When President Barack Obama meets with representatives of Saudi Arabia and five other Persian Gulf emirates at Camp David on Thursday, he’s expected to raise the topic of political liberalization in their nations to make them more receptive to internal dissent.
But political analysts focused on the region say the top officials in the room are unlikely to prove very receptive. Of the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – only Kuwait has an elected parliament empowered to challenge the authority of its hereditary ruler, or emir. The parliament’s approval is required for the appointment of the crown prince.
In interviews in early April, after the announcement of a framework nuclear agreement with Iran, Obama said the biggest threat to the Gulf Cooperation Council’s six hereditary rulers wasn’t an invasion from Iran, but domestic dissatisfaction. Analysts who specialize in the region said the message was clear: Before you talk about a written security agreement, you need to do something about your internal politics.
“The administration is clearly signaling that, while it seeks strong cooperation on all matters, the security of the GCC regimes cannot be guaranteed absent some discussion of political reforms,” said Ayham Kamel, Middle East director for the Eurasia Group, a New York-based political risk research and consulting firm.
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But that simply isn’t likely to happen. “Deep political reform is off the table for the Gulf leaders,” Kamel said. Instead, the Gulf countries are likely to continue with gradual reforms, introduced after the 2011 Arab Spring upheavals, that have increased participation by the public – including women – in public policy formulation and municipal governance to some extent but haven’t decriminalized opposition to their hereditary rulers.
Only in Kuwait has there been an open show of authority outside the royal family, when Parliament forced the abdication in January 2006 of Saad al Abdullah al Sabah within days of his accession because he was too ill to effectively govern.
Elsewhere in the region, elected assemblies advise the government on public policy and enact some legislation, but they’re legally bound by oaths of allegiance to patriarchal rulers and cannot challenge their right to govern or the political decisions they make.
Political parties are banned throughout the region, even in Kuwait and Qatar, the only countries where there is universal suffrage; critics are routinely arrested and convicted on charges of plotting to overthrow the monarchy.
Even random outbursts are a crime: A UAE citizen is on trial for criticizing the country’s leaders, after saying during a heated office conversation that they’d failed to secure the country (from an undisclosed threat).
The regretful unnamed defendant told a Dubai court in late April that his outburst was the consequence of “drinking too much coffee,” according to reports in the UAE’s state-owned news outlets.
Political analysts focused on the region said the most difficult passage of Obama’s planned conversation with Gulf Arab leaders might well be about disenfranchised Shiite Muslim populations in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, where governments view them as fifth-columnists for Iran, their strategic nemesis.
The largest Shiite community in the Gulf Cooperation Council lives in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province; Shiites make up 10 to 15 percent of the kingdom’s population of about 29 million people.
Protests in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province led to the July 2012 arrest of a prominent Shiite cleric, Nimr al Nimr; an anti-terrorist court convicted him last October of inciting sectarian strife and supporting rioting, and sentenced him to death. His brother and attorney, Mohammed al Nimr, was arrested for tweeting the verdict.
Conditions have improved in recent years, according to the bipartisan federal U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which notes in its annual report this year that Saudi authorities have promoted a “culture of dialogue and understanding” between the kingdom’s Muslim communities. It says Shiites have been given somewhat more freedom to pray publicly in Eastern Province.
Fahad Nazer, a former political analyst at the Saudi embassy in Washington who now works with global intelligence adviser JTG, said topics once taboo were now openly discussed, among them women’s participation in decision-making and the efficacy of elections.
“Even the issue of human rights has now entered the Saudi political lexicon, and there is a wide consensus emerging of the necessity of protecting the dignity of all Saudis, regardless of religion, sect or gender,” he said.
But Kamel said he saw no substantial change coming over the medium term. “Shiites at large are not viewed as citizens, but as a part of society that can always be manipulated by Iran,” he said.
That’s also the case in Bahrain, an archipelago off Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province Coast that hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. Bahrain is the only Gulf Cooperation Council member in which Shiites compose a majority of the population, and its Sunni Muslim rulers have struggled to contain their democratic aspirations.
Arab Spring-inspired popular protests in 2011 would have resulted in the monarchy’s overthrow had Saudi Arabia and the UAE not dispatched tanks and troops.
Frequent clashes between protesters and the police continue. The leading parliamentary opposition group, al Wefaq, boycotted elections last November, prompting the arrest of its leader, Ali Salman, on security-related charges that carry jail sentences of between three years and life imprisonment.
The Bahrain government has reacted harshly to U.S. diplomatic engagement with its political opponents; Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, was ordered to leave the country last July after meeting members of al Wefaq.
Kamel said the repression of Shiite political activity was likely to fulfill the prophecy of increased Iranian influence.
“The lack of active engagement with the Shiite population is what distances them from their central states,” he said.