The Machiavellian Case for the UAE’s Political Liberalisation

It might seem odd, paradoxical even, to suggest that an absolute monarch should embark on political liberalisation. Yet, this might be just the type of outside-the-box thinking that could save the United Arab Emirates government.

Last Sunday, Jürgen Habermas declined the UAE’s “Sheikh Zayed Book Award” because of its “connection […] to the existing political system there.” Of course, it would be a bit of a stretch for a ruler to reform his political system just to avoid the public embarrassment of being snubbed by a 91-year-old philosopher from Germany. But this was just the latest in a long string of negative news that mars the Arab Gulf countries’ efforts at projecting a clean image. Taken together, they indicate that no amount of sportswashing and assorted soft power events will convince the wider world that there is real political reform. But, as much as the regimes are eager to project a progressive image and avoid outward embarrassment, their failure to do so is their least concern; the real trouble lies within.

The foundation of the local social contract between rulers and ruled comes from their promise of wise and benevolent care for their subjects, who are guaranteed a safe and comfortable life in exchange for political acquiescence. But two developments make the rulers’ end of this bargain increasingly untenable.

The first one is the nearing end of the oil economy. With it, financing the current way of life of Gulf citizens is becoming unsustainable. The problems arising from this — increasing taxes, increasing unemployment, decreasing welfare — will sow discontent among the population.

The second threat is an increasing polarisation of the citizens, most notably between social and religious traditionalists and secular progressives. Any policy that pleases one group is guaranteed to alienate the other. The government’s current way to deal with this is to appease progressives and expatriates by liberalising some policies, but to only publish it in English and hope that conservatives do not get wind of it. This communication (or rather, non-communication) strategy is clearly only a short-term fix. Eventually, a country with two sets of rules will feel like a “one country, two systems” regime to its inhabitants, a place where no group feels at home.

These two developments — the end of the rentier state and the increased factional rift — are ripping tears in the social contract. The menace of civil unrest evokes a traumatic memory for the rulers, the Arab Spring. Bahrain’s example, in particular, haunts the GCC regimes because the Bahraini government barely clung to power by violently crushing peaceful protestors and having to request the help of the Saudi and UAE armed forces. The rulers’ first — and only — concern is to prevent a second Arab Spring at any cost.

Both developments are also tied up with geography: different emirates face different economic, social, and political realities, and their citizens and rulers have diverging ideas of how society should be run. Consequently, there is an increased resistance towards Abu Dhabi’s accelerating centralisation efforts that might, in the worst case, lead to a splintering of the union into factions.

What I am proposing as a solution is political liberalisation, with elected representatives and a return to more federalism. Now, it might sound that I expect an absolute monarch to relinquish power but the opposite is true: I expect a farsighted absolute monarch to use political liberalisation to stabilise the regime. As George Bernard Shaw pointed out, he who confuses political liberty with freedom has never thought for five minutes about it. In reality, prime ministers come and go, but power stays. Media control, nationalist propaganda, old boy networks, gerrymandering and voter suppression, party control over candidate lists, and regulatory and legislative capture grant power elites a firm, continued grip on politics and wealth.

In other words, rulers could take a page out of the Western playbook and devolve de jure responsibility for unpopular policies to elected officials without actually losing power. As the old quip goes: if voting made a difference, it would be made illegal.

Assuming that de jure liberalisation can be done without sacrificing too much de facto power, what would be gained? Two things: it would reduce the perceived personal political responsibility of the ruler for divisive policy decisions that necessarily come with a fractured society, and it would give the people some representation in exchange for necessary increases in taxation.

As a case in point for divisive decisions, take the normalisation of the UAE’s relations with Israel on the cusp of what looks to be another Intifada. It is a hugely unpopular policy among Emiratis, who see it as a betrayal in the face of Palestinian suffering. Because the ruler, having all the de jure power, bears 100 percent of the political responsibility, the government tries to contain this discontent by controlling media content about evictions and Israeli state violence against Palestinians to prevent Emiratis from getting upset. What the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve over. As is becoming clearer by the day, this strategy is not only awkward but also, in the end, futile and bound to misfire. How convenient would it be to have an elected minister who could be ousted or voted out of office for such a move?

By giving the different factions an avenue to voice their grievances, the ruler can cast aside responsibility and instead assume the role of benevolent and conciliatory arbiter, the protector of national unity who heals the existing divisions. What is more, representation via elected office could be sold easily both to traditionalists, as implementing a shura-council like in other countries, and to progressives, as a nod to democracy. To attenuate fractions between emirates, political reform may also include a return to more federalism. In this way, it could reduce the centrifugal forces ripping at the seams of the union and allow the different emirates to move at different speeds, both socially and economically.

Liberalisation will also make the bitter pill of austerity and taxation pass more easily. If there is “no taxation without representation,” then surely more representation would vindicate more taxation. On a more mundane level, reforms will also be financially attractive. Not only will they allow a reduction of expenses for the security and surveillance apparatus, but they will also increase the country’s attractiveness for business. As the most liberal country in the region, it will attract both international companies and Western expatriates, especially compared to Saudi Arabia. And with less institutional uncertainty and more rule of law, the predictable policy environment will be conducive for even more business.

Finally, liberalisation also means more information for policy-makers about what the people really want and yield constructive input that has not to be bought from external consultants. The UAE may look down on Kuwait for its tentative steps towards representation and free speech. But one thing seems clear from even a casual look at the respective national Twitterspheres: the Kuwaiti regime knows much more about the true sentiments of its populace than the UAE regime.

What is the alternative to liberalisation? The royal prerogative of the absolute ruler means he is not allowed any failures. Wars must be won; discontent must be silenced; mistakes must be expunged. As historical precedents from Charles I and Louis XVI to Nicholas II and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali demonstrate, this kind of gamble can go wrong: resistance to reform may let civil unrest build up until the pitchforks force, or even remove, the ruler’s hand. Instead of allowing revolution to rise up from the bottom, it would be much wiser to initiate reform from the top down, on the rulers’ terms, before it’s too late.

Liberalisation, on the other hand, would make the country, and its ruler, a beacon of the region with a huge gain in diplomatic prestige, it would boost attractiveness with international corporations and with expatriates, it would confirm both the secular and the traditionalist factions, it would give the population a forum to let off steam, and it would shift responsibility from the ruler’s shoulders, raising him above the fray of factionalism. It would, crucially, rewrite the social contract and allow for post-rentier state public finances, with taxation and austerity, in exchange for representation.

Maybe I am mistaken. In fact, a second Arab Spring is unlikely for now, and the UAE government is popular among its constituents. But maybe this is precisely the right time to initiate reform. A challenge of this magnitude certainly deserves a maximum of future foresight. The same old visions of progress have been tried again and again over the decades. It is time for an honest re-assessment of the situation. Maybe the most unorthodox, out-of-the-box ideas will turn out to be the most clear-eyed.

Senior Research Associate at the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge. Economics and policy analysis. @FredericSchnei

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