Gulf Monarchies and the Arab Spring: The Reasons Behind Their Survival

Hamza Iftikhar

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sits with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members before meeting via Wikimedia Commons

Mohammed Bouazizi – the Tunisian fruit vendor, famously known for his act of self-immolation due to severe living conditions he was encountering, along with the majority living there. His action outside the governor’s office triggered not only a revolution in Tunisia but also initiated what came to be known as the ‘Arab Spring’. Since its inception on 17th December 2010, heads of states have been toppled across the region (twice in the case of Egypt and Yemen), while some nations such as northern Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen are still in the state of brutal civil war. Yet ruling powers in the Gulf are successfully intact in spite of severe turmoil in the neighbourhood. How? There are number of reasons to justify how Middle Eastern monarchies have successfully managed to persist during and post-Arab Spring, however this article will only focus on the major four.

One of the important and most commonly recognized explanation for Gulf States’ survival is their huge wealth due to vast reserves of natural resources, such as oil. The revenues by cashing these valuable resources has resulted in tremendous amount of wealth for the monarchies, which in turn enable them to buy off people’s hopes for any representation. This has been achieved in many ways. Firstly, considerable reduction of taxes and heavily subsidized basic commodities has more than satisfied the general population. As a result, the desire for representation gradually decreased, successfully reversing the eighteenth century slogan “no taxation without representation” to “no representation without taxation”. Secondly, due to having relatively low indigenous population in contrast to huge wealth, the Gulf States have been maintaining the highest per capita fuel income compared to other MENA countries since 2006. According to World Bank statistics, the highest Gross National Income per capita in the region is of Qatar with a whopping $86,790.

Egyptian protestors gathered at Tahrir Square, Cairo via Wikimedia Commons

In addition to possessing huge wealth, the other factor which has assisted the Gulf Monarchies’ existence is disguised democratization. Authoritative rulers of these states have been very cautious when witnessing the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, fearing the same fate for themselves. This in turn led them to instantly introduce, although minor, political reforms. As soon as the wave of protests hit Egypt after Tunisia, Jordan’s King Abdullah II was the first amongst his GCC counterparts to offer political concessions by sacking his Prime Minister and avoiding deterioration of street protests. Not only once, but in order to avoid his country becoming the next Tunisia or Egypt, the King of Jordan sacked a total of four Prime Ministers in just two years. Similar reshuffling of cabinet was witnessed in Oman shortly after downfall of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Moreover, Kuwait’s Prime Minister Nasser was also forced to step down after continued protests by thousands of Kuwaitis. Bahrain’s King Hamad went as far as giving out $2,650 to every Bahraini family in the country. When that didn’t stop people from protesting, the government requested help from GCC to suppress the protests, upon which Saudi Arabia gladly marched in to put down the unrest. Saudi Arabia itself offered massive economic concessions which included; $11 billion for housing loans, social services and education, and a 15% pay raise for state employees. This was followed by the Kingdom’s second-ever municipal election in October 2011.

Arguably, relationship with the neighbouring MENA states as well as with the West also matters if we are talking about survival in region that has great geopolitical significance. To understand this, we have to look at Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, who also had similar volume of wealth as its Gulf counterparts. With 9th largest Oil reserves in the world, Gaddafi had no shortage of revenue to spend on his people, and he did. Yet, why Gaddafi faced an even brutal fate than his neighbours Ben Ali and Mubarak? The necessity of having good relations with fellow Arab neighbours and the west, was not the very best of Gaddafi’s qualities. Known for his critical outspoken remarks against regional neighbours and the West, Gaddafi and the Gulf Monarchies (especially Saudi Arabia) did not see eye to eye. This can be very well understood in Gaddafi’s comment to King Abdullah at Arab Summit of 2009, “It has been six years you have been avoiding a confrontation with me. You are propelled by fibs towards the grave and you were made by Britain and protected by the US.” Perhaps this is one of the reason why NATO’s intervention in Libya got such a unanimous support from the Arab leaders. The lack of love Gaddafi engendered in his fellow regional counterparts, also resulted in Qatari boots on the ground and Egypt’s extensive weapons support to the rebels in Libya, even before the Security Council resolution of 1973 was passed. The survival of Gulf States doesn’t come as a surprise after all, especially when one looks at the close cooperation amongst GCC states as well as their relationship with the West.

Lastly, allegiance of the military has proved to be of great significance for the survival of the Middle Eastern regimes. Loyalty within the security forces in Gulf States is often based on blood linked family members who are in charge of central positions within the armed forces. This in turn assures the monarchs that if any potential revolt or uprising were to take place, the military will remain loyal to the throne. The significance of this factor can be seen when analysing what happened in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. One of the aiding factors to successful Tunisian regime change was its army chief Rachid Ammar’s decision to turn against President Ben Ali. Following Ben Ali’s removal, the Egyptian military also vowed not to use force against the protesters in Tahrir Square. Simultaneously in Yemen, several top military commanders declared their support for anti-government protestors and deployed army units for their security. The fate of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen surely supports the significance of loyal military and how it has been crucial for the survival of Gulf Monarchies.

What lies ahead for the MENA region is hard to predict, but judging upon the current state of turmoil, one cannot be much optimistic either.

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