Sheiks give modernity a try

Posted in Other | 15-Apr-04 | Author: Stanley Weiss| Source: International Herald Tribune

The Gulf

DUBAI - Forget "Old Europe" versus "New Europe." The great political, economic and social fault lines today separate the "Old Middle East" from the "New Middle East" and run right through the tiny sheikdoms of the Gulf.

Here in the glitzy Las Vegas of the Middle East, tradition and modernity collide. The $1 billion Burj al Arab hotel, built in the shape of a giant spinnaker, towers over small wooden dhows that still ply the Gulf. Women in the latest Armani fashions share the sidewalks with devout Muslim women shrouded in black. Mercedes share the roads with camels. Soon, the call to prayer will compete with the sounds of construction for Dubailand, the United Arab Emirates' $5 billion version of Disneyland.

Yet perhaps the most stunning contrast in the region lies about 200 miles to the west. From its studios in Doha, Qatar, Al Jazeera television pumps its incendiary broadcasts across the region, irritating Western and Arab governments alike. Visible from the Al Jazeera offices, the Al Udeid Air Base is the largest American military installation in the region and served as the nerve center for the invasion of Iraq.

As Washington attempts to plant the seed of democracy in Iraq and spread reform across the region, a new generation of Arab leaders is turning the Gulf states into incubators for innovative experiments in political and economic change.

In a region decried for its "freedom deficit," these small states have taken tentative steps toward democracy. After deposing his father in a bloodless coup, Qatar Emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani presided over his country's first municipal elections in 1999. Urged on by his progressive outspoken wife, Sheikha Mouza, women voted and ran for office for the first time in the Gulf.

Since succeeding his father in 1999, Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa has freed political dissidents, loosened security laws, and tolerated a more open press. Bahrain, the first Gulf nation to discover oil, then became the first to permit parliamentary elections open to women.

Even in Oman, where Sultan Qaboos bin Said still wields absolute power, citizens were allowed to vote last year for a national consultative council, to which two women were elected.

While the rest of the Arab Middle East stagnates with closed economies, these bustling commercial city-states are integrating themselves into the global economy. With most sectors open to 100 percent foreign ownership, Bahrain ranks as the most open economy in the Arab world.

Here in the United Arab Emirates, with the second most free economy, the seven ruling families have deliberately and dramatically reduced their economic dependence on oil. Dubai is littered with campuses - Investment City, Internet City and Media City - that bring the world economy to its doorstep. Nearly 75 percent of gross domestic product now comes from non-oil sources. For the first time, tourism last year generated more revenue than oil.

These innovators are surging ahead of their tradition-bound neighbors. Across the "old" Middle East, less than 2 percent of Arabs have Internet access. But the United Arab Emirates now surpasses even high-tech Israel as the country in the region with the highest percentage of citizens online.

More than being oil-rich, long-term prosperity demands that these sheikdoms be people-rich. Qatar's Sheik Hamad invited the RAND Corporation to help reform the nation's schools and last fall unveiled Education City, a $1 billion campus to bring Western universities to the Gulf. Here in Dubai, foreign academics and medical students converge on the campuses of Knowledge City and Health-care City.

To be sure, autocratic habits die hard. Despite having the region's oldest legislative body, Kuwait's on-again-off-again parliament highlights the limits of Gulf democracy. Political parties are unheard of. Dynastic families that have ruled for centuries will not easily relinquish their political and economic monopolies.

The giants to the north and south still pack a punch. Whether Iran first builds a democracy or a nuclear bomb will have enormous political and security implications across the Gulf. Saudi Arabia remains the heavyweight in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. When Riyadh objected to President George W. Bush's Greater Middle East Initiative, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirages fell into line and helped torpedo last month's Arab summit in Tunis.

But at last, the democratic contagion may even be spreading south. Watching its neighbors reap the benefits of modernity, Saudi Arabia finally may begin to abandon its medieval ways. Last year's terrorist attacks in the kingdom also appear to have scared Riyadh straight. The ruling family has pledged to hold the nation's first elections, for new municipal councils, by October.

President John F. Kennedy once observed that "those who make peaceful revolutions impossible make violent revolutions inevitable." These traditionally conservative Gulf countries won't resemble Jeffersonian democracies anytime soon. But by making limited political, economic and social reform possible, they have taken the first steps toward a more stable region where violent revolution is not inevitable.

Stanley A. Weiss is founder and chairman of Business Executives for National Security, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington.