Private Sector as a Political Force in the Gulf

01.05.2006

Despite a ban on political parties in the Gulf region, in some countries, such as Kuwait and Bahrain, they are accepted and openly active, though legal restrictions force them to function as NGOs rather than political parties. For example, it is well known that the Association for National Democratic Action represents leftist ideas in Bahrain and that the National Accord Association is the Shia forum in the country. In February 2005, four such associations held a conference to issue a popular petition demanding political reform that gathered more than 75,000 signatures.

How has this happened? According to Sayed Wild Abah of Asharq Alawsat, the rise of a middle class has created a vibrant private sector that has greatly contributed to the popular push for reform.

The social effects of the oil economy that created a large middle class included the majority of the population. This class is well educated, integrated, and open with regards to the global balances. This class has started to organize itself in the form of a civil institution that raises the demands for reform and modernization. Among the clearest examples are the Gulf Chambers of Commerce that in fact play semi-political roles in some countries of the Gulf. This is evident judging from the annual economic forums that are held in the main Gulf cities like Jeddah and Dubai.

This is a clear example of how the private sector plays a pivotal role in political reform. Gulf countries, which have significant ethnic minority populations, high rates of development in education and health services, a relative amount of free speech, and are free from war and political conflicts, have the foundation for a pluralistic, multi-party system to exist. The push from the private sector is forcing open discussions about democratic reform.