Opinion and Editorial

Democracy in the Gulf

Daniel Ruffner Langberg (At Home)
Filed on October 27, 2011

As the Arab Spring ushers in a new era of political transformation throughout the Middle East and North Africa, there has been little acknowledgement that democratic principles have long been a part of tribal governance.

Although Western-style democracy has its roots in civilisations such as Athens, Sparta, and Rome, the fundamental principles that underlie the concept were not invented by any single group of people, nor are their origins confined to any one part of the world.

The latest political transformations taking place around the globe remind us that the desire for representative, fair, and accountable government is universal. Just as Western-style democracy is based in part on early Christian egalitarianism, Islamic concepts of brotherhood instill values of fairness, justice, and tolerance that are inherently democratic.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that these principles, which arise from innate aspirations and religious values, have shaped culture and societal interactions in the Arab world. In the Gulf region, their longstanding manifestation within tribal systems of governance is readily apparent.

For example, the principle of accountability is a central component of both democratic systems and traditional tribal systems in the Gulf. The relationship between the tribal leader and the people is one of reciprocity, built upon mutual trust and respect. The leader is expected to act generously and consistently on behalf of the people, earning their loyalty and support in return. Historically, this allegiance has been conditional on the leader fulfilling his end of the bargain — if the leader did not justify the people’s support, they would replace him. (i)

Traditional tribal leadership was not only accountable, but also accessible. Access to leaders enabled broad-scale participation and transparency in governance. This concept is evident in the open-door policy that many rulers in the region maintain to this day. The majilis — or ‘sitting area’ — functions like a ‘town hall meeting,’ in which people can express their views and have their voices heard. His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said of the Sultanate of Oman brought this open door policy on the road through his “royal meet-the-people tours.”

Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was likewise renowned for the time he spent out amongst the people, listening to their ideas and concerns.

Broad participation and dependence on popular support meant that tribal leaders traditionally ruled by consent. Achieving consensus through negotiation and mediation was the preferred approach to decision-making. Carrying this perspective into the realm of contemporary governance in the UAE, Shaikh Zayed said, “I am not imposing change on anyone. That is tyranny. All of us have our opinions, and these opinions can change. Sometimes we put all opinions together, and then extract from them a single point of view. This is our democracy.”

Since the era of independence, traditional tribal systems have evolved in many different directions. Nowhere in the Gulf (or around the globe) is there a nation that has mastered democracy. Yet longstanding democratic principles are present, if sometimes latent, throughout the region. Instead of “bringing democracy to the Gulf,” discussions should focus on allowing Arabs to proudly nurture the democratic principles that have long been a part of their own societies.

Recognising the organic nature of democracy in the Gulf reminds us that democratisation is by no means — politically, culturally, or otherwise — synonymous with Westernisation, Americanisation, or modernisation.

Democratisation in the Gulf will not, for example, mean adopting an American style of government (which, given the current state of political gridlock in the US, may be fortunate). (ii)

Pundits have opined that the high levels of dysfunction in the US political system are due to either too much or too little democracy. (iii)

Regardless of the cause, the debate reminds us that the United States is an ongoing experiment, and one that is by no means perfect. It is, however, uniquely American — their own experience to learn from and evolve as they see fit.

Democracy does not necessarily mean good governance, but it does mean self-governance. Self governance includes the right for people to make their own mistakes as they continue along the path of evolving government systems, which is a never-ending part of every nation’s journey.

How the innate principles of democracy will next manifest in the Gulf is yet unclear. One thing that is certain, however, is that it will be a unique creation of each nation and a product of the history, culture, and values of its people.

Daniel R. Langberg is an analyst working on issues related to governance and security


i. Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan describes these traditional tribal dynamics of reciprocity and accountability in his book, With United Strength: H.H. Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan: The Leader and the Nation (United Arab Emirates: Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, 2004), 33.

ii. Former US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates noted recently that the US has “lost the ability to execute even the basic functions of government, much less solve the most difficult and divisive problems facing the country.” (Source Liberty Medal Acceptance Speech, as delivered by Dr. Robert M. Gates, at the National Constitution Center, Philadelphia, PA, September 22, 2011).

iii. See the “Democracy in America Blog,” The Economist, www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica.

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