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25 February 2011

Change on a smaller scale

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

By James Preston

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.

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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.