In September 2021, The Gulf House for Studies and Publishing issued the second edition of The Political Participation Index in the Gulf Cooperation Council Countries (PPIGCC). The Index uses ten scales to measure the extent to which the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries’ have made progress in engaging citizens in decision making and free political participation without fear of persecution.

In the following interview with Sada, Adel Marzouk, Editor-in- Chief of the Gulf House of Studies and Publishing, and president of the Bahrain Press Association, explains the reasons for the index’s disappointing findings, particularly regarding freedom of opinion and expression, the formation of political organizations, ensuring the right to political action, and the safety of practitioners.  

Marzouk details the steps that all GCC countries need to take, if they are genuine about ensuring equal citizenship rights among their people.

There is an urgent need in all Gulf countries for genuine constitutional reforms and new social contracts that guarantee people’s rights to political participation, decision making, and control of national wealth.

The findings of the Index stipulate that all GCC countries, including Kuwait, still have a long way to go in their pursuit of democracy. What measures can bring them closer to achieving this goal?

True. All GCC countries still have a long road ahead. The State of Kuwait, which came first on the PPIGCC, scored only 525 out of a total of 1,000, while the remaining countries scored below 500 points. There are, of course, some states that are slowly progressing; hoping to make bigger leaps and waiting for a genuine political will, which doesn’t seem to currently exist.

Gulf states who wish to improve, modernize, or democratize their political systems need to have the courage and resolve to develop their own internal experiences, especially in the areas that pertain most to democracy and political participation.

The Index uses 10 scales to measure political participation, and the GCC countries have all recorded disappointing results in allowing the formation of political organizations, ensuring the right to political action, and the safety of practitioners. There seem to be fundamental issues regarding equal citizenship, the laws of general elections, and the effectiveness and jurisdiction of elected councils. We are currently undertaking a new project that deals with these important issues as they seem to be occurring in all the Gulf countries.

Qatar scored higher on the index after the Shura Council elections, but other Gulf states that held legislative elections still fell behind. What do you think is the problem with elections in the Gulf? 

It is premature to pass judgement on the Qatari experience right now. The elections have definitely improved the country’s position in two of the Index’s scales, bringing it forward to third position this year. But it should be noted that Qatar has adopted some unfair policies that jeopardized equal citizenship rights when it came to political participation in the elections; a recurring dilemma in many Gulf states, particularly Bahrain, UAE, and Kuwait.

The performance of the Qatari Shura Council during its first session will be decisive. Whether the council addresses this problem or ignores it will be indicative of whether it will make substantial differences in public life or become marginal and fade into the background.

The Index shows that Gulf states, in general, face multiple problems and challenges with regard to general elections and political organization. Some states dipped their toes into the waters of parliamentary governments and Shura Councils (with elected or appointed members), but they, unfortunately, stifled these promising experiments with sundry restrictions and constrictive laws and legislations that eventually prevented them from effecting change or enforcing accountability. 

Some of these laws manifest themselves in arbitrary voter disenfranchisement, unfair division of electoral district, and serious limitation of the power and jurisdiction of elected bodies, which dilutes their role and makes it non-binding to the executive authorities.

There is an urgent need in all Gulf countries for genuine constitutional reforms and new social contracts that guarantee people’s rights to political participation, decision making, and control of national wealth.

The Index also shows a striking regression in the scale of ‘Freedom of Opinion and Expression’ in all Gulf states, including Kuwait, who usually scores high in this criterion. What do you think happened? What made Gulf governments more restrictive of this freedom?

Gulf states, unfortunately, have shown a noticeable decline in freedom of opinion and expression. Governments in the GCC control media outlets and maintain a tight grip on the Internet through a complicated set of rules and regulations. The freedom and safety of individuals in the GCC becomes jeopardized if they contradict the policies and worldviews of the rulers, and with the exception of Oman, the GCC countries lack laws criminalizing discrimination and policies combating hate speech and incitement of violence. 

All Gulf states have little tolerance for negative criticism, yet the severity with which they deal with journalists and political and social activists vary. With the eruption of the Arab Spring in 2011, the GCC experienced a period of confusion as to how to deal with independent reporting, free speech, and citizen journalists. Today they have become proficient in the surveillance of journalists and in curbing the proliferation of free speech, particularly on social media platforms. More often than not, the judiciary severely stifles freedom of expression.

According to the Index, why are Gulf states so reluctant, and even apprehensive, to bring about a democratic transition? Why do their leaders increasingly seek autocratic decision making? 

There are major challenges when it comes to such a transition. Monarchies do not turn into democracies voluntarily. There is also no real pressure from the people of the Gulf to change the ruling systems and the methods of governance. In fact, most of the Gulf governments have derived their historical legitimacy by assuming the role of the benevolent stabilizers, so to speak. As long as the state provides for its citizens and looks after their welfare, they will refrain from demanding political participation or decision making and cannot hold the government accountable! 

And although some Gulf states are currently experiencing difficult economic conditions and high unemployment rates, they still rely on their historic legitimacy, which sometimes suffers turbulences in the form of internal protests and political unrest. This only confirms the desperate need for new social contracts that guarantee public participation in political decision making.

The Gulf states cannot turn a blind eye to the global changes that are affecting their citizens. Most countries around the world are run by democratically elected governments, and although we concede that Gulf monarchies have what can be described as an ‘exceptional’ form of political rule, and we certainly do not expect them to turn into republics, this ‘exceptionalism’ should help them escalate the democratic transition and gradually become constitutional monarchies and emirates. Gulf ‘exceptionalism’ should actually be a catalyst for smooth transition and nothing more.

But we should remember that there are other challenges stemming from within the traditional Gulf communities themselves. If we are to remain truthful and realistic in our analysis, we must admit that many of the decisions and policies the ruling houses issue to advocate for openness and acceptance of others are generally met with resistance from their conservative subjects. In fact, many Gulf societies are defiant and sometimes even abhorrent of the concepts of democracy, liberalism, secularism, and political parties.

In summation, we need to overcome several internal and external challenges to reach democracy. The governments of the Gulf must have the will and desire for political reform and the masses need to undergo major change of attitude when it comes to their semi-anti-democratic culture that frowns upon individual freedoms.

There is an urgent need in all Gulf countries for genuine constitutional reforms and new social contracts that guarantee people’s rights to political participation, decision making, and control of national wealth.

How can Gulf governments benefit from the results of the Index?

The Index provides a clear insight into the weaknesses and strengths of each Gulf state. Kuwait, for instance, will realize, through the results of the index, that they have significant challenges regarding the legislation of political parties, the resolution of the Bidoon (stateless) issue, and the discrimination among citizens’ political participation in the elections. Oman will also recognize that they need to work harder to improve their abysmal score on the scales of general election, transparency, and political organization.
Whenever we publish the report, we make sure it is delivered to the governments of all Gulf states, as well as to concerned international institutions. We usually receive all kinds of feedback, which is appreciated regardless of whether it was positive or negative. 

What about the general public and the civil society in the Gulf states? How is the index beneficial to them?

The index yields some interesting insights into the work of civil society organizations that will hopefully help them improve and become more present and effective. We noted that in some Gulf countries there are no institutions, associations, or groups that are active or concerned with transparency and control of public funds. Other Gulf communities displayed a complete apathy regarding monitoring or defending freedom of opinion and expression. The research also shows that there is a general need among Gulf states to have public discourse about the monopolization of leadership positions by the ruling families and specific tribes.
The index provides useful and detailed information on all scales with which civil society organizations in the GCC are concerned. We, as researchers, are interested in the way they react to the results of the index because it will help us improve it and reach the goal of this project.

Based on the results of the index, what actions can the Gulf states take to maintain their stability and take actual steps towards democracy?

Every GCC country has its own unique political experience. What is deemed urgent for Kuwait or Oman, for instance, can be a second priority to Bahrain or UAE. There are, obviously, common problems; the most important of which is the need to have elected parliamentary institutions that have real power and jurisdiction and can actually take part in decision making and in holding the executive branches of the state accountable.
There is no doubt that the Gulf countries need to have public discourses about the social contracts they have in place. It might be time for some of them to draw new ones and to have legitimate constitutions that ensure and protect the political rights of the people, allowing them to be actively involved in political participation, decision making, and in running their countries’ wealth.

Rafiah Al Talei is the Editor-in-Chief for Sada in Carnegie’s Middle East Program, follow her on Twitter @raltalei.