The ‘ruling bargain’ in the Gulf-I


Basharat Hussain Qizilbash

The Arab Spring was the high time of turmoil in the Middle East, when the rulers of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya fell one after the other like a house of cards. Many thought that the popular wave of unrest would also sweep the Persian Gulf monarchies of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman forcing the ruling Sheikhs to fall like dominoes. Why did this not happen? The answer can be found in Christopher M Davidson’s recent research on these monarchies in which he has forcefully argued that these monarchs have successfully worked out an effective ‘ruling bargain’ with their subjects at home and the governments abroad. At the domestic level, the masses are required to remain politically acquiescent and in return the monarchs are expected to shower economic benefits and ensure sufficient stability. A few examples will illustrate how this “ruling bargain” works. These monarchies act as welfare states where apart from providing free education and healthcare, the unemployed citizens are awarded a generous social security dole of $3000 per month in the wealthier monarchies and a modest sum in the relatively poor states of Bahrain and Oman. In Qatar, all nationals are eligible to get a plot and an interest-free loan of about $250,000 to build a house on it. Under a housing project, hundreds of Qatari families have been provided free housing with parks and playgrounds. In the UAE, the Sheikh Zayed Housing Programme allows its nationals to either get a government-built house or an interest-free loan to purchase a new house or claim a grant to refurbish the existing dwelling. Those nationals who are employed in the state services are not only generously paid; their jobs are also well-protected with no fear of lay-offs. To keep the loyalties of the state’s servants tied to their rulers, bewildering salary increases are announced at crucial times. A case in point was the instance when after the succession of the new ruler in UAE in 2004, the government announced a 25pc increase in the salary of all nationals serving in the public sector whereas a few days after Dubai’s economic crash.
, the state awarded an astronomical pay rise of 70pc to those citizens, who were employed in the government service.

Hefty salaries and state subsidies have encouraged the people in the Gulf to live a life of high consumption and waste with multiple vehicles per household and an uninterrupted air-conditioning. According to the World Bank figures, with 724 vehicles per thousand residents, Qatar is one of the top ten countries of the world in terms of vehicles per capita followed by Bahrain and Kuwait. Abu Dhabi has the dubious distinction of creating a very high rate of waste — six times higher than the West European countries. Similarly, excessive use of air-conditioning made Qatar the worst ranked country in the world producing 53.5 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per capita in 2008 followed by UAE and Bahrain. Cool life in times of global warming! In order to keep racial purity, social cohesion and cultural vitality, Arabs are encouraged to marry compatriots and not foreigners. Set in 1990, the Sheikh Zayed Marriage Fund granted $630 million in grants to 60,000 couples in the first decade and $19,000 to every marriage applicant whereas if Qatri men wed Qatri women, the housing allowance is doubled.Ensuring acquiescence of domestic populations is one aspect of the “ruling bargain”; winning the political acquiescence of the outside world to their unbridled authoritarianism is a greater challenge. The most developed democracies of the world are their best buddies. Arab oil was a crucial factor, not any more. These despots are also big buyers of sophisticated weaponry but then the West does not solely depend on the Arab appetite for their sales. What is it which has refrained the West, particularly Britain and the US from taking any meaningful steps to push for democracy in the Gulf. The answer lies in the ability of these monarchies to successfully project their “soft power” in the West. The question that begs an answer is how do they manage it?

The public opinion is moulded by intellectuals and academicians, who publish researches, conduct surveys, write books and pen down commentaries in specialised journals and popular magazines and newspapers. In a systematic manner, these monarchies have been sponsoring the top universities of the West as well as their academicians and research centres without any apparent strings but how can those universities that receive big grants for the establishment of research centres on their campuses and the scholars who receive their scholarships from these grants as well as the professors that are paid plump salaries and attractive fringe benefits actually risk to write serious critiques of those very monarchies on whose monies their livelihoods depend. In this way, a culture of self-censorship has taken roots in the recipient institutions.

The British universities have been the biggest recipients of the Gulf largesse. Exter University installed Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi, the ruler of Sharjah as the founding member of its College of Benefactors in 2006. He also paid for the Al-Qasimi Building housing Durham University’s School of Government and International Affairs. The UAE awarded $ 15 million to start the London School of Economics’ (LSE) new Centre for Middle Eastern Studies and an additional $ 3 million to name LSE’s main lecture theatre in the New Academic Building after Zayed Bin Sultan Al-Nahyan. The incumbent ruler of UAE paid for the Khalifa Building at the University of Wales in Lampeter while the ruling family of Dubai funded the Al-Makhtum College in Dundee accredited by the Aberdeen University. Qatar’s ruler has paid $3.5 million to Oxford University to endow a new professorship named after him whereas Saudi Arabia has donated about $ 30 million to the Oxford Centre of Islamic Studies.

The penetration of the Gulf monarchies in the academia of the US was initially less successful. Despite Israel lobby’s efforts to block such ‘gifts’ to the Harvard University and the University of Connecticut, the monarchies have made several inroads over the years. University of Arkansas has received $27 million from Saudi Arabia while the Georgetown University has set Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal Centre after receiving a gift of $20 million from Al-Waleed. Donations from the Gulf Sheikhdoms have also been received by some other leading American universities such as Cornell, Rutgers and Princeton. In addition, the Sheikhdoms have lured the “five star” universities of the West to set up their campuses in the Gulf. Their Gulf campuses have been housed in special zones such as the “Knowledge Village” in Dubai and the “Education City” in Qatar, the latter being managed by the Qatari Foundation which is headed by the wife of the ruler of Qatar and was built at the total cost of $33 billion in which the cost of one campus ranged between $100-200 million. These massive investments have enabled the monarchies to cement their relations with the world’s most established democracies and steer the “academic debate away from the domestic politics or societies of the monarchies as well as to skirt around the key ‘red line’ subjects such as political reform, corruption, human rights, and the prospects of revolution.”

The efforts to project a ‘soft image’ are not only restricted to the developed world; the poorer Arab states of the Middle East and North Africa as well as of South Asia, South East Asia and eastern Europe have also been the beneficiaries of donations from the Gulf monarchies, in particular Saudi Arabia that has spent about $ 49 billion in aid for development between 1976 and 2006 followed by UAE, Kuwait and Qatar, who have been spending about three percent of their GDP on development aid. In the case of development aid to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia provided$3 million immediately to the earthquake victims in 2005 and a follow-up assistance of $570 million whereas after the 2010 floods, Pakistan received an aid of $360 million from the Saudi government. Such huge spending has created an atmosphere of goodwill and gratitude among the poor populations of the world towards the monarchs of the Gulf. For how long will this “ruling bargain” continue to work is anybody’s guess?