19 February 2015

The reshaping of relations between citizens and state in the Gulf will be fundamental to the future security of countries in the region and how they relate to Western partners.


Jane Kinninmont

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


Photo by ArabianEye / Getty Images
Photo by ArabianEye / Getty Images


The Gulf monarchies – the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)) – are undergoing dramatic change. The last decade has seen rapid growth in their populations, economies and education systems, coupled with deep changes in the flow of information, the make-up of the population and the economic expectations of the younger generation. The Gulf states are increasingly important foreign policy players and investors, which means that a growing range of countries have a direct interest in their wealth and stability.

This report makes a number of recommendations for GCC governments and international allies. Key points are summarized below. In short, it argues that the Gulf countries should seize the opportunity to carry out meaningful reforms towards more constitutional forms of monarchy. Failing that, the various dynamics of change – economic, demographic, social and political – will add to pressures on the states of the Gulf, and increase the risks of future conflict in a region of vital strategic importance to the rest of the world.

Highlights from the workshop 'Future Trends in the GCC'


For GCC governments

  • The Gulf countries should seize the enviable opportunities that they have to carry out gradual and consensual political and social reforms towards more constitutional forms of monarchy. 
  • Long-term economic diversification plans should be accompanied by serious plans for long-term political development to manage the impact of shifts in the economic role of the state. 
  • Decriminalize peaceful opposition activities, from calling for constitutional monarchy or parliamentary elections to criticizing rulers for their policies. 
  • Stronger, more transparent institutional mechanisms – parliaments, judiciaries and ministries – should be developed to manage the competing interests that naturally arise in any society. 
  • Transparency and openness in governance should be accorded a higher priority, in line with the expectations of the younger generation. 
  • Ensure social and economic inclusion are prioritized, as a valuable counterweight to the pull of sectarian or ethnic identities. 
  • Meaningful and sustainable reforms will require changes not only to formal laws and institutions, but to informal institutions and ways of thinking. 
  • The ruling families need to prepare their own younger generation to have a different role, with less power over the political system and the economy.

For international allies

Develop and implement a more people-centred strategy.

  • Diversify the base of relations with the Gulf beyond the existing elite. This will be critical to developing long-term, sustainable strategic partnerships of clear value to both sides. 
  • Defence cooperation with the Gulf needs to be placed in a wider political context, where respect for human rights is not seen as being at odds with security imperatives, but as part of ensuring sustainable security. 
  • It is not up to Western countries to bring participatory government to the Gulf. But they should at least ensure that their engagement is not seen as holding it back. 
  • External actors should be culturally sensitive before making judgments about different political systems. Diplomats also need to be aware that the complex nature of Gulf political culture is hotly debated inside the region. They should not see local governments as the only people entitled to speak for particular cultures.
Orientate economic engagement towards education and diversification.
  • Economic cooperation can potentially be a win-win situation. 
  • But the Gulf’s key international trading partners need also to listen to local critiques of aspects of economic engagement with the West, especially the cynicism about spending on big-ticket defence imports. 
  • Cooperation on health care, education, affordable housing, resource sustainability and cultural industries will have wider public appeal than defence, finance and energy, which create few local jobs.
  • International businesses seeking a long-term presence in the Gulf need to find ways to obtain public buy-in by adding value to the local economy and skills base, and by employing locals as well as the expatriates who make up most of the workforce.
Reshape security cooperation.
  • In partnering with Gulf countries against extremism, international allies need to broach sensitive issues such as sectarianism, religious intolerance and political repression. 
  • Western governments need to avoid being drawn in to assisting governments in uncovering ‘crimes’ that in their countries would be seen as rights – as evidenced in the lengthy prison sentences meted out to young bloggers for ‘insulting’ rulers. 
  • A fresh discourse on Gulf security should take account of the need for people to feel secure vis-à-vis their own governments, for instance by having the police held accountable by independent judiciaries, and ending lengthy detention without trial. 
  • It is essential that Western policy-makers listen to local public opinion, which is not always conveyed to them by the Gulf governments. Gulf populations want more weight to be given to protecting people in their region – especially Iraqis, Syrians and Palestinians – from state violence and refugeehood as well as terrorist groups. 
  • The Gulf countries need to be seen in perspective as an essential part of the Middle East region, but not representing its critical mass.