By Danny Bürkli – Sultan Al Qassemi is a prominent Arab voice on Twitter and a prolific commentator on current affairs in the Middle East. We sat down with Sultan to talk about the recent events in Egypt (part one) and the politics of democratization in the Gulf states (part two).
foraus: In the first part of the interview we covered the recent events in Egypt. Gulf states have so far eschewed substantial reform. Most observers seems to agree that we will not likely see a coup or an outbreak of violence in either the UAE or Saudi Arabia, for example, in the immediate future. Having said that, what was impact of the “Arab Spring” on Gulf countries in terms of democratization processes?
Al Qassemi: The impact has already been felt. On one side, you have the political Islamists in the Gulf who felt encouraged; they felt they could come to the forefront after being in the shadows for decades. Then you had the government’s reaction, which was very harsh throughout the region whether it was the most progressive government in Kuwait or the least progressive in Saudi Arabia. Both countries sentenced people for what they deemed Twitter misuse and for online activism. But I think this is the beginning of a new era and the governments are trying to readjust. That’s why you have government leaders in the Gulf on social media trying to deal with this new younger generation who they cannot reach through their traditional gatherings which they hold on occasions. The Gulf leaders can’t reach the youngsters by traditional means, so they’re trying to go to where they are.
I think that the future will bring more political participation in the Gulf. I think that the governments that fail to recognize this are the governments that are going to suffer the most. Even for the richest countries, you can only push a lack of civil participation for so long before you begin look like a pariah, before you look like the odd man out. There are no parliaments that are elected and have legislative powers in the UAE, in Saudi Arabia, in Oman or in Qatar. In Bahrain, the government took a huge step backwards in the last two and a half years. Kuwait, the most politically mature Gulf state, has been going sideways rather than forward for years. The true test of what’s going to happen in Kuwait is whether this parliament completes its entire tenure, which hasn’t happened for a decade. I feel like the Gulf States should study the Kuwaiti model and adopt as much of it as they can, because there doesn’t seem to be any other model. The demands from the people are not that strong in some countries, but does that make it right not to have any kind of real civil participation?
foraus: Is the fear that once you start reforming you may find yourself, as a government, on a slippery slope where it is difficult to stop and reforms may get out of hand?
Al Qassemi: Yes, they might have this “snowball effect” in the back of their mind, but I think that the courageous leaders are the ones who are going to take serious steps to reform. The ones who trust that their people will support them are the ones who are going to take steps towards citizen empowerment. The ones who don’t feel that they hold that much trust are the ones who are going to be most fearful of taking steps to reform.
Consider the Moroccan model, which I wrote about recently much to the chagrin of critics of that regime. That is a scenario that the Gulf States could learn from in which they would not lose their sovereign powers, the powers to appoint the interior minister and the foreign minister and other “sovereign portfolios”. In that model economic, environmental, social issues amongst others should be left to citizens with the governments trusting their people to make the right judgment. Having said that, I am all for banning political parties which are based on religion [i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood]. I am all for it, at least in the UAE and the Gulf.
I am against having them, because these parties appeal to the lowest common denominator. They appeal to the fears of people. They are populist parties. They are parties that use religion to their benefit. I am also against allowing voting on tribalist pretenses. Religion and tribalism are, I think, the two biggest factors standing in the way of reform in the Gulf today.
foraus: But in a country like the UAE, how would you reform a political system without having very strong tribal influences?
Al Qassemi: It’s very challenging. In Abu Dhabi, out of the four elected members of the Federal National Council, our parliament, three were from one family. It is very difficult, but I think there needs to be some kind of either a quota system, or maybe even some kind of requirements from candidates to determine which qualify. If tribes want to have a member elected, then maybe they should choose one individual and promote him, rather than flood the entire legislature with their people. That’s just going to kill the whole idea. There must be some kind of candidate qualification procedure, at least for the first decade or two.
You cannot build a modern nation, on the basis of tribes and tribal allegiances. What you need to do is build the country on the modern basis of states, the rule of law, civil participation, accountability and other factors that make a modern state. This country can be administered by a person who has a tribal background but there needs to be some kind of accommodation of civil participation, whether you’re looking at the Kuwaiti model or whether you’re looking at the Jordanian model, because these are both tribal.
foraus: On the issue of Twitter and social media in general, there are statesmen like Carl Bildt (@carlbildt) who have been using these tools very successfully. However, substantially, what have these tools really done for diplomacy or statecraft?
Al Qassemi: Carl Bildt had an interesting exchange two weeks ago or three weeks ago when he ridiculed the Egyptian ambassador. He has also reached out before to the Bahraini foreign minister via Twitter. He has a history of provoking Middle Eastern states on Twitter. In the region we see the foreign ministers of the Gulf interacting with, for example, the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister of Jordan and other leaders in the region. It’s interesting to see how they joke with each other, what they send each other, what kind of comments they make, what kind of greetings they use, do they call each other by nicknames, etc. You can judge a lot from just observing the rapport between these people. For example, if they refer to each other as « Your Excellency » or if they refer to each other on a first name basis.
You can really judge how relations are between these countries and between these two individuals. At the same time, I think it has allowed a lot of people to reach out to those in power and bring them down to earth. This is really what I always talk about when I talk about Twitter. It allows you to reach these powerful individuals who are, in many cases at least in the Middle East, unelected. Many don’t have an interaction with citizens as much as they should. In many cases they are aloof; they are disconnected. It also became an anomaly not to be on social media.
Social media allows fans or followers to feel like they can be part of someone else’s lives. Potentially, I could influence this person who is very powerful, send him or her a tweet, and see if I get a reaction or not. I think overall, despite the crackdown on social media, especially in the Middle East, overall in the world it has done a lot to build more understanding between people.
foraus: Thank you, Sultan.
Sultan Al Qassemi (@SultanAlQassemi) is a prominent commentator on Arab affairs and a masterful Twitter user. He is also the founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation and a non-resident fellow at the Dubai School of Government. Sultan lives in the United Arab Emirates.
Danny Bürkli (@dannybuerkli) is a recent graduate of Stanford’s International Policy Program and part of foraus’ Peace and Security working group.