Prospects for democratic reform appear to have gone up a notch across the Gulf States as the Tunisia and Egypt uprisings continue to reverberate around the region.  Meaningful change, however, will depend not just on shows of popular discontent but on the representative institutions in those countries taking on a much more significant role in challenging the government on the public’s behalf.  Although generally regarded as feeble by international standards, the recent history of the parliaments in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman highlights both the potential for and the challenges facing the development of participatory politics in the Gulf.

At one end of the spectrum, Kuwait’s parliament has long been the loudest and liveliest in the region.  Originally established in 1963, it has gradually expanded its formal powers and increasingly challenged the Emir and the government.  For many politicians in the Gulf, it was a model to be emulated; for heads of state, it was a physical warning that they should proceed with caution.

The Kuwaiti parliament’s progress has been disrupted twice by lengthy dissolutions (in 1976 and 1986, each for approximately half a decade), which revolved around the Emir’s resistance to any further extension of the assembly’s influence.  That cycle appeared to be repeating itself between 2006 and 2009, as the parliament pushed for the right to question the prime minister.  After three elections in as many years, the matter was finally resolved when the PM appeared before parliament and duly won a vote of no confidence at the end of 2009.

The irony is that, although the parliament succeeded in expanding its powers to challenge the executive, it now looks like a weaker body as a result.  The government agreed to the principle of prime ministerial questioning only when it was certain it had enough votes to win, and the parliament seems incapable of combating government manipulation of certain members. In a strange turn of events, the Emir reportedly now believes that dissolving parliament would be seen as a victory for the opposition. Thus, these days Kuwait’s parliament might have more power but it seems to have less influence.

In Bahrain the parliament has evolved against a more politically turbulent backdrop, with tensions between the Shi’i population (some 70 percent of Bahrain’s citizens) and the Sunni regime represented by the Al Khalifa ruling family spilling out into periods of civil unrest and subsequent state repression.  The Bahraini parliament had its first, brief lifespan from 1973 to 1975, which was followed by unconstitutional dissolution until 2002, when it was reinstated by King Hamad as part of a series of promised reform measures intended to defuse social tensions.  The fact that the new parliament turned out to be a pale imitation of its predecessor, however, has been a source of continuing grievance around which much subsequent political turmoil has revolved. 

Since 2002 the Bahraini parliament has struggled to extend its formal authority over a government that has relied on two tactics to retain its dominance.  The first is a pattern of state harassment and victimization of opponents, which appears to be directly linked to the electoral cycle. The second is the gerrymandering of the voting system.  Electoral districts vary greatly in size: the largest district contains over 12,000 people in a mainly Shi’i area, while the smallest – largely Sunni – has only 500 voters.  These steps guarantee that the Shi’i population cannot win a majority within the institution; in the 2006 and 2010 elections, the main Shi’i party al-Wefaq won only 18 of 40 parliamentary seats. 

By contrast, the evolution of Oman’s Shura Council has been quiet, even by the standards of the Gulf. The country, which in 1996 became the last in the Gulf Cooperation Council to adopt a constitution, held its first popular elections in 2003 for a body that lacked legislative powers and whose influence was confined almost entirely to economic development.  The turnout for elections has been relatively poor at around 30 percent, perhaps because, according to academic Uzi Rabi, the Shura resembles a “depoliticized local council.”

Yet even in Oman, politicians and civil society groups expressed concern in recent conversations that the cabinet is deliberately trying to undermine the standing of the Shura by emphasizing its ineffectiveness and the poor quality of its members via stories planted in the media.  One argument currently in circulation is that the Shura was more effective when it was an appointed body, because at least then its membership was drawn from the upper echelons of society.

The parliamentary institutions in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman were established to provide some legitimacy for the regime and outlets for public voice.  They continue to provide some semblance of democratic representation, and have had the occasional win, but all are struggling against dominant regimes.  It remains highly unlikely that they will be abolished or dissolved – as this would provide a potent focus around which disparate opposition groups would coalesce – but the overriding message is that their activity is tolerated only within certain bounds set by the ruling authorities.

All these parliaments face two fundamental problems. The first is a failure of political organization.  Parliamentarians in the Gulf voice frustration about the underdeveloped nature of political society and particularly the limited presence of political groups. But the practical effect of the fact that none of these states permit political parties is that politicians frequently lack the discipline that comes with party membership and, as such, the parliaments rarely act cohesively or strategically.  As a result, the ruling authorities have found it relatively easy to manipulate the system, pick off individual politicians, and divide any opposition at an early stage.

The second is that they have failed to carve out a distinctive role which demonstrates why they are invaluable to government or to the people – and are caught awkwardly between them, not fully meeting either’s needs. At present both the ruling authorities and the people believe the parliaments should exist, but the institutions are not performing indispensable functions for either one.  The parliaments need to develop positions in the administration of the state which make it impossible for governments to ignore them, and convince the public that they offer the best and most effective route to political empowerment.  The potential undoubtedly exists, but if they are to seize the opportunities, the politicians will need to organize themselves better around issues of principle instead of only offering occasional resistance to the executive, and parliamentarians will have to become much better at utilizing their existing influence to secure more formal powers for their assemblies. 

Greg Power is director of Global Partners and Associates, a social purpose company.  His research paper on parliamentary development in the Gulf will be published by the London School of Economics’ “Kuwait Programme on Development, Governance and Globalisation in the Gulf States” in the spring.