Arabnews - By DR. CHRISTIAN KOCH -
Characterizing GCC states as counter-revolutionary runs counter to facts
The Middle East as a whole is going through an unprecedented period with events that will undoubtedly change the political landscape of the region for decades to come and have far reaching implications beyond its immediate borders.
As has been argued before, no one in the Middle East is immune from the current wave of change. This was underlined once again on Nov. 23 when President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen became effectively the fourth head of state to be toppled after the demise of the regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
Within the context of the political turmoil in the region, the general characterization of the Arab Gulf states has been one of being counter-revolutionary and as actively trying to stem themselves against the calls for change and reform. The notion is one where the GCC states are determined by all means to prevent the chaos from spreading to their own countries, to shore up their system of power, and to prop up existing regimes against their present opposition. Prominent examples to underline this line of argument is the GCC intervention in Bahrain, the vast financial spending packages that have been announced by the individual governments to placate the political demands of their population, and the announcement back in May 2011 to invite Jordan and Morocco to join the Gulf Cooperation Council as a means to bolster monarchical solidarity.
The perception that the regimes of the GCC states are inherently counter-revolutionary, however, does not hold water in the broader context. Instead, the policies of the GCC states need to be seen as avoiding at all costs the uncontrolled descent into chaos that was witnessed in Iraq between 2005 and 2008, in Libya this year and most recently and happening at the moment in Syria. The difference between protecting the status quo on the one hand and promoting stability on the other is an important one. Recent developments in fact support the contention that the GCC states are not necessarily against reform.
In Libya, it was the GCC state of Qatar that stood at the forefront of organizing the opposition from the Arab side against the Qaddafi regime with a supporting role also played by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This clear support gave Arab legitimacy to the operation which ultimately sought and resulted in regime change. In Syria, it was Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah who called for an end to the violence and bloodshed back in August 2011 and who recalled his ambassador due to the Syrian regime's intransigence. As conditions have further deteriorated, it was again the GCC that have taken the lead and that have pushed the rest of the Arab League to impose sanctions on Syria and isolate the Assad regime. The result was that GCC embassies in Damascus were attacked and burned.
Two events in the Gulf in late November in Bahrain and Yemen further underscored the policies of the GCC states. In Yemen, it was the GCC initiative and persistence of having President Ali Abdullah Saleh step down from power, a step to which he finally agreed to, which has at least opened the door for a possible solution to the political impasse in the country. Had the GCC not pushed for Saleh to relinquish his seat and power, Yemen would have surely been pushed further into a civil war with all its wide-ranging and devastating consequences. That this step alone does not solve Yemen's problems is clear but neither can it be argued that it was the GCC states who for all intent and purposes insisted on the maintenance of the status quo by protecting the Saleh regime. When it became clear that the conditions inside Yemen would not improve with Saleh in power, the GCC pushed for change. They further persisted with their initiative despite Saleh refusing numerous times to go along.
A similar case can even be made as far as Bahrain is concerned. The Peninsula Shield Forces that went into the country in March did not actively participate in the crackdown by Bahraini security forces on the opposition as the recent report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry clearly points out. Rather, they stuck to their stated intention to help protect parts of Bahrain's critical infrastructure as a way to prevent widespread chaos in the country. In addition, there is no evidence to suggest that the other GCC countries and particularly Saudi Arabia opposed the decision by the king of Bahrain to appoint an independent commission and to cooperate with its investigation.
This was an unprecedented step that again has opened the door for a possible political dialogue to overcome the divide that currently exists. The report highlighted serious rights abuses and the pressure and public view is now on the Bahraini government and its leadership to undertake necessary steps and corrections. This in turn requires changes at the political level. But instead of criticizing the commission and putting pressure on Bahrain to ignore its recommendations, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, poignantly and publicly applauded the commission's report following its release.
All of the above is not to argue that the policies pursued by the GCC states in relation to the developments of the Arab Spring are flawless or free from criticism. Naturally, these governments operate from the perspective of protecting their regimes and maintaining their rule and they judge the events in the Middle East from that context. It is, however, incorrect to simply view the Arab Gulf regimes as resisting change with all their might. Even within their own countries, reform measures have been implemented that acknowledge that the political ground under their feet is shifting. For example, the announcement of granting women political rights in Saudi Arabia or Qatar's decision to hold parliamentary elections in 2013. Small steps yes, but steps nevertheless.
The GCC states pride themselves on the relative stability they have been able to provide their populations over the past decades. It is the stability that they want to protect, not necessarily the status quo by all means.
— Christian Koch is the director of the Gulf Research Center Foundation in Geneva, Switzerland.