Tuesday 24 Jul 2018 | 00:02 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 24 Jul 2018 | 00:02 | SYDNEY

Middle East: Democracy, anyone?


Rodger Shanahan


22 June 2009 16:12

I was drawn to Jason Koutsoukis' article in this weekend's SMH about the 'democracy deficit' in the Middle East, particularly his assertions that the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and the UAE will have nervously watched the display of freedom that the Iranian election campaign represented, and that the 'free and fair' elections in Lebanon represented the hope for change in the region.
Democracy, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. And viewed from afar, the lack of democratic elections is a cause of concern in the West because it represents a lack of individual freedom. But how many supporters of democracy are there, really? And what does democracy mean to them?

Cases such as Syria and Egypt, where one-party rule has oulawed political diversity, differ greatly to Gulf countries such as Qatar and the UAE, with their small number of citizens and tremendous wealth. In those Gulf countries, citizens benefit from a benevolent autocratic system of rule, where tremendous economic development has occurred quickly and where the national largesse has been harnessed to develop individual skills and provide long-term economic benefits.

Oman's Sultan Qaboos has done the same with a fraction of the natural wealth. In neighbouring Kuwait, by contrast, where a popularly-elected parliament exists (see photo) and national elections are held (which feature universal suffrage), the resultant political infighting threatens to stall the country's economic development.

In countries such as Qatar, the UAE and Oman, the rulers are genuinely respected by the polity and the lack of democratic political participation has been more than offset by the economic and educational benefits that have arisen from their particular social contract.
I have seen Gulf rulers deal with significant international issues with ambassadors in their evening diwans while at the same time adjudicating over minor land or livestock disputes, because their traditional leadership role demands they must meet subjects that wish to do so. Where advocates of democratic rule would have citizens resolve such disputes through their local member or a government committee, the bedu in question would be likely to see such a move as a restriction of his individual right to directly petition a ruler to whom he has given his allegiance.
In the Levant, meanwhile, where Western political watchers breathed a sigh of relief as pro-Western forces emerged victorious in the June election, there is no media scrutiny of the electoral system under which this 'free and fair election' was held. Lebanese Christians receive 50% of parliamentary seats even though they comprise perhaps 30% of the population, while Shi'a Lebanese receive 22% of the seats while comprising perhaps over 40% of the population.

Can an electoral system that apportions seats based on religious identity but at the same time does not accurately reflect the religious makeup of the electorate really be called democratic? Imagine the international outcry if the post-invasion Iraqi political system had given the minority Sunnis close to 50% of the parliamentary seats.
To hold up Lebanon as a beacon of democratic hope while at the same time inferring that the Gulf states are repressing broad swathes of political reformers seeking democratic rule is to ignore the realities in many of the countries the article mentions. Just as the absence of a representative electoral sytem in some Gulf states may actually reflect the will of the people because it represents the traditional way of doing business and has brought unprecedented economic development, voting in Lebanon may not represent the popular will of the people because the electoral system discriminates according to religious identity. In the Middle East, democracy truly is a relative term.

Photo by Flickr user Kuwait Ra'ed Qutena, used under a Creative Commons license.