Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme

Every country in the Middle East is being affected in some way by the wave of Arab unrest. The oil-rich Gulf monarchies are no exception.

This week, two protestors were shot by the police in Oman, normally a sleepy and conservative country. Bahrain, which has more of a history of protest, experienced a dramatic escalation in violence earlier this month, when seven protestors were killed by the security forces. Serious questions are now being asked about the potential for unrest in Saudi Arabia, the Arab world's biggest economy and the world's largest oil exporter, where the grievances are many but the outlets for political expression are few.

The six oil-exporting Gulf monarchies - with a combined GDP of nearly US$ 1trn - have been close allies of the UK for over a century. The UK was instrumental in consolidating the power of the Gulf royal families during the era of the British empire. British political influence is still significant today, but the GCC countries' modern-day wealth means they have more power in the partnership than they did in the past. They are important providers of energy and portfolio investment, as well as destinations for British exports and direct investment, all of which was highlighted on the British prime minister David Cameron's recent tour of the Middle East.

Mr Cameron has faced some domestic criticism for saying that there was no contradiction between supporting Arab democracy and selling arms to "democratic" governments like Kuwait's (which has the strongest parliament in the Gulf but can hardly be described as a full democracy). Oman was the final stop on his Middle East tour, two days before the protestors were shot. Meanwhile, Bahrain has repeatedly been singled out for Western praise for carrying out limited political reforms, even though the reform process had been stagnating for years. This month, however, the UK revoked more than 40 licences for British companies to export arms there.

Handout time

So far, the Gulf governments have responded to the regional unrest with a mixture of heavyhanded policing and economic handouts, but have avoided structural political reforms. Violent crackdowns in Bahrain and Oman simply brought more protestors onto the streets. Meanwhile, Kuwait and Bahrain have promised financial gifts, Saudi Arabia offered a US$ 37bn package of new public spending, and Oman said it would spend more on the unemployed.

The other trend has been to tweak a few cabinet posts. Kuwait made the biggest concession, dismissing its interior minister after allegations that a citizen had died under torture. In Oman, the sultan changed six faces in the cabinet, but he continues to hold three ministries and the premiership himself. Bahrain's king has reshuffled four ministers, but only in the area of public services. By contrast, opposition groups want to see the ministers of defence and interior go, along with the prime minister - the king's uncle - who has been in office since 1971.

These moves imply that the Gulf governments view the protests as fundamentally driven by economic grievances. Although the Gulf is famous for its abundant energy resources and massive sovereign wealth funds, there are problems of wealth distribution. In Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Oman in particular, there is significant dissatisfaction over unemployment, the high cost of living, and the quality of public services, which are under pressure from rapid population growth. These issues will not be solved by one-off handouts.

Moreover, there is widespread discontent over corruption, nepotism and the lack of meritocracy. There are calls for greater political rights, equality before the law, moves to tackle torture, and, especially in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, an end to perceived sectarian discrimination.

Political challenges

Bahrain has the strongest opposition movement, but it is now divided over whether to keep its decades-long focus on reform under a constitutional monarchy, or to seek the outright overthrow of the ruling family, which would be opposed by much of the country's Sunni minority as well as other Gulf states. The government has called for dialogue and may consider some deeper reforms than the limited steps taken to date.

Opposition groups in Oman are far less well-developed, but the events in Tunisia and Egypt indicate the potential for new movements to emerge quickly. So far, protestors are calling for reform under the existing system - but there are long-term worries about the lack of a clear successor to the sultan.

In Saudi Arabia, the opposition is repressed and fragmented. The country has not experienced the large-scale protests seen elsewhere in the Arab world. Yet there have been three small demonstrations in different regions, and the authorities have reportedly prevented at least three others. Meanwhile, seven men have been jailed for setting up a political party, and the government is showing no sign of organising the municipal elections supposed to be held this year. More than 100 intellectuals have called for a constitutional monarchy and a Shia cleric has been detained for making the same appeal.

Clearly the Saudi opposition remains weak, but the government's refusal to accommodate demands for political reform may also be a source of weakness in the longer term, as it shows little flexibility to adapt to the changing currents in the region. This is not helped by the fact that the king and crown prince are both in their eighties and have had to spend long periods in hospitals abroad in recent months.

The UAE and Qatar appear the least at risk. Their economies have developed dramatically over the past decade, despite the recent downturn in Dubai, and they have hefty energy export revenues to distribute among their small numbers of citizens, who in any case make up only a tiny minority of their populations.

Yet the uprising in Tunisia and the protests in Oman illustrate the potential for surprises. Western countries should bear in mind that Tunisia is one of the most economically developed countries in Africa, with a sizeable middle class. The increasingly well-educated Gulf population will not necessarily be silenced by economic handouts alone.