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.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.