News / Middle East

    Persian Gulf Elections Offer Glimmer of Democracy

    Supporters of the Shiite opposition Al-Wefaq society wave red-and-white Bahraini flags and a Yemeni flag during a rally in Tubli, Bahrain, near the capital of Manama, September 22, 2011.
    Supporters of the Shiite opposition Al-Wefaq society wave red-and-white Bahraini flags and a Yemeni flag during a rally in Tubli, Bahrain, near the capital of Manama, September 22, 2011.

    Election season is in full swing in a part of the world with muted democracies - the autocratic Arab states of the Persian Gulf. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are holding elections on Saturday, selected Saudis will go to the polls next Thursday and citizens in Oman will cast their ballots next month.

    Arab Spring and elections

    The elections are the first in the region since the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring. In general, civil unrest, or the threat of it, has prompted mild electoral reform in only a few Persian Gulf nations. And in no way do the changes loosen the monarchs’ grip on power.

    That is why analysts like Toby Jones, assistant professor of Middle East History at Rutgers University, say the election process is disguised as progress and is aimed more at reinforcing the status quo.

    “They are demonstrations on the part of regimes that they understand that there is domestic pressure for political change, but they’re not even half measures, they’re quarter measures and I don’t think anyone takes them very seriously,” said Jones.

    Awakening

    In no place has the struggle for regional awakening been more visible than in Bahrain. For the past seven months, pro-democracy demonstrators have been calling for the introduction of a constitutional monarchy in the tiny kingdom.

    Saturday’s elections will fill 18 seats abandoned by members of the main opposition al-Wefaq party, who quit parliament in February over the government’s bloody crackdown on protesters. Four seats are uncontested. Al-Wefaq and other opposition groups are boycotting the vote.

    Mattar Mattar, one of the legislators who resigned, says the decision to replace the parliamentarians is inciting many Bahrainis to take to the streets and protest.

    “Of course there is no legitimacy for this parliament because we were representing all seats for the opposition," said Mattar. "So currently the opposition is not represented at all.”

    Bahrain

    In March, Bahrain’s Gulf neighbors sent military backup to the country to help quell the democratic uprising there and prevent the unrest from spilling over to their shores.

    Bahrain’s leaders said the extra troops were needed to reinstate stability. Mattar says the move was unnecessary.

    “We don’t think that democracy represents an obstacle and a threat for other GCC countries," said Mattar. "We are trying to send those messages.”

    In the region, there are signs by rulers offering some electoral concessions that those messages are having some impact.

    United Arab Emirates

    In Oman, legislative powers were given to parliament for the first time this year following widespread protests. The largest electoral changes, however, have been offered in the family-ruled United Arab Emirates.

    The number of Emiratis allowed to vote in the second-ever Federal National Council elections has increased nearly 20-fold from the first poll in 2006. However, the roughly 129,000 voters were hand picked by the government and only represent about 12 percent of the local population.

    And only half of the 40-member FNC is elected. The leaders of the seven emirates that make up the country chose the other half. Ultimately, the body has no lasting law-making power. Like all legislatures in the Gulf, ultimate control rests with the ruling monarchs.

    Saudi Arabia

    In Saudi Arabia, leaders decided to hold municipal council elections this month after a two-year delay. Many experts say it is likely that the postponement would have dragged on even longer if it were not for the opposition uprisings in neighboring countries.

    Saudi candidates will be vying for approximately 1,630 seats on 258 municipal councils. According to the law, only men are allowed to vote and run for office and, as in the UAE, only half of the council seats are elected by the people.

    Some analysts see hope that the elections, while restrictive, are at least a needed first boost.

    Staci Haag, Gulf regional director for the National Democratic Institute, says the Saudi vote, like other regional polls, is an important stepping-stone to greater democracy.

    “The elections are going to be for positions that don’t necessarily hold a lot of power, but once they have the base of public support, a lot of councilors have tended to use that to try and advocate for more power and more say, which moves the ball forward a little bit every time,” said Haag.

    Democracy

    Haag says that the transition to democracy is likely to move at a much slower pace in the Gulf than in other areas of the Middle East, but adds that historically, once a nation is given a taste of political participation there is usually no going back.

    “I don’t know how long it’s going to take and I don’t know what form it’s going to take, but I do think that there is an awakening, especially on the part of young people and on the part of women,” said Haag.

    For their part, Gulf leaders say they are committed to democratic reform but insist it must be introduced gradually so as not to destroy the fabric of society after generations of absolute rule.

    Follow our Middle East reports on Twitter
    and discuss them on our Facebook page.

    You May Like

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Before burial at overflowing cemeteries, unidentified dead being swapped for DNA, in case some day relatives come to learn their fate

    Russian Opposition Leader Sues Putin for Conflict of Interest

    Alexei Navalny tells VOA in exclusive interview why transfer of $2 billion from country’s wealth fund to company with ties to President Putin’s son-in-law triggered lawsuit

    How Diversity Has Changed America

    Over the past four decades, the level of diversity in the United States has increased most in these four states

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Filli
    X
    Hamada Elsaram
    February 11, 2016 8:01 PM
    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video US Co-ed Selective Service Plan Stirs Controversy

    Young women may soon be required to register with the U.S. Selective Service System, the U.S. government agency charged with implementing a draft in a national emergency. Top Army and Marine Corps commanders told the Senate Armed Services Committee recently that women should register, and a bill has been introduced in Congress requiring eligible women to sign up for the military draft. The issue is stirring some controversy, as VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports from New York.
    Video

    Video Lessons Learned From Ebola Might Help Fight Zika

    Now that the Ebola epidemic has ended in West Africa, Zika has the world's focus. And, as Carol Pearson reports, health experts and governments are applying some of the lessons learned during the Ebola crisis in Africa to fight the Zika virus in Latin America and the Caribbean.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Illinois Voters Have Mixed Emotions on Obama’s Return to Springfield

    On the ninth anniversary of the launch of his quest for national office, President Barack Obama returned to Springfield, Illinois, to speak to the Illinois General Assembly, where he once served as state senator. His visit was met with mixed emotions by those with a front-row seat on his journey to the White House. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Heated Immigration Debate Limits Britain’s Refugee Response

    Compared to many other European states, Britain has agreed to accept a relatively small number of Syrian refugees. Just over a thousand have arrived so far -- and some are being resettled in remote corners of the country. Henry Ridgwell reports on why Britain’s response has lagged behind its neighbors.
    Video

    Video Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growth

    Car sales in Russia dropped by more than a third in 2015 because of the country's economic woes. But, at the extreme ends of the car market, luxury vehicles and some economy brands are actually experiencing growth. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.