Middle East: When Giving ‘Gifts’ Fails

If you give people what they want, they will stop complaining, so logic would say. Unless, of course, they start asking for more. In the case of governments and protesters, giving the people what they want does not solve the problem or satisfy the public for long. Why? Firstly, the real problem is usually the entire government itself, and not just the thousand and one grievances that people list. In the Arab Spring, every government tried to quell the protesters by giving them what they wanted. This often failed, and where it did not, the problems still exist.

Every country witnessed some sort of protesting or dissent. But only the Hollywood-esque scenarious were given the limelight: Tunisia. Egypt. Libya. Syria. There was vague mention of protesters elsewhere. Were protesters in these other countries successful? What are their governments like?

One act that was prevalent among all the Middle Eastern dictators and kings was “giving the people what they want,” a first-step approach they all took regarding protesters. Mubarak tried to draft new legislation-and ended up resigning when that clearly didn’t pacify the Egyptians. Syria has attempted to make new reforms with the rebels, but the opposition isn’t having it. Giving in to requests may seem like an obvious choice when one’s rule is in jeopardy, but by that point the people are so disgruntled with requests and disappointment that a ruler has almost no hope of staying in office.

Most of the remaining Middle Eastern regimes are kingdoms or royalties and it is interesting to highlight that these were the countries that effectively kept their protesters quiet, sweeping it all under the Persian rug. Perhaps it is because monarchies have long experience with keeping their populations in check, and have much more at stake in defending their legitimacy as well as that of their predecessors and successors.

Saudi protesters. Sourced from cnnworld.com

Saudi Arabia decided to squash protesting more or less before it even began, taking note of the toppling domino-dictators around them. According to an article in Bloomberg (see below), the government pumped money into different sectors of the government: “helping pay for companies to train Saudis for new jobs,” donating $160 billion riyals to education and $130 billion  to “create jobs, build subsidized housing and support the religious establishment.” This might placate some, but how much of the money will actually be put to good use? Giving gifts only buys the Al-Saud more time, though they likely won’t use it to plan out true, meaningful reform. A true Arab Spring in Arabia would mean a massive loosening up on cultural rooms, and could certainly never happen without a Woman’s Spring, which although some people champion it in the works, is not enough.

The problem with a government suddenly issuing long-awaited lifts of bans on certain things is that the rest of the population is so ingrained to follow the former ban that they won’t recognize the lifting or, worse, they will finally see the banned item/act as, well, worth being banned. Therefore, if any country wants to promise radical reform, and even if they actually do put it into practice, the public will have to be made explicitly aware of the [lift] and mentally catch up.

Oman and Morocco are two other kingdoms which effectively kept talk of dissent to am minimum. Oman has had very little protest to begin with, but when it did finally experience some unrest this past February-a whole year after the Arab Spring began-the Omani Sultanate responded Saudi-style: he raised unemployment wages to $380 USD as well as the minimum wage, among other ‘amendments.’ The people, a Huffington Post article by Sigrurd Neubauer (link below), quieted down almost immediately. Were the people of Oman pleased with this gift? Omani society has greatly improved in certain sectors, and perhaps that’s why the Omani people are not taking to the streets like some of their poorer counterparts.

Constitutional Monarchy Morocco, although it did experience some unrest during the immediate heat of the Arab Spring, was true to kingdom form as King Mohammad VI “skilfully sidestepped the revolutionary fervour sweeping the Arab world by offering a milder, more peaceful vision of change,” according to a BBC article by Aidan Lewis (see below). Forcing the king to pick a prime minister from a select group of people? It’s a start in a good direction, but it’s hard to see how the simple reforms enacted by the Moroccan King were able to placate the people, even taking into consideration Lewis’s report that Moroccan peasants “believe that the monarch has a special gift or blessing and they feel that they have some psychological relationship with the kin.”

Four of the seven so-called “democracies” in the Middle East experienced massive revolt and upheaval; they are the four countries that have been covered in great length by the media. Out of the remaining three, Lebanon and Yemen also experienced major upheaval, and it is strange that they did not get as much coverage as their fellow uprisers. The reason might be as simple as the fact that the governmental transitions in the two countries went rather smoothly once change was decided on: there were no real elections. Thus, it is safe to say that when it comes to the media, only the most dramatic and violent news will take the front page.

Protesters in Yemen. Sourced from cnbc.com

In Yemen, former president (of 33 years) Ali Abdullah Saleh tried to give the people what they want by announcing an early “retirement,” creating new cabinets and firing certain government officials, but the increased violence only led him to eventually resign, which proved that when the people want something, there’s no stopping them, and trying to give them a watered-down version of what they exactly want will not stabilize one’s regime.

Lebanon witnessed a major change in it’s government, which is based on Confessionalism between the different religious sects: after protesting as well as pressure from Hezbollah, a Sunni was elected president, and Christian Michel Suleiman stepped down (the president is always a Christian). Strangely enough, more protests erupted after this abrupt power change, which indicates that just because Hezbollah got what it wanted, doesn’t mean that the people are happy too.

The one “dictator democracy” that didn’t experience a change in leadership was Algeria. Overall, the country witnessed few protests, as they are banned by the military-backed government. Unlike other n0n-kingdoms in the region, Algeria actually has money to spare, and is not overwhelmed, population-wise; thus,  “like the oil-rich nations of the Persian Gulf, Algeria has been able to neutralize calls for reform with oil-generated cash reserves — $180 billion — and a government program to dole out money to restive youth,” read a New York Times article in May. Algeria for now has been able to buy peace, despite the fact that it’s president has been in power for 19 years, a sure sign that Algerians might not be able to be bought off much longer.

The moral to be taken away from analyzing the countries of the Middle East: don’t give a political gift unless you can be absolutely sure it’s what the people were asking for. Because they will return it and ask for a refund.


IF you give Links: 1.http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/19/world/africa/in-algeria-belittling-elections-but-no-arab-spring.html?pagewanted=all Algeria 2. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-15856989 Morocco 3. http://www.foxnews.com/world/2012/02/08/yemen-killed-270-in-crackdown-on-arab-spring-protesters-watch-group-says/ Yemen 4.

http://latestworldbusinessnews.blogspot.com/2011/01/najib-mikati-elected-prime-minister-of.html Lebanon 5. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-04-02/saudis-skip-arab-spring-as-nation-pours-money-into-jobs.html Saudia 6. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sigurd-neubauer/oman-arab-spring_b_1144473.html Oman

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