Behind the Arab revolutions,other Gulf states are witnessing radical changes.
And so it turns out that there were actually two Arab awakenings. There are the radical revolutions youve read about in Tunisia,Egypt,Syria,Yemen and Libya,none of which yet have built stable,inclusive democracies. But then there are the radical evolutions that youve not read about,playing out in Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf monarchies. The evolutions involve a subtle but real shift in relations between leaders and their people,and you can detect it from even a brief visit to Saudi Arabia,Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The Gulf leaders still have no time for one-man,one-vote democracy. But,in the wake of the Arab Spring,theyre deeply concerned with their legitimacy,which they are discovering can no longer just be bought with more subsidies or passed from father to son. So more and more leaders are inviting their people to judge them by how well they perform how well they improve schools,create jobs and fix sewers not just resist Israel or Iran or impose Islam.
And,thanks in large part to the internet,more people are doing just that. The role of the internet was overrated in Egypt and Tunisia. But it is underrated in the Gulf,where,in these more closed societies,Facebook,Twitter and YouTube are providing vast uncontrolled spaces for men and women to talk to each other and back at their leaders. Saudi Arabia alone produces almost half of all tweets in the Arab world and is among the most Twitter- and YouTube-active nations in the world. By far,those Saudis with the most Twitter and YouTube followers tend to be Wahhabi fundamentalist preachers,but gaining on them are satirists,comedians and commentators,who poke fun at all aspects of Saudi society,including usually indirectly the religious establishment,which is no longer off limits.
There were torrential rainstorms when I was in Saudi Arabia 10 days ago and the Saudi newspaper,Al-Sharq,published a cartoon with three men answering this question: Why did all the streets of Riyadh flood? The government official answers: The streets didnt flood. Thats just a vicious rumour. The sheikh answers: Its all because of the sins of the girls at Princess Nora University. The citizen says: Its because of corruption but then the cartoon shows an arm labelled censorship coming from off the page to snip off this comment. That is in a Saudi paper!
Talk about reform in Dubai,the government has set a strategy for 2021,and each of the 46 ministries and regulatory agencies has three-year Key Performance Indicators,or KPIs,they have to fulfil to get there,ranging from improving the success of Dubai 15-year-olds in global science,math and reading exams to making it even easier to start a new business. All 3,600 KPIs are loaded on an iPad dashboard that the ruler,Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid,follows each week.
Maryam al-Hammadi,48,the director of government performance,strikes fear in the heart of every minister in Dubai because each month she ranks them by who is making the most progress toward achieving their KPIs,and Sheikh Mohammed gets the list. You dont want to be at the bottom.
Again,this is not about democracy. Its about leaders feeling the need to earn their legitimacy. But when one leader does it,others feel the pressure to copy.
Thomas l. friedman