Dr. Shafeeq Ghabra, "The Gulf Today: Assessing the Impact of the Arab Transformation"

Oct. 11, 2012

An audio recording and summary of Dr. Shafeeq Ghabra's lecture at Harvard Kennedy School on September 24.



The wall of fear has collapsed.  Dr. Shafeeq Ghabra, professor of political science at Kuwait University, explained in his lecture at the Middle East Initiative last week that the transformation in the Arab world began twenty months ago because citizens were finally able to bring down this symbolic wall, refusing to let fear of the government confine them any longer.  Instead, they chose to fight for a second independence (the first being independence from colonial powers in the twentieth century) from the oppressive regimes that have towered over many countries in the Middle East for decades.  Despite differences in demographics and government structure, countries from North Africa to the Levant to the Gulf are all undergoing some type of internal shift and movement towards more representative and efficient states.  While Dr. Ghabra focused his lecture on the Gulf’s place in the Arab spring, he also spoke about changes in the entire region in his remarks to a packed audience of Harvard students, faculty and members of the community.

Attention on the transformations within the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has been considerably less compared to that of neighbors in the region.  This discrepancy can be attributed to both the extreme transformations taking place elsewhere (e.g. Egypt, Libya and Syria) and that the GCC Monarchies have historically been some of the most stable in the Middle East.  Monarchal legitimacy derives from the older tribal structures of the state and from its moderate use of coercion relative to Republics elsewhere in the region.  The tribal and relatively less coercive system served the Monarchies for decades.  In light of the Arab transformation since 2010, however, it is apparent that the older tribal systems are no longer enough.  They have outgrown their usefulness and these Monarchies cannot continue to avoid implementing major reforms and changes.

Kuwait’s visionary Emir, Abdulla Al-Salem, was able to match the activism of society in the middle of the twentieth century with a forward-thinking model for the state.  As Dr. Ghabra pointed out, his leadership was complemented by a parliament that was established in 1962.  The fifty-year-old National Assembly is certainly not immune to challenges or setbacks, but it does at least serve as a representative body for Kuwaitis.  While voting for Members of Parliament may be the norm in Kuwait, the thought of electing government officials was a distant dream for most other Arabs prior to the start of the revolutions.

In yet an even smaller Gulf country, Bahrainis have filled the streets over the past year and a half to protest discrimination and the marginalization of the Shia majority.  Previously, Shia Muslims made up 70 percent of the population; today, as a result of targeted naturalization, they represent only 60 percent.  King Hamad Al-Khalifa agreed with Bahrainis in 2001 to turn Bahrain into a constitutional monarchy, but has since failed to execute this national document.

During this tumultuous time in the Arab world, the GCC countries have been largely united in their willingness to support regime changes where necessary and to generate solutions to the political problems that paralyze so many nations in the Middle East.  Yet they have been as surprised as all other countries with the changes engulfing the region.  Some GCC countries have been ahead of others in the process of engagement, while others are undecided as to the next step.  Together, the Gulf countries have offered financial assistance, including a $20 billion aid package for Oman and Bahrain, backed a no-fly zone in Libya (before the United States did), and provided other forms of support to many countries in the region.

As the wall of fear topples in the Arab world, people are discovering more of their power and are demanding a representative government that will be accountable to its citizens.  Dr. Ghabra insinuated there is no way back, now that individuals have realized they have a voice and can shape their countries.  There must be a region-wide shift to “move forward with a vision,” instead of making futile attempts to cling to power or refusing to change.  Citizens cannot, and will not, return to the life of the past—a life of oppression and frustration.

In his concluding remarks, Dr. Ghabra emphasized that the disgraceful regimes that still stand, like Bashar Al-Assad’s in Syria, will not last much longer in this climate of change.  We may not know when they will fall, but without a doubt they will.  And if the past has been any indicator, the Gulf countries will still be grappling themselves with how to answer the outwardly unanswerable question: what is the way forward in the region and in state-society relations within the Gulf itself?

For more information on this publication: Please contact Middle East Initiative
For Academic Citation:Dr. Shafeeq Ghabra, "The Gulf Today: Assessing the Impact of the Arab Transformation".” News, , October 11, 2012.