IRAQ'S seizure of Kuwait is part of a larger, potentially much more dangerous Middle East challenge that the West will ignore at its peril: the need to replace autocracy with democratic institutions. That is the view of William Gutteridge, executive director of the London-based Institute for the Study of Conflict. Professor Gutteridge is one of several British authorities on regional security who believe the latest Gulf emergency has exposed the West's failure to tackle the causes of political instability in a region that accounts for two-thirds of world oil reserves.
``We have been too ready to place our faith in regimes which do not rule with the active consent of their own people,'' Gutteridge says. ``Also, we have been too slow to spot the early rise of dictators, such as Saddam Hussein, who are not in the least interested in democracy and, by their methods, turn the Middle East into a dangerous and unpredictable place.''
As a result, every time there is a crisis, the West was unprepared for it, Gutteridge says.
His view that a ``democratic deficit'' in Gulf countries undermines their capacity to withstand political shocks and puts Western interests at risk is supported by Amir Taheri, Iranian-born author of ``The Cauldron,'' a highly regarded recent study of Middle East politics.
According to Mr. Taheri, Saddam Hussein's violent annexation of Kuwait is a reminder of the haphazard way in which the Western powers redrew the political map of the Middle East before and after World War II: ``What we have in the Gulf are states which are not yet nations, led by rulers made so rich by oil revenues that they see no need for the consent of the governed.
A few years ago nobody could have claimed that members of the Gulf Cooperation Council - Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait - were capable of becoming democratic, ``but now they all have their own Western-educated middle classes. That means there is a credible basis on which to build democracy,'' Taheri says.
A less optimistic view of the prospects for democracy in the Gulf states is taken by Phillip Windsor, reader in international relations at the London School of Economics.
``There are plenty of middle-class Arab intellectuals in Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries who see the need for getting rid of tribal systems of government and replacing them with democracy,'' he says. ``Such people may be the wave of the future, but the present rulers, who are extremely wealthy, feel little need to turn to other sectors of society to legitimize their rule.''
Mr. Windsor warns that recent experiments with democracy in the region had sometimes floundered. ``Lebanon is the supreme instance of a state which attempted to run a parliamentary system. Its Arab neighbors fought out their own political battles in Lebanon's free press and contributed to the country's agony.''
Taheri and Windsor say that security in the Gulf region would be enhanced if the tiny independent Arab sheikdoms in the region merged with each other, under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Gutteridge agrees. ``The Kuwait crisis underscores the need for smaller countries in sensitive areas to develop their own regional cooperation,'' he says. ``If they could begin working together, they could start to resolve the territorial claims and counter-claims that add to the area's instability.''
Rulers of Gulf states have failed in two ways to discourage Iraqi-style aggression in the region, according to Dr. Paul Rogers, a political analyst in the School of Peace Studies at Bradford University. ``One is their refusal to share their oil wealth more widely in the Arab world. The other is their determination to remain total rulers.''
The states most likely to develop democratic institutions were Kuwait (before the Iraqi invasion), Bahrain, and some of the United Arab Emirates, says Dr. Rogers.