Updated at 1:43 p.m.
Most of the protesters in these Gulf nations are seeking reform, not the overthrow of the royal ruling families. But citizens’ willingness to express their discontent – even after their leaders have made unprecedented concessions – signals what may be the beginning of the end for the monarchies’ strategy of buying compliance with generous social welfare benefits.
“We’re told they’re stable regimes that manage to buy off protests,” says Toby Jones, a Middle East historian at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “But they’re characterized by deep disillusionment, and disappointment, about the nature of the political system.... There was always a simmering level of frustration, and that’s going to be there five years from now, 10 years from now, just like it has been.”
Regime change may not come swiftly to the Gulf, as it did to Tunisia and Egypt, but the newfound boldness to press for more rights is a revolution in its own right in countries where people have long been subdued by fear.
A free-speech revolution
In Oman, a tiny country on the Arabian Peninsula that is normally quiet, even sedate, it’s as if the entire country woke up one morning and decided it was free to speak publicly.
Oman has never experienced countrywide public demonstrations on the scale of the past few weeks, prompting Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, who has led the country for 40 years, to offer unprecedented concessions.
On Monday, he restructured his royal cabinet, appointing 11 new ministers. He also has called for the creation of 50,000 jobs and offered unemployment benefits to job-seekers. The Ministry of Manpower has been swamped with applicants for the new benefits.
But the protesters haven’t gone home – dozens are still camped out on chairs, carpets, and even in a few colorful tents in front of the Majlis al-Shura, a partially elected body that advises the government. Everyone from students to professionals seem to be reveling in their newfound ability to articulate and press for their rights.
“It’s all of Oman,” says Yusef Ahmed al Hooti, a risk officer at a Muscat bank who protested Thursday outside of the Majlis al-Shura. “Everyone is talking.”
Workers at Omantel, the country’s largest telecommunications company, walked off the job this week to demand pay increases, better health insurance, and housing loans despite the fact that a trade union was already working to address the issues with management.
Journalists, TV producers, and actors picketed in front of the Ministry of Information in Muscat this week, demanding more access to government records. They also called for the ouster of the minister, a cultural adviser, and an undersecretary.
And students from at least three universities also protested this week, asking for a range of changes, including more financial allowances and more leniency for students who fail classes.
“The sultan was away from the public,” says Suleiman Nasser al Salmi, an air traffic controller. “His ministers were giving him false information. He was thinking the people were happy. Now he knows. He sees the people are not happy.”
Rumblings of discontent
Dr. Jones calls Bahrain the “outlier.” A majority-Shiite nation ruled by the Sunni Al Khalifa family, it has less oil wealth, and what it does have is not distributed equally, in a system rife with corruption and abuse.
The government cracked down hard on protesters in February, killing seven. But protesters have camped out in the capital for nearly a month now, with tens of thousands rallying in the past few weeks. What began as a push for reform has grown into demands by some for the ouster of the royal family.
Kuwait also has a sizable Shiite population, though it is not a majority, and a vibrant political culture with an organized opposition and a parliament. Several hundred protesters gathered in Kuwait on Tuesday seeking the removal of the prime minister.
While the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt sparked the demonstrations in Bahrain and Kuwait, both nations have a history of political opposition and protest, and their parliaments, however weak, serve as an outlet for pressure. That is not the case for Oman or Saudi Arabia.
But there were rumblings of discontent in Oman a decade ago, when protesters demanded better concessions for residents from a natural gas venture in the coastal city of Qalhat.
The sultan was very surprised,” says Dawn Chatty, an Oman scholar at Oxford University who lived in the country for 15 years and returns periodically. “The elders were brought in. It was a stand-off, and eventually the youth pulled back and the company offered better conditions. That was the first time the youth in Oman had challenged authority. Some of us recognized that as the youth bulge got older this kind of thing was going to happen more and more.”
In Saudi Arabia, historically there has been no room for expressing dissent, though citizens have begun to challenge that recently with public petitions for change. Protests are banned in the country, but small numbers of Shiite citizens began protesting last week in the oil-rich east, where police reportedly opened fire on about 200 protesters in the city of Qatif on Thursday. Today, "Day of Rage" protests failed to materialize amid a heavy police presence in the capital of Riyadh, but about 500 protesters reportedly turned out in the eastern city of Hafouf.
“Saudis just aren’t as happy with their system and they don’t have avenues to express that openly or legitimately,” says Jones, adding that, like Egypt, many have aspirations that they’ve been unable to fulfill. Youth unemployment is 40 percent, and some segments of the population see little of the massive oil wealth enjoyed by the ruling family.
Why cash handouts may backfire
The Gulf nations have tried to apply the old formula by handing out benefits. Late last month, Saudi King Abdullah promised a package worth an estimated $36 billion. Oman promised to pay unemployed citizens about $380 a month. Bahrain said it would provide more jobs and offered every family about $2,600. And in January Kuwait announced it would pay every citizen about $3,500.
When protesters are railing against corruption, cash handouts may simply remind them of the vast wealth and corruption among the ruling families. “People aren’t buying it,” he says. “It’s transparently a political bribe, and people don’t like being bribed.”
Some of the rulers, such as Oman's sultan, have also made political concessions. Jones says the rulers are likely to offer enough concessions to diffuse the protests in the short term. But because sweeping change is unlikely, he says, the dissatisfaction will continue. And with the increasing willingness to protest, that means a new political reality for the Gulf royals.
“These [states] are laboring, lumbering, corrupt leviathans,” he says. “As a result, the instinct is to change in measured, conservative, very small steps – and that is not going to fix this.”