The aim of this paper is to promote a better understanding of the complexity of decision making in the Gulf by acquiring a more insightful appreciation of how established and newly founded institutions contribute to the policy process.
The analysis and insights shared by the scholars and practitioners who have contributed to this paper help explain the institutional process of politics in the region.1 At present, not much academic literature focuses upon the role played by institutions in decision making within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. There is a wealth of academic enquiry into the role of institutions in the developed world and regions of the developing world, but nothing that focuses on the GCC. Most academic studies on the GCC emphasize how tribal society, rentierism and patronage are at the core of decision making, but they tend to neglect the role of institutions. Academic studies have tended to stress the role played by elites, the tribe, majalis, the military, rentierism, the environment and external relations in shaping domestic and foreign-policy decisions. However, political, social, economic and cultural institutions also contribute to the wider policy making. There is both an academic and policy need for better understanding of how such institutions feed into decision making in GCC states.
This paper is based on discussions from our workshop, "Building an Institutional Process of Socio-Politics in the Gulf," at the Sixth Gulf Research Meeting, University of Cambridge, Aug. 24-27, 2015. The discussions were informed by a series of papers that examined the roles played by institutions in GCC states. The paper also draws upon responses to the following survey questions conducted during the workshop:
1. In what ways are institutions and/or nonstate actors influencing policy decision making in the Gulf/your state?
2. Government decision making in the Gulf states is usually categorized in terms of vertical dependency (top-down). To what extent are institutions able to influence decision making processes either via bottom-up interactions or by having horizontal access to the traditional vertical dependency? How influential do you think institutions could become in shaping and informing policy in the future?
3. How would you describe contemporary civil society in the Gulf/your state? What form is it taking? How does contemporary civil society challenge the traditional viewpoint (as found in the academic literature) of civil society in the Gulf/your state?
4. In your opinion, which types of institutions are the most successful in the Gulf/your state? Why are they successful? In which fields do they operate? To what extent do they interact with other institutions and/or official government institutions?
5. To what extent are institutions increasing public participation in the Gulf/your state and/or have the ability to increase public participation in the Gulf/your state? How are they achieving this? In which fields? Is it possible to measure these achievements?
SETTING THE SCENE
The pace of political, economic and social development in the GCC states has outpaced academic enquiry. Most of the available literature attributes decision making in the Gulf to elite politics and bases state-society relations on rentierism. There is an academic and policy need for a better understanding of how these changes affect the increasingly complex decision-making processes within the Gulf. A focus on institutions can lend critical insight into how increasingly complex policy is both formulated and implemented. Very little academic research has been carried out on the role of institutional processes, mechanisms and institutions, especially from a comparative perspective, across the GCC. Furthermore, with the collapse of so many weak institutions across the Middle East and the breakdown of states, there is growing interest in the roles that institutions play as a whole. In addition, philanthropy, civil society and social media are setting the agenda by presenting new ideas for policy direction,2 which arguably creates upward pressure on the traditional top-down approach by government policy makers.3
The political, social and economic environment in the GCC has undergone significant change over the past decade, while the social contract between state and society is under serious review. In fact, economic institutions are gaining salience in the GCC owing to a combination of factors, including fluctuating oil prices, a drive for economic diversification and rising demographic pressures.4
A combination of financial stress, demographic change, unrest elsewhere in the Middle East and the failure of the GCC states to diversity their economies away from hydrocarbons has given rise to the need for more effective institutions. The leadership in the GCC states, almost collectively, has reached a crossroads and come to realize that it faces a stark choice: diversify the economy, build institutions to underpin change, eliminate corruption, root out patronage and draw up a new social contract or continue business as usual and risk losing power. Whereas many institutions once served as vehicles for promoting the interests of individuals, tribes and social groups, there is growing evidence that they are now beginning to contribute to economic, political and social change. In the contemporary setting, it is important to distinguish between informal and formal institutions.
Informal institutions, which manage to operate without a formal state mandate but enjoy privileged access to former officials, many of whom are still in close proximity to decision makers, are considered the most effective means of engaging citizens and advancing their interests. Whereas formal institutions may be better endowed with resources, capacity and a clear mandate, they continue to face constraints imposed from above. As such, efforts made by formal institutions to engage and empower citizens offer a sanitized form of governance, unlike informal institutions, which operate most effectively at the level of citizen and family.
A natural tension exists between the political leadership wanting to create institutions that serve the broader interests of the state and thus the stability of the system, on the one hand, and civil-society organizations providing services and holding the state accountable, on the other. At the same time, tension exists between informal social organizations, such as tribes, which are often able to exert influence on senior leaders, and formal organizations that lack the political and social capital to affect decision making.
In many ways, both insidious and obvious, tribal politics has both manipulated and is manipulated by the existing power structures. Political leaders have been able to draw upon tribal support to pursue their interests and have done so by perpetuating patronage, favor and largesse. By doing so, they have ensured that key tribes, which are instrumental to stability, remain loyal and wedded to the political system. However, the system of patronage has also constrained the states' margin for maneuver in developing effective institutions based on merit, performance and delivery. As a result, the capture of the political process by influential tribes has in the past marginalized and frustrated efforts by civil-society groups to influence decision making. As issue-based interest groups, civil-society organizations have at best remained marginal to the political process unless they are headed by otherwise influential figures. However, the balance of power between these two types of organizations has started to change since the advent of the Arab Spring and as GCC leaders have sought to develop their states beyond tribal society.
Institutions that exemplify political Islam and its values are also exerting a great deal of influence on the region.5 They naturally work as both recipients and sources of inspiration (still rarely, but more and more often) for state policies. This is complemented by the effect of criticism (both constructive and purely negative) toward state institutions and public (including royal) figures who, at times, have influence over decision making and policies.6
Nontraditional methods of state-society interaction, in particular social-media applications such as WhatsApp, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, have contributed to this profound change.7 Some more groundbreaking institutions, for example those in Saudi Arabia that promote art or cinema, are tolerated and allowed to go about their business, most likely in order to provide youth with avenues for growth and to prevent them from challenging authority.8 In fact, the establishment of the General Entertainment Authority (GEA) in Saudi Arabia — in line with Vision 2030 — denotes a break with the past. The creation of a formal institution headed by technocrats close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who are tasked with making entertainment a cornerstone of change to modernize the country indicates how institutions are becoming important change agents.
In the past, the GCC ruling families were able to govern through well-established patterns of privilege and patronage. With the growth in population, increase in economic activity and rising public expectations, ruling families can no longer maintain this system. Moreover, the collapse in the oil price in 2014 cut short the options of largesse at a time of heightened public expectations. Despite an increase in oil prices since Saudi Arabia and Russia decided to curb production, leaders in the GCC fully appreciate that structural change is necessary to offset the advent of the post-oil era.
The danger for GCC governments is that breakdowns in governance and a lack of effective civic institutions could lead to broader failures, creating the conditions for corruption and social unrest, as experienced elsewhere in the region. Growing signs of discontent in Jordan, for example, suggest that the antecedents of the Arab Spring are still present in the Middle East. Therefore, GCC states will increasingly come to rely upon institutions to serve as as an intermediary to service public demand both economic and political — as they transition away from oil dependency.
NEED FOR EFFECTIVE INSTITUTIONS
The sustained drop in the oil price in 2014 compelled GCC states to not only rein in expenditures but also lift a range of subsidies, which has led to complaints and public disquiet. The states have opened up a new chapter in state-society relations wherein citizens either demand a greater say in policy or expect new forms of compensation. As such, institutions can play a critical role in facilitating effective state-society dialogue. In fact, the changing economic environment and rapid societal developments are creating new problems and challenges that require governments to both respond and implement new policies. It is no longer enough for authority to be held in the hands of a few and implemented by a limited number of capable institutions, notably the security services.
Given the political and economic direction fostered by all GCC leaders — which includes a drive for diversifying the economy, as well as international relationships — their societies increasingly require competent, semi-autonomous and attuned institutions to deliver on a range of decisions beyond the capability of a handful of men. Indubitably, meeting these challenges will be found through constructive grassroots engagement with think tanks and civil society. These, in turn, will help inform and provide the state with optimal approaches and frameworks to respond.9 In this context, institutions serve as platforms for the discussion of issues such as women's rights that, until fairly recently, were considered taboo for traditional societies.10 That said, the amount of influence institutions are able to wield ultimately may be dependent on the strength and political will of their founding members, as balance will always be required to juggle force and suggestion.11
GCC states often lack an effective intermediate stratum that connects senior decision makers and the population. As society has become more complex, the traditional means of transmitting messages to leaders through majalis has largely become ceremonial, at least for the younger generations. This lack of an effective bridge between the governing and the governed contributes to societal frustration regarding the perceived lack of consultation in relation to sociopolitical, socioeconomic and sociocultural issues. One way to address this problem is to establish institutions that are accountable to citizens and not simply vehicles to rubber-stamp governmental decisions. When examining institutional processes in the Gulf, we therefore need to measure institutional effectiveness — the systematic, explicit and documented process of measuring performance against mission in all aspects of an institution. Effective institutions provide distinct frameworks for dealing with pressing political, economic and social issues beyond the competence and capacity of traditional rulers.
Developing and cultivating new institutions to meet the demands of changing societies can arguably complement existing models of governance. Significantly, the sociopolitical system in the GCC states is perceived to be flexible enough to allow for new institutional processes and mechanisms to emerge. Indeed, because of the culture of GCC societies, consultation and consensus building among groups with competing interests are of great importance.12 GCC institutions, though often heavily influenced by the GCC ruling families, are sometimes modifications of already existing mechanisms for state-society dialogue, such as discreet associational settings in the form of majalis and diwaniyyat (councils). In other words, institutions, and the individuals associated with them, are able to shape decision making through traditional channels13 and provide a space for citizens to voice their needs and concerns to government officials.14
Furthermore, institutions have been established with visions and missions to improve society for the good of the community in the fields of education, public welfare and health. To this end, institutions work with grassroots groups and relevant stakeholders: the disadvantaged, teachers, families, parents and students15 within existing social, cultural and religious norms.16 Social institutions that address issues faced by women and children are increasingly relevant due to collective agreement on the urgency of contentious issues such as exploitation and the needs of minorities.17 Accordingly, government officials recognize that institutions are necessary for the overall progress and development of the state.18
GCC governments are often accused of not being transparent in their decision making. They are perceived to be unable or unwilling to respond to their citizens' needs and aspirations. Furthermore, it is sometimes claimed that GCC states create new institutions to accommodate pressures for increased sociopolitical participation without establishing democratic or accountable institutions. Therefore, it is argued that without responsive governance, these societies need to seek to build consensus, advocating for their own interests or partnering with both public and private sectors to pursue them. This can be achieved by building an effective institutional process that provides entry points for citizen participation in the decision making process. Indeed, delivery of fair and equitable citizen services requires government responsiveness and accountability, as well as motivated civil-society organizations with the know-how to mobilize people and effectively engage with government to promote and sustain progress.
There is a clear need for effective institutions to help GCC states meet the requirements of their growing populations. An effective institutional process, or "new institutionalism," is important. As Przeworski19 argues, "institutions matter": they influence norms, beliefs and actions; therefore, they shape outcomes. Furthermore, "institutions are endogenous": their form and functioning depend on the conditions under which they emerge and endure.20
In the academic literature, and as presented in this paper, there is a discussion about whether formal or informal institutions are more effective at engaging nationals in decision making. Informal institutions are the more effective vehicles for conveying public sentiment. Moreover, they are considered the most effective means of engaging citizens and promoting their interests. There is also disagreement about whether formal institutional mechanisms such as e-governance — which arguably brings citizens closer to government, elections to governing bodies and transformations in labor markets — actually engage nationals in decision making or simply limit meaningful engagement. For example, does the provision of service delivery by e-governance lead citizens to demand more from their governments and naturally call for increased transparency and a greater say over policy? We contend that, because formal institutions perform the functions of the state, they have a tendency to limit meaningful citizen engagement.
Whereas formal institutions may enjoy access to resources and capacity, they are constrained by their very linkage to the state. In effect, this limits the real capacity of their efforts to engage and empower citizens. In contrast, informal institutions, which operate most effectively at the level of citizen and family, are free from such constraints. Finally, there is also little doubt that social media as a forum for citizen engagement will come to play an important role in influencing policy — in fact, it already has. Although difficult to imagine, in time, if not already, the combination of e-governance and social media could make more formal political structures such as shura councils and local councils redundant. In other words, e-governance and social media hold the potential to circumvent formal political institutions and engage directly with citizens.
In conclusion, it is clear that while the weight of decision making rests with states in the GCC, there is an irreversible transfer of authority towards citizens and institutions. This transfer has without doubt been accelerated by the low-oil-price era and subsequent decisions taken by GCC leaders to diversify their economies. In some cases, the shift in power has appeared far-reaching, as in the case of Saudi Arabia Vision 2030, which has led to the creation of many new dynamic institutions. Nevertheless, GCC citizens will need to lobby for further engagement rather than wait for states to voluntarily divest themselves of authority. As oil prices have rebounded, states have sought to recover some of the ground already ceded, but their need for effective institutions will compel them to slowly but surely devolve the process of decision making to meet national interests.
1 This paper is based on discussions and surveys involving scholars and practitioners from the GCC states, Asia, Europe and North America. A strength of the paper is that it incorporates the perspectives of both scholars and practitioners, whether sociopolitical, socioeconomic or sociocultural, with Gulf experience (both native and non-native) and/or those working in the Gulf field. These scholars and practitioners were brought together for a workshop entitled "Building an Institutional Process of Socio-Politics in the Gulf" at the Sixth Annual Gulf Research Meeting convened at Cambridge University, UK, in August 2015. The papers from the workshop were published as an academic book, edited by the authors. See M.C.Thompson and N. Quilliam, Policy-Making in the GCC: State, Citizens and Instituions (I.B. Tauris, London, 2017).
2 Anononymous survey response.
3 Survey response from Natasha Ridge and Susan Kippel.
4 Survey response from Rhea Abraham.
5 Survey response from AlAnoud Ashareq.
6 Anononymous survey response.
7 Survey response from Natasha Ridge and Susan Kippel.
8 Survey response from Mehtab Curry.
9 Survey reponse from Alaa Al Nassef.
10 Survey reponse from Rhea Abraham.
11 Survey response from Natasha Ridge and Susan Kippel.
12 Survey reponse from Maggie Kamel and Sherif Abdel Gawad.
13 Survey response from Natasha Ridge and Susan Kippel.
14 Survey reponse from Rhea Abraham.
15 Survey response from Natasha Ridge and Susan Kippel.
16 Survey response from Mehtab Curry.
17 Survey response from Rhea Abraham.
18 Survey response from Rhea Abraham.
19 D. Acemoglu, and J. Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty (Profile Books, 2012).