Gulf citizens must do more to push political reforms

Gulf citizens must do more to push political reforms
One of the key barriers to more reform in the Arab Gulf nations is the traditional understanding of concepts like citizenship, rights and duties, argues Dr. Hend Al Muftah.
5 min read
02 Dec, 2015
The Gulf is moving slowly but steadily towards broader participation, but more is needed [AFP]

Perhaps the most trending buzzwords in popular and media discourse in Arab countries after the Arab Spring have been democracy, human rights and citizenship.

The Gulf countries, which are not isolated from events in the region and beyond, are not an exception.

In one degree or another, the Arab Spring marked the beginning of a shift in the relationship between the state and citizens.

Things have started moving gradually from a relationship of dependence and welfare, to a citizenship-based relationship focusing on participation in national policies and decisions.

In the Arab Spring countries, bottom-up demands for citizenship-based governance have taken different forms, from public discontent to revolution all the way to outright conflict.

The Gulf: a different path

The Gulf countries have been a separate case.

In the Gulf, citizenship has been exercised through top-down constitutional frameworks.

The Gulf states have established Shura councils, municipal councils, parliaments and human rights commissions

In other words, citizenship in the Gulf is intimately linked to the state and its institutions, and the extent at which they are open and developed.

The Gulf nations responded to demands for citizenship-based governance by establishing civil institutions and initiatives.

The Gulf states established Shura councils, municipal councils, parliaments, human rights commissions and a myriad other civil society organisations.

Traditions still an obstacle

However, establishing "institutionalisation" in the Gulf faces many restrictions arising from the general traditional context of Gulf societies, which all share a solid connection to tribal structures, as well as the rentier-welfare state.

Indeed, the modern notion of citizenship is incompatible with a state based on tribalism or sectarianism.

The debate in the Gulf continues to centre on the ability of Gulf states to include Gulf citizens as real participants in decision-making.

The modern notion of citizenship is incompatible with a state based on tribalism or sectarianism

It also revolves around how much Gulf citizens have assimilated concepts like citizenship and democracy as a political model and a culture.

There is a lot to gain from citizenship-based and governance in the Gulf.

In addition to overcoming traditional tribal identities in politics, economic disparities could also be corrected and women, youths, the elderly and people with special needs, among many others, could be empowered.

Perhaps it is the fact that citizenship in the Gulf had originated historically and then constitutionally from the top ruling class, that explains the disparity in rights and duties between Gulf citizens, and consequently, the disparity in their participation in policy- and decision-making.

Citizenship in the Gulf did not emerge from the bottom up which would have otherwise allowed citizens to draft constitutions and enshrine themselves as a reference point for legislation and policy.

For this reason, some in the Gulf still perceive citizenship as a collection of acquired and inherited rights and duties.

But a more apt and comprehensive approach would be to see citizenship as a system of principles, beginning with rights and duties that citizens should have and exercise, but also includes national belonging, identity and political and civil participation.

Demographic challenges

Perhaps the main challenge facing the Arab Gulf countries with respect to enhancing citizenship-based governance is the imbalance in their demographic composition.

Some in the Gulf still perceive citizenship as a collection of acquired and inherited rights and duties

The imbalance is the result of overlapping political, social and economic factors that accumulated over the past few decades.

To be sure, the traditional approach to economic development encouraging consumerism instead of production meant that unskilled labour had to be imported in large numbers, accounting for over 70 percent of the foreign workforce even today.

Meanwhile, education systems have not kept up with the needs of the national economies and labour markets of the Gulf.

This is not to mention the small size of the native populations, not exceeding 13 percent of the total populations of Qatar and the UAE for example.

Native populations became minorities in their countries, amid a blend of races, identities, and cultures, mostly from East Asia.

This has invited pressure on Gulf countries on various issues: from labour and human rights, to religious freedoms, not to mention potentially calling for full political and citizenship rights for expatiates, and a route for them to be naturalised.

The other challenge will be how to integrate citizenship into the educational systems, beyond teaching civic education and singing national anthems.

Rather, the education system must keep up with the major political and social challenges and transformations bearing down on the Gulf.

Final notes

It may seem that the continuation of the Gulf top-down constitutional approach in promoting citizenship-based governance is the most likely to succeed.

The education systems must keep up with major political and social transformations bearing down on the Gulf

Yet there is nothing to prevent a parallel bottom-up track that would reinforce the first approach, one goal being to enhance accountability and transparency at all levels.

This two-pronged approach to enhancing citizenship-based governance can very well immunise society against many if not all foreign influences and pressures.

Therefore, the Gulf countries must realise that citizenship requires positive engagement in both directions, and participation in shaping policy and decisions.

All segments of the citizenry must be integrated into all-inclusive national frameworks based on equal rights.

It is also high time Gulf citizens themselves understood citizenship not as an inherited social status and a set of entitlements, but as a set of rights and duties, in the form of participation, empowerment and accountability.

Dr. Hend Al Muftah is an Associate Professor of Human Resources Management at Qatar University, and a columnist at Al Arab Qatari newspaper. She is author of Issues in Management.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.