Talk to the Gulf About Leadership

Washington needs to do more to push its allies toward sustainable stability.

It is likely that every American president since George Washington has joked with his advisers that he would love to have the absolute power wielded by some of his fellow world leaders. With such authority, he could deal decisively with pesky domestic critics, unruly media, or noisy civil-society groups. Occasionally a president has imposed emergency laws (Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt), carried out "dirty tricks" against critics (Richard Nixon), or stretched the rules of domestic surveillance (George W. Bush). But such practices tend to be aberrations and usually evoke a corrective response from the judiciary, Congress or the public.

Such systemic give and take is alien to many regimes in the Middle East, whether they are led by monarchs or by civilians who monopolize power. In the Gulf, royal families view themselves as the ultimate legitimate leaders. They are skeptical of the merits or the effectiveness of systems of shared power. They believe the fact that they have survived and their countries have thrived for the most part indicates their future durability.

One can only imagine the pained reactions in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, or Manama when they read Jordanian King Abdullah's recent comments to an American reporter suggesting that his son would be the monarch in a "Western democracy with a constitutional monarchy." The Gulf leaders want to be rulers—not mere symbols—and are taking a variety of steps beyond the normal generous benefits to citizens to try to ensure their longevity. For example, there are sharp crackdowns on any evidence of political organizing by Islamists in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), enforcement of laws against criticizing the ruler in Kuwait, and attempts to limit discourse about the king on social media in Bahrain.

Some of these crackdowns are reactions to manifestations in the Gulf of the "awakening" elsewhere in the region, which the Gulf monarchies view largely as a threat, and not as a way to make gradual, progressive reforms. Mark Lynch has dissected the costs of mocking a monarch in the Gulf and suggests that prosecuting people for criticism "is the surest sign that they (monarchs) are losing." Indeed, energetic stifling of criticism will not eliminate it and risks further erosion of legitimacy.

To protect U.S. interests, senior American policymakers, including the president, need to engage their Gulf counterparts in a sustained dialogue about internal political developments. These difficult conversations have tended to fall off the bottom of agendas between U.S. presidents and Gulf leaders, as they deal with pressing issues of the day. Such neglect was evident in the policy confusion that emerged during and after the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, as Washington floundered to define its interests and have some impact on developments. Leader-to-leader discussions do not replace U.S. engagement across a broad spectrum of Gulf populations. But given the political structures of the Gulf, these talks are absolutely necessary and are too late if they come only at the moment of crisis.

Why So Little Concern?

During his conversations with Gulf leaders recently in Washington, it is unlikely that U.S. president Barack Obama raised human-rights concerns with Abu Dhabi crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan or discussed allowing greater dissent with Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal. Nor did he likely suggest that the Amir of Qatar rescind the sentence of a recently jailed poet. In the hierarchy of U.S. interests in the Gulf, internal political developments rank well below many other issues. Why?

First, there is no clear and present crisis. Domestic politics have become complicated and tense in Bahrain and Kuwait, for example, but they do not compare with the wholesale slaughter of citizens in Syria, nor to the wholesale violation of human rights in Iran. In fact, one poll finds that "the UAE is country where most Arab youth would like to live." Second, the United States has strong, shared security interests with Gulf states, ranging from concerns about Iran and Syria to counterterrorism cooperation. The Gulf states are accommodating of U.S. military presence in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE, for which they pick up a good portion of the bill. Third, economic and commercial ties are very important to the U.S. economy. The free flow of oil is still critical. Gulf treasuries own vast amounts of U.S. debt, Gulf consumers buy huge amounts of U.S. goods and services, and Gulf states are major customers for U.S. defense exports.

Given the web of shared interests that bind the Gulf and the United States, it is not surprising that human rights and internal political developments do not gain more prominence in bilateral relations. The State Department’s annual human-rights report has become an annoying sideshow in the Gulf and elsewhere—the report provides well-documented information but is not integrated into other aspects of U.S. policy. Meanwhile, some of the Gulf states are adept at building goodwill in Washington, including through generous support for educational institutions, think tanks, disaster relief and other philanthropic endeavors.

Having Been There . . .