Why reform in the Gulf monarchies is a family feud

Kuwait and Bahrain have had two different experiences during the winter of Arab discontent. Manama has witnessed the violent suppression of popular protests, followed by the largest mass demonstrations in the state's history. The standoff between the al-Khalifa regime and the protesters continues. Kuwait has had its own issues, with a much less violent confrontation between political activists and security forces in late 2010, before the events in Tunisia got rolling, and more recent protests by stateless residents (biduns) seeking political and economic equality. But the largest public gathering of Kuwaitis during this period was in late February, when young and old took to the streets to celebrate 50 years of Kuwaiti independence under al-Sabah rule and the 20th anniversary of their liberation from Iraq in 1991. Despite these differences, these two small states -- which combine a ruling family with an elected parliament -- demonstrate how difficult political reform will be in the Persian Gulf monarchies.

The Gulf states are ruled by what Michael Herb, in his 1999 book All in the Family: Absolutism, Revolution, and Democracy in Middle Eastern Monarchies, dubbed "dynastic monarchies." Unlike monarchies in Jordan and Morocco, where the king rules but leaves the day-to-day operations of government to commoner prime ministers and cabinets, in the Gulf states (with the partial exception of Oman) whole families rule. The king or emir (prince) sits atop the pyramid, but ruling family members also fill many other important political positions, in the cabinet, the military, and other government agencies.

Before the unrest began in Bahrain, the prime minister, three of the four deputy prime ministers, and 10 of the 23 cabinet ministers were from the al-Khalifa family. They included the ministers of finance, foreign affairs, interior, defense, justice and Islamic affairs, and housing. Two of the al-Khalifa ministers were fired by the king in late February, but that hardly means an end to family rule in Bahrain. In Kuwait, the prime minister, the first deputy prime minister, two of the three deputy prime ministers, and eight of the 21 ministers are from the al-Sabah family. They include the ministers of defense, interior, foreign affairs, oil, and housing. The governor of the Kuwaiti Central Bank is also an al-Sabah. Similar proportions of ruling family members can be found in the cabinets of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE. The Sultan of Oman himself holds the portfolios of prime minister, minister of defense, minister of foreign affairs, minister of finance, and governor of the central bank -- fewer family members in the government but no less of a hold on power by the al-Said family. Government in the Gulf is a family affair.

The dynastic nature of the Gulf monarchies helped them survive the last period of political upheaval in the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s. They were not "one bullet" regimes. The families had a range of talent upon which to draw to run the state. Their wide presence in society provided a built-in intelligence service, keeping the families close to those they ruled. They knew what was going on and thus did not get too far ahead of, or fall too far behind, their subjects. Many heads were better for monarchical survival than the single heads of monarchs in Egypt, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen that were lopped off, either figuratively or literally, in the Arab revolts of that earlier age.

While family rule served the cause of regime stability for the past 40 years, the nature of the current demands raised by political activists in Bahrain and Kuwait are turning the dynastic nature of these regimes into a stumbling block on the road to reform, if not into a potential liability for the rulers themselves. Those Bahraini protesters who are not demanding the replacement of the entire regime are, at a minimum, calling for a government that will be responsible to parliament. In Kuwait, the immediate situation is not as dire for the al-Sabah. However, the recent history of tension and stalemate between the government and the parliament contains a similar logic. Prime Minister Sheikh Nasir Muhammad al-Sabah has presided over six governments and three elections in the last five years and just barely survived a no-confidence vote in January. Kuwaiti opposition groups are now calling not only for a new prime minister, but also for constitutional changes that will require the government (now appointed directly by the emir) to receive a vote of confidence from parliament before it can take up office. Reform petitions in Saudi Arabia are calling for the separation of the offices of king and prime minister (which have been jointly held since 1964) and an elected rather than appointed legislative body with the power to remove ministers through confidence votes.

It is highly unlikely that cabinets responsible to elected parliaments will comprise as many members of the ruling families as is the case now. So while Gulf kings and emirs can keep their jobs in political deals that make concessions to protesting citizens, becoming more like their friends in Jordan and Morocco, their relatives will very likely lose theirs. Since the first constituency of any dynastic monarch is his own family, proposing political reforms that would vastly decrease family power is likely to excite opposition not just to the reforms, but possibly to the ruler himself. It would take a strong figure to bring his family to heel and accept such a reduced political role. Both the al-Sabah and the al-Khalifa contain plenty of divisions and factions that could be mobilized against the rulers, and neither King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa nor Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah has the reputation as uncontested leader of his extended family. Should either respond to opposition demands and propose constitutional changes that make their governments more responsible to parliament, political reform in the Gulf states could very well become a family feud.

F. Gregory Gause III is a professor of political science at the University of Vermont and author of The International Relations of the Persian Gulf

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Why Israel's occupation is not coming to an end

Political leaders all over the world indulgently believe they can convince Israel's politicians to end the occupation of Palestinian territory with doomsday scenarios and clever arguments, despite decades of experience to the contrary. It is more prudent to reason, however, that the determination to end Israel's occupation will be based on the same factors that all politicians consider when coming to a decision. How does the status quo affect me? What will it take politically to carry out long-term change? The unfortunate reality is that Israeli leaders today have little immediate incentive to confront the challenge of bringing the occupation to an end, despite the dire long-term implications of failing to do so. Therefore, instead of waiting for the day that a visionary Israeli statesman comes along, the world must take a stand and change the current cost-benefit analysis of occupation that Israeli politicians have thus far determined to be agreeable.

It is important to understand that the occupation of Palestinian land following the war of 1967 posed an immediate and irreconcilable dilemma for Israeli leaders. More than any other territory, Israel sought to keep the West Bank; however, it did not wish to incorporate the substantial Palestinian population already living there. It was a clear case of Israel wanting the dowry but not the bride, and today's situation is a direct manifestation of that dilemma.

During the proceeding decades, the occupation of Palestinian territory was a fairly low-cost enterprise. Israel's military directly administered all aspects of daily life for the Palestinian population and provided minimal services as part of its responsibility as an occupying power. Then, during the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s, the political and military cost of controlling a civilly disobedient Palestinian population proved too much for Israel. For the first time, Israel was forced to deal with the national aspirations of the Palestinian people, the ultimate outcome of which was the Oslo Accords signed in 1993 on the White House lawn.

This interim agreement was intended to gradually draw back the occupation and replace it with Palestinian institutions, culminating in Israel's recognition of the Palestinian state. The actual result, however, was nearly the opposite: The newly created Palestinian National Authority gained relative control over direct population centers while the Israeli military deepened its occupation everywhere else. In essence, Israel relinquished direct responsibility over the people while continuing to claim the benefit reaped from the land. The interim phase of Oslo gave Israeli leaders the status quo they always desired and the illusion of an answer to the long-standing dilemma of their occupation. Today, not only does Israel not pay for the occupation, but the country actually turns a profit from keeping it in place and the incentive to bring it to an end has largely faded from Israeli public consciousness.

Indeed, commercial profiteering from the Israeli settlement enterprise spans every sector of the economy and has become -- what many would term -- big business. For example, Israel maintains complete military and administrative control over the Jordan Valley, the area of land directly west of the Jordan River that comprises approximately 30 percent of the West Bank. The Jordan Valley not only has significant natural resources; it is also the agricultural breadbasket of the West Bank and includes the Dead Sea, another major source of income. Israel operates an entire agribusiness industry out of the Jordan Valley whose products make their way to markets all over the world.

Israel also maintains control over, and free access to, Palestine's natural resources, including its electromagnetic sphere and vital water aquifers, not to mention Israel's decades-long reliance on Palestinian cheap labor. In fact, of the 800 million cubic meters of water drawn annually from aquifers in the occupied West Bank, Israel takes 688 million cubic meters and sells much of it back to Palestinians for commercial profit.

Moreover, Israel currently operates several major stone quarries on occupied land that it uses to produce cut stone and cement. While denying Palestinians the right to build their own cement factories, Israel exports 2 million tons of cement annually to Palestinians. Additionally, Israel has prohibited Palestinians from building their own electric power plants, although they remain able and have been offered assistance in that endeavor from third parties for years. Consequently, Palestinians buy 97.7 percent of their electricity from the Israel Electricity Corporation. Essentially, Israel is preventing Palestinians from building capacity so that, unable to provide for themselves, they can continue to exploit their markets.

The most blatant and well-known offense, however, is the restriction regime imposed by Israel on movement for Palestinians in the occupied territory. This regime raises the cost of doing business for Palestinians, giving Israeli companies a distinct competitive advantage in the Palestinian marketplace. Go to any Palestinian grocery store, and you will find it full of Israeli products because Palestinians have little viable alternative. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. The list of commercial profiteering goes on and on; from tourism to construction to defense, Israel is making money from the occupation.

All of this distracts Israeli leaders from the reality that the occupation of Palestine is becoming a new form of apartheid. The moment Israel began transferring its civilian population to occupied territory was the moment this tragic process began. In so doing, Israel has created an entire system that facilitates the process of separation for the benefit of one people over another. Separate laws, roads, infrastructure, and the settlements are the living, breathing reality of the occupied Palestinian territory. Unless all of this can be dismantled, the two-state compromise will be an empty slogan with no future, and as many are beginning to forecast, it could help shape an uglier result to the dramatic regional shifts now in motion. But taking the initiative to prevent this outcome will not happen without incentive because the short-term costs and benefits remain in Israel's favor.

Unfortunately, the diplomatic process that was meant to achieve a permanent agreement in five years in the mid-1990s has been perpetuated for over 15, with the Palestinians being told they have no other recourse to freedom outside of negotiations. One only has to read the documents released by Al Jazeera and the Guardian to see for themselves that, even in negotiations, Israel has not been interested in reaching a final settlement that does not satisfy the aim of retaining its presence in the occupied territory. The United States has been complicit in this effort by blocking any initiative to resolve the Palestinian question outside of endless bilateral negotiations. The decision by the United States to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution reaffirming Israeli settlements as illegal is the most recent and illuminating example of this policy.

On the other hand, many Israeli leaders, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman -- who actually lives in an illegal settlement in the West Bank -- have argued that a two-state solution cannot be reached anytime in the near future. Instead, Lieberman proposes a solution of interim borders. Similarly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been pushing the initiative of a so-called "economic peace." Both of these are forms of maintaining the status quo that only serve to destroy the possibility of two states by allowing the settlement enterprise to further entrench itself. However, the time for half measures and interim agreements is over. The answer to political immobility lies in affecting the decision-making process by essentially altering the cost-benefit balance of continued occupation.

There are several ways to produce this desired result. First and foremost, the international community must make it clear to Israel that there will be a political and economic price tag to its continued occupation. Simply scolding the Israelis is not enough to get them to act -- the international community must respond with economic and political pressure. Third states should act on their obligations as defined by the International Court of Justice and ban Israel's settlement goods from their markets. The United Nations Security Council should reinforce these bans with practical steps to identify and prevent third parties from doing business with, or in, the settlements. The Palestinian government has already adopted this approach and has taken the initiative to differentiate and boycott products coming from settlements. This policy does not deviate from international consensus on settlements, but rather provides a practical way for states to implement their declared positions in order to increase the political and financial costs of occupation.

A golden opportunity has also presented itself to the Palestinians, and they must seize this moment or risk losing it forever. Far from hurting or limiting their abilities, the end of negotiations has freed the Palestinians to act in their own best interests. The twin pillars of Palestinian national liberation, armed struggle and bilateral negotiations, have both been discredited for a failure to produce positive results. Yet all around them change is sweeping across the region through the force of "people power" being won on the hard work and sacrifice of their Arab neighbors. Although Palestinians have not been ruled for decades under the iron fist of a homegrown dictator, they have been oppressed and continually dispossessed by the strong arm of occupation. The exercise of popular nonviolent struggle against the instruments of occupation and the settlements should become the modus operandi of a neo-Palestinian liberation movement. In the same vein as Palestinians already peacefully protesting against Israel's wall in places like Budrus and Bilin, Palestinians across the territories must confront such instruments anywhere and everywhere they exist with vast, organized, and peaceful demonstrations. This includes the borders, beyond which large communities of refugees have been waiting in vain for 62 years for a resolution to their awful predicament.

As long as Israel is benefiting from the present state of affairs, it is unreasonable to expect Israeli politicians to dramatically alter the current situation in exchange for what may likely be large-scale upheaval. Moreover, the nature of Israel's fragmented political structure, where small parties wield disproportionate leverage, does not allow change to come easy. The best way to overcome this is through exerting pressure on the Israeli center by making it politically and economically inconvenient to support the status quo. Such action will have a dramatic impact on the way Israeli politicians perceive the settlement enterprise and the future of occupation. The era when Israel's occupation pays dividends must come to an end. Only then will we see a change.

Omar H. Rahman is an at-large journalist covering sociopolitical issues in the Middle East region. He is a former advisor to the Palestinian negotiations team and is currently based in Ramallah.

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