that not everyone in the country is happy with the current arrangements. Leaders are also aware of the dangers posed by the significant budgetary problems they have been experiencing if they are to head off social unrest by continuing to provide generous social security arrangements for their populations (especially for the members of the major families). Moreover, they are not immune to the chorus of criticism of Arab governments from the West and, given their security dependence on the United States in particular, feel a need to be seen to be responding.

And some rulers are aware of the serious weaknesses in their political systems. As they seek to confront challenges to their authority, weaknesses, including with political succession, are being increasingly exposed. The lingering illness of King Fahd has hamstrung the ability of the Regent, Crown Prince Abdullah, to effect major change in Saudi Arabia.
"Ever since King Fahd's stroke in 1995, the question of succession has been hanging over the entire (Saudi) system, but neither prince (Crown Prince Abdullah and Prince Nayef) has enough clout to capture the throne". (Doran 2004: 35)

The inevitable departure of the aging President Zayed from the UAE scene could threaten the delicate balances between the Emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai and within Sheikh Zayed's own family, the Al Nahayan, which maintain unity in that country. Since the mid-1990s, there have been frequent reports of his demise that have resulted in widespread rumours of various clans gathering behind different senior sheikhs of the Al Nahayan tribe. These rumours are impossible to confirm but are widely believed among the local population and underline the sensitivity and uncertainty surrounding the issue of succession.

The countries' leaders are also aware that their traditional tools of political control and social discipline have been eroded over the past decade or so. The rulers use pervasive but generally discreet security and intelligence services as well as sophisticated modern tactics and technologies to help maintain their regimes - especially electronic communications media coupled with extensive censorship - but the same devices are now also accessible to those who would challenge the existing order. (Lewis 1996:59) Access to the outside world though travel, visiting foreigners, including the huge expatriate population in the three countries, adds to the difficulty in controlling the flow of ideas and influences. The advent of the Al Jazeira and Al Arabiya satellite television networks has done much to promote the spread throughout the Arab world of credible information and disparate ideas, which the ruling families might rather prefer to contain.

Finally, leaders are concerned about their capacity to contain tensions within the ruling families, which are making increasing demands on the state budget. It is estimated that in 2002 there were between 5,000 and 10,000 Saudi males who could claim the title of prince and all the benefits that entails. The number could rise to 20,000 by 2020. (Cordesman 2002:13) A similar relative growth can be seen in the UAE and in Qatar. The implications for political stability of such a development are considerable.

Put together, these pressures represent a significant challenge to the new nations and their leaders, which are acutely aware of their vulnerability. Most Gulf countries, indeed, most Arab countries, are still attempting to establish their legitimacy, domestically and internationally.
"The central problem of government in the Arab world today is political legitimacy. The shortage of this indispensable political resource largely accounts for the volatile nature of Arab politics and the autocratic, unstable character of all the present Arab governments." (Hudson 1977:2)

The response to these challenges is to develop constitutional frameworks that will allow for controlled change by providing an incentive to all groups in society to identify positively with the regimes, while entrenching the ruling families in power. An important objective is the establishment of primogeniture through constitutional provisions. Article 8 of the Qatari constitution, for example, states:
"The rule of the State is hereditary in the family of Al Thani and in the line of the male descendants of Hamad Bin Khalifa Bin Hamad Bin Abdullah Bin Jassim."

In addition, elections have been held in Qatar and even Saudi Arabia is talking about elections at the local level. (The UAE remains the one hold-out in the region, refusing to countenance such a step, at least while Sheikh Zayed is alive.) Throughout the region, women are being offered opportunities to operate in public positions. In Qatar, for example, the new constitution entitles women to run for public office (Articles 35 and 42). The Saudi Government announced in early June, 2004, that it was going to allow women to obtain commercial licences, which would enable them to own businesses in their own right. (Al Jazeira 2004)

The tribal majlis or consultative forum is a major feature of Arab politics and, at least in smaller, more manageable contexts, introduces an element of democracy or at least inclusiveness into the process. Sheikh Zayed of the UAE, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Sheikh Hamad of Qatar all regularly conduct the majlis and it is at these meetings where, in addition to citizens asking the Ruler for assistance with personal problems, major issues of state are determined. Lesser sheikhs conduct their own audiences with their followers and act as links between the ruler and the general populace.

Various refinements of this traditional consultative process have featured in the reform agenda. The Majlis Al Shura, which is established in all three countries' constitutions, is a modern, institutionalised and national version of the tribal consultative process whereby the sheikh seeks to achieve consensus among his followers. The Saudi National Reform Document of January, 2003, considered elective advisory bodies among its constitutional reform ideas. This mechanism will provide a formal framework in which policies can be debated and laws enacted.

Western governments and the media have welcomed these developments, some observers detecting movement in the direction of Western democracy among the reforming governments. (Richards and Waterbury 1998:325). They argue that the measures are the first steps as the countries move from the sheikhal system, through the more mixed tribal/monarchical system towards the Jordanian/Moroccan monarchical structure. This progress is, however, heavily qualified and, indeed, these changes need to be seen within the countries' traditional autocratic framework, the attitude of the region's populations to their states and rulers and the philosophies governing the ruling families throughout the region.

The Kuwaiti and Bahraini reform experiences have not been encouraging. The Kuwaiti constitution has been arbitrarily suspended on a number of occasions (1976-1981 and 1986-1992) and the political process continues to be dominated by a struggle between the Ruler and conservative members of the parliament. The ruler of Bahrain, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, introduced a raft of reforming measures in February, 2002, but the measures, which included Hamad declaring himself king, also gave the monarch extensive powers as head of state, commander of the armed forces and head of the executive and judicial branches of government. The King retains the power to appoint and dismisses ministers and senior officials, and to appoint the members of the parliament's upper house. The King can also amend the constitution and control the legislative agenda of the parliament. (Khalaf, Abd Al Hadi 2004: 26-29) The majority Shi'a community boycotted the first elections under the new constitution suggesting that they were not convinced by the Government's stated democratic ambitions.

Similarly ambiguous developments can be seen in the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The changes are being introduced in a top-down process that seeks to provide a controlled response to rising challenges from their growing populations, economic challenges and the increasing complexity of modern society. But the prime objective of such reforms is the maintenance of the monopoly of power in the hands of the ruling families and does not represent a commitment to true democracy or to inclusiveness in these countries. Power is still exercised arbitrarily and is not shared. Ministers and senior bureaucrats in the various governments are overwhelmingly drawn from the senior ranks of the ruling families. Political activity, including the formation of political parties remains forbidden and candidates for political office as a rule require approval by the government. The ruling families restrict the role of their parliaments to that of rubber stamps. The governments inhibit the development of social organisations to those approved and controlled by the government. They control the legal system to the extent that the courts serve as yet another arm of the government with no serious attempt to separate the judiciary from the executive. Even the education systems in the three countries are designed to discourage citizens from developing unwelcome ideas about political reform. The emphasis in their curricula is squarely on technical, scientific and business studies. Opportunities for study in the humanities are strictly limited and closely monitored.

Many of these aspects can be seen in the recent changes to the political process in Qatar. In April, 2003, Qataris approved through a referendum a constitution that was widely praised as bringing democracy to the nation. (Arab News 2003; Reuters 2004; Gulf News 2003). The constitution contains numerous guarantees of personal rights and procedures for elections that would fit comfortably in the constitution of any liberal democratic, Western constitution. It also contains, however, provisions, which have the capacity to make the democratic features irrelevant. For example, the Emir's authority, outlined in Article 67, is broadly and vaguely defined. He continues to enjoy effective control over the parliament, with wide powers to dissolve the parliament (Article 104) and to decline to approve legislation (Article 106). The results of elections have been rendered meaningless by processes in which government appointees to the parliament can frustrate measures that might challenge the dominance of the ruling family. Parliament consists of 45 members, 30 of whom will be elected and 15 appointed by the Emir (Article 77). In some instances, legislation will require a 'special majority' (Article 100), in which case, the 15 appointed members will be particularly important.

While the Gulf states' commitment to constitutional reform appears qualified, their reticence is not simply attributable to their autocratic impulses. There is also an element of concern that any release of control by the ruling families could prove to be dangerous. They are mindful of what de Tocqueville defined as a dilemma facing those who would reform a political system - that moderate reform risks unleashing forces that might prove to be uncontrollable over the longer term. Fundamentalist opposition movements might exploit any relaxation to promote their form of government. Algeria is held up as an example of what might happen but there have also been problems with conservative Islamicists closer to home in Kuwait and Bahrain. (Kapiszewski 2002:31)

The Arab states of the Arabian Peninsula represent the closest examples of the native Arab political tradition. The traditional Gulf system grew up in a context of small, relatively unorganised societies, where life was hard and loyalties beyond the family fickle. Aspects of this system can, however, be found in most of the other Arab countries and it represents a legitimate feature of an Arab political process, which has absorbed and grown with the foreign influences that the Arabs have encountered over two millennia.

The rulers of the Gulf nations, especially Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, are prominent representatives of this tradition and are faced with the challenge of ensuring that the tradition can adapt to new circumstances. Their fundamental goals include the continued dominance of their families in the face of rapidly growing populations of increased diversity and demands of government that are too complex and big to be dealt with in the traditional manner. They are having to accept a role for bureaucracy and the devolution of authority and to introduce a reliable legal framework in order for their countries to meet the challenges of an uncertain international environment and competitive economic pressures. Among the greatest of their challenges is to establish a systematic, reliable and legitimate process of leadership succession that continues to maintain effective power in the hands of the ruling family.

Such an ambition is contrary to Arab experience, with not even the Ottomans developing a satisfactory succession process, and to the dictates of Islamic law. The ruling families are attempting to exploit constitutional measures in pursuit of these goals but the exercise could provide an avenue for popular challenge to the regime over the longer term. There is limited pressure for substantive change to the current systems but that may change if economic or security circumstances were to change or when the current leadership groups pass from the scene.

At the same time, the traditional values of consultation and compromise might work against the ability of the traditional systems to survive. King Feisal's death in 1975 resulted in a failed attempt at collective rule involving senior members of the royal family. Consensus tended to prove difficult to achieve and there were occasions, for example, the 1979 attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca by a group of Moslem extremists, when the structure impeded effective action. (Owen 1999:71) The same problem is probably behind some of the failures of the Saudi authorities in responding to the recent violent incidents in the kingdom and in the Government's inability to act against individuals involved in supporting international terrorism. Tension between Crown Prince Abdullah and his half-brothers, the Sudayri Seven, is believed to be the cause of the slow pace of political and economic reform in Saudi Arabia.

At the moment, there is no indication that any ruling family in the Gulf region (or in the wider Arab world, for that matter) is willing to contemplate accepting a role as a constitutional monarch similar to the role played by the monarchies in Europe. Instead, they are attempting to use constitutional reform to reinforce their positions, while remaining unwilling to subject their roles to any control by the resulting constitutional measures or to supervision by related political practices. Given these countries' population growth and the increased knowledge and sophistication of their people, it is hard to see how such a monopoly and such attitudes can be maintained over the long term. Power will ultimately have to be shared and that will see the end of the ancien regimes of the area.

Lisa Anderson sums up the succession challenge facing governments in the Arab world:
"The states of the Middle East, for all their enormity and apparent power, no longer command the loyalty of either their rulers or their citizens. Smooth successions cannot conceal this. The monarchies, because they have (fairly) clear procedures for succession, seem best equipped to meet the immediate challenges of change (as the cases of Morocco and Jordan suggest). Still the monarchies face the more fundamental dilemma of creating a twenty-first century rationale for monarchy itself. Even more problematic is the situation in the republics (Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya), where sons of rulers have replaced or will try to replace their fathers - as though these, too, were monarchies. It all adds up to a continued personalisation of politics and a lack of political institutionalisation. Initially, then, politics in the next generation will continue to amplify the importance of the personal temperaments of rulers.

But the rulers of the next generation will have difficulties sustaining the states bequeathed to them by their founding (and, usually, biological) fathers." (Anderson 2001)


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