Change on a smaller scale

Qatar and the United Arab Emirates may not be facing mass uprisings, but they are still feeling pres

The drama and pace with which events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have developed make it easy for the media to ignore countries feeling the pressure but not embroiled in mass protests.

Significant changes are happening elsewhere in the Middle East. You need only look at Qatar and the United Arab Emirates for evidence.

In these oil-rich states, where wealth has acted as a smokescreen for a lack of democracy, the need for revolution seems small compared to the vast economic incentives on offer.

UAE has invested heavily in its infrastructure; leisure, health care, public transport and education have all been improved hugely, at tax-free cost. The country ranked 30th in the 2010 Legatum World Prosperity Index, well above other countries in the region.

In the same year, however, the UAE ranked 148th out of 167 countries on the Economist Intelligence Unit's democracy index, behind Egypt and Tunisia.

Despite holding its first elections in 2006 (with nominees and voters chosen by the country's six ruling families), significant political reform still appears to be a pipe dream, amid concerns about the UAE's commitment to human rights and free speech.

Amnesty International recently called for the government to explain the arrest and detention of Hassan Mohammed Hassan al-Hammadi, a former teacher who expressed solidarity with the Egyptian protesters. It followed a string of stifling actions reported by Human Rights Watch.

But fast-forward two weeks, and a gathering of roughly 100 protesters at the Libyan embassy in Dubai to denounce Muammar al-Gaddafi's regime was allowed to continue by police. This rare act of tolerance was not a coincidence.

With the eyes of the world fixed on Arab leadership issues and a population as engrossed in the protests as the rest of the world, a lighter touch was necessary. The UAE is a country reliant on a strong international PR campaign – so putting a bad spin on things could be disastrous.

With its fellow gulf state Bahrain erupting in a wave of protests, UAE's government has been tentative in its approach to change. The country recently announced that it will triple the number of voters allowed to take part in parliamentary elections. This still accounts for less than 1 per cent of the population, and half the members of parliament.

Progress could well be slow.

In Qatar, where freedom of speech and freedom of the press are allowed (in theory at least), an environment for legitimate democratic discussion appears to be gestating.

In November, at the Doha Debates, a monthly forum held in the country's capital, 63 per cent of audience members voted in favour of democratisation over economic liberalisation. Though not representative of a nation, it reflected how a new generation of young Qataris is pushing the issue of democracy.

In recent weeks, those same young Qataris have demonstrated in solidarity with the Egyptian and Libyan protesters. Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani's government has also issued a denouncement of the treatment of protesters in Tripoli. Qatar has the potential to be an arena where peaceful democratic discussion can thrive.

The strength of such discussion is another question. Qatar, like the UAE, offers infrastructure and relative prosperity to its people. A popular uprising on the scale we have witnessed in recent weeks seems unlikely in either country. Yet, with small yet significant changes taking places, the UAE and Qatar may decide it is easier to jump than be pushed.

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Will Britain end up agreeing a lengthy transition deal with the EU?

It's those seeking to prevent a referendum re-run who have the most to fear from a bungled exit.

You can check out, but you'll never leave? Today's papers all cover the growing momentum behind a transition arrangement after Britain leaves the European Union, whereby the United Kingdom remains in the single market and customs union.

The FT reports on the first meeting between Theresa May and her new “business council”, in which business leaders had one big message for the PM: no-one wants a “no deal” Brexit – and Confederation of British Industry director Carolyn Fairbairn repeated her call for a lengthy transition arrangement.

The Times splashes on government plans drawn up by Philip Hammond that include a two-year transition arrangement and private remarks by David Prior, a junior minister, that Britain was headed for “the softest of soft Brexits”.

A cabinet source tells the Guardian that the transition will last even longer than that – a four-year period in which the United Kingdom remains in the single market.

Broadly, the argument at the cabinet table for a transition deal has been won, with the lingering issue the question of how long a transition would run for. The fear among Brexiteers, of course, is that a temporary arrangement would become permanent.

Their long-term difficulty is Remainers' present problem: that no one is changing their minds on whether or not Brexit is a good idea. Put crudely, every year the passing of time winnows away at that Leave lead. When you add the surprise and anger in this morning's papers over what ought to be a routine fact of Brexit – that when the UK is no longer subject to the free movement of people, our own rights of free movement will end – the longer the transition, the better the chances that if parliament's Remainers can force a re-run on whether we really want to go through with this, that Britain will stay in the EU.

A quick two-year transition means coming out of the bloc in 2022, however, just when this parliament is due to end. Any dislocation at that point surely boosts Jeremy Corbyn's chances of getting into Downing Street, so that option won't work for the government either.

There's another factor in all this: a transition deal isn't simply a question of the British government deciding it wants one. It also hinges on progress in the Brexit talks. Politico has a helpful run-down of the progress, or lack thereof, so far – and basically, the worse they go, the less control the United Kingdom has over the shape of the final deal.

But paradoxically, it's those seeking to prevent a referendum re-run who have the most to fear from a bungled exit. The more time is wasted, the more likely that the UK ends up having to agree to a prolonged transition, with the timing of a full-blown trade deal at the EU's convenience. And the longer the transition, the better the chances for Remainers of winning a replay. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.