March 16, 2005

Bahraini Bloggers Free; Bahrain Starts Liberalization

The bloggers arrested for operating www.bahrainonline.com and for expressing unacceptable political views online have been freed. I blogged on it just a few days ago here.

In addition, Bahrain is making more accomodation for freedoms like speech and dissent.

The Gulf States are well beyond most of the Arab world monetarily (except Yemen, an extremely poor country when measured by GDPpc) from their oil wealth. Contrary to the perception of many, most of the oil-rich Gulf States could maintain quite high living standards wealth even if oil became worthless tomorrow. They diversified in the 1970s and 1980s and have acted to minimize any over-dependence on oil.

They have high standards of living, great wealth, skyscrapers, restaurants, Westerners, trade and commerce, Internet service providers, satellite TV, and many of the luxuries of the West. They also have, in the words of one of my college professors, "social spending that would make a Scandinavian blush." What's interesting is that their wealth has made them rather more open than other Arab countries.

What we've been seeing the last few weeks and months is happening most in the worst countries - approximately. This is not an exact line, but notice how the biggest stories happen in the worst places. Iraq is in turmoil with a horrible tyrant, untold thousands disappeared or murdered, and then inspirational national elections transpire. Lebanon undergoes strife, civil war and a decades-long military occupation by a bigger (bully of a) neighbor and then mass protests spark pullbacks. Egypt has a horrible track record of political repression and economic straitjacket regulations, now Mubarak is declaring his openness to multi-candidate elections. Saudi Arabia is one of the most repressive states in the world but held local-level elections.

The places in the worst shape -Iraq, followed by Lebanon- had the more wonderful developments - actually having elections versus the start pf a pullout that would prece elections. The more stable places -Egypt and Saudi Arabia- had important but less groundshaking steps forward.

The worse places have further to go and the clamor for change is greater. This is interesting because under normal (or at least Western) circumstances it's the richer, freer and more economically developed countries that seem to place progressively higher premiums on freedom and independence. But in the Middle East today it seems that the worst or formerly worst places are having a lot of pressure on them to change while some of the relatively freer places (the Gulf states, except Saudi Arabia) aren't moving very fast at all.

Thus it is that a place like Kuwait, Qatar or the UAE can experience little or no real change these last few months, despite having educated middle classes and wealthy economies. Bahrain's experience this week is important - don't let anyone say differently. Small-level protests got political dissidents freed from prison. But certainly the Lebanese and Iraqis have had a much more transformational feeling.

Hopefully the Bush administration will use our economic and military ties to the small Gulf states (they trade quite a bit with us and we have a number of bases in these countries) to encourage them to jump on the bandwagon of freedom and democracy.

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