Nothing can teach us more about the perils of a promised rapid transition to liberal democracy than the human rights abuses and chaos we have witnessed recently in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The West called these revolutions, or this upheaval, the "Arab Spring," while others in the region have referred to it as resulting in an "Islamic Winter," a term with which I agree. The oil-rich countries of the Arab Gulf in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries might do well to learn lessons from the countries that have experienced these revolutions. The only way for GCC countries to endure the blizzard of the "Islamic Winter" is by building democracy gradually, brick-by-brick, grounded in a robust model of development.
The dangerous mistake made by the West, under the leadership of the Obama administration, is its use of an ill-defined notion of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA); it leads to mixed signals and exploitation. Such a loose definition of democracy, combined with the absence of a clear strategy for implementation, leaves a vacuum for countries and groups to take advantage of a period of turmoil to pursue their own agendas.
In the name of democracy, Qatar has exploited the Arab uprisings to expand its power in the region; similarly, Saudi Arabia, under the banner of democracy, wants apparently to spread its Wahhabism. Turkey plans to revive its Ottoman Empire, Iran its Persian hegemony over the Gulf region, and the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists announce that they want to fulfill their dream of the revived Caliphate -- all, they claim, in pursuit of democracy.
The West, therefore, must be very specific when considering what constitutes democracy and who counts as a human rights activist in the Middle East. There are some key questions that should be thought through very carefully. Does the West consider political Islamists or radicals in GCC countries to be human rights activists, such as members of the United Arab Emirates Al-Islah movement: Al Qaida sympathizers who are against religious tolerance, and women's and minorities' rights? Does the West consider movements such as the Al Wefaq National Islamic Society in Bahrain, who are allied with the Iranian regime, and whose members threaten the sovereignty of GCC countries, as human rights activists?
The other mistake made by Western countries is their continued reliance on GCC countries such as Qatar – which does not respect human rights on its own soil – previously to depose Gaddafi and currently to oppose Bashar Al-Assad in Syria. Qatar's true aspirations for these countries are neither democracy nor open societies, but regional domination. In what way can a country like Qatar that subsidizes Hamas and detained a Qatari poet, Mohammed Al Ajami, for his peaceful criticism of the ruling system, help proponents of democratic uprisings in the revolutionary Arab countries? Miscalculations like these caused the terrorist attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012; the motive for which the Obama administration, ridiculously, attributed at first to protests against a low-budget film that insulted Islam.
GCC countries would be mistaken if they thought that the best way to combat the threat of Islamists inspired by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the danger of the Shia Muslims allied with Iran would be by backing other opposing radicals. For example, since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Saudi Arabia has heavily empowered the "Salafis" – a camouflage term for ultra-fundamentalist Wahhabis – to face the Shia Crescent backed by Iran. Over time this has created Saudi terrorists who now threaten the Saudi regime, killing Americans whenever they can. Moreover, this tactic has in no way weakened Iranian power in the region. Saudi Arabian officials would be mistaken if they thought that reinforcing support for Wahhabi, or so-called "Salafi" clerics would create a bulwark against the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical Islamists.
On the contrary, this generates more Islamist totalitarianism and radicalism in the region, and may even result in events no less disastrous than those of September 11, 2001. Bahraini leaders will make the same mistake if they think they can counter the Shia majority opposition by relying on the Muslim Brotherhood and Wahhabi, or "Salafi," groups. These leaders must remember that Sunni Islamists, regardless of their differing rhetoric, share the same ambition for realization of the Caliphate project, with all Muslim countries subordinated to a single political and religious authority, as revealed in the views of Saudi Wahhabi clerics Salman Al-Ouda and Aaidh Al-Qarni, who supported the Brotherhood and praised their gains in social media.
The best way GCC countries can shield themselves from such threats is by pursuing a development model that will lead to the gradual introduction of democracy. Dhahi Khalfan, a Lieutenant General and Chief of the Dubai Police Force, mentioned on several occasions that development and reform are the best tools for challenging Islamists' threats and for retaining the sovereignty of GCC countries. However, Khalfan's statements on social media sites are not sufficient to counter the dangerous threat that Islamists pose. His ideas and speeches must be made real, by the creation of institutions embodying them, allowing them to have greater impact across the Gulf region.
Evidence indicates that the Gulf's wealth alone is not enough to protect it from a growing demand for political rights. Demonstrations that have taken place in Kuwait, Bahrain and in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia should be taken seriously. How to accomplish a transition from a good standard of living in an undemocratic country, to the establishment of a democratic government, should be studied carefully. Steps taken towards a fully-functioning democracy must be considered and gradual. One appropriate program would be the establishment of democracy academies that would train political parties in the foundations of democratic rule. These parties should be taught to disentangle themselves from tribal, sectarian and ethnic strife. These parties, be they conservative or liberal, must learn to protect fundamental human rights and freedoms. A religious party, for instance, that wants to implement an interpretation of Sharia law, which would violate women's and minorities' rights, should be prohibited.
Such academies must be the first action toward political reform; cosmetic "advisory election committees" established in some GCC countries are not the solution. Democracy must be based on real and extensive political education, not on improvised interest groups monitoring a process that may be premature or superficial.
The next stage in political reform is to draft and adopt constitutions that embody respect for human rights and equality. The establishment of civil society bodies to push for both development and democratic progress is also essential.
All of this should be carried out in conjunction with a thorough national-level process of development and reform in all GCC countries. This should start with a push for educational excellence that could be achieved largely through improving the quality of public schools and higher education. A reduction in unemployment, especially among young people, is also crucial. One of the reasons for enhancing education would be to generate more skilled graduates.
Important measures towards reform that need to be taken by GCC states immediately are a more equal distribution of wealth and an effective curb on financial and administrative corruption. Adherence to religious doctrines does not promise less corruption; in the Corruption Perception Index for 2008, Saudi Arabia, irrespective of its ultra-rigid Wahhabi domination, was the most corrupt of all GCC states. Saudi Arabia ranked at the 80th position, low on the list of limiting corruption, compared to the 35th place, with much less corruption, for the UAE. To confront corruption, there should be more transparency, especially in business transactions, more social justice, and greater executive, judicial and legislative reform. In addition, the persistence of nepotism in positions of authority is a factor encouraging corruption. Power in GCC states is confined mostly to certain families and individuals, who are selected not on the basis of their qualifications but by virtue of membership in certain networks. An official holding lifelong tenure should not be acceptable; when officials reach a certain age a successor should be selected. GCC countries have also underperformed on some Millennium Development Goals (MDG) measures such as poverty reduction, and in collating statistics and data on poverty.
If GCC countries hope to be the "economic tigers" of the Middle East and to prepare themselves for a post-oil future, they must be ready to create the conditions enabling investment to thrive and flourish. An investment environment is not all about money. Investors would also want any foreign staff be able to enjoy some aspects of their culture and religion in a GCC host country. Leaders in Saudi Arabia, for example, should lift restrictions on women and allow non-Muslims places of worship.
Improving the status of women in the GCC countries is also vital for development and fundamental to the democratic process. The requirement in Saudi Arabia of a male guardian's approval in nearly every aspect of a woman's life, especially affecting education and employment, can hinder development. This has led to a high rate of illiteracy among women, which in turn perpetuates high unemployment among women, and the proportion of Saudis below the poverty line has risen to 22 percent. Despite investment in women's education in GCC countries, women are underrepresented in leading roles such as senior executive positions in politics, public administration and professions in the private sector. Women in some GCC countries are restricted from entering architecture and engineering. Based on the United Nations report on human development in 2007/08, Saudi Arabia has the lowest female economic participation rate, at 20 percent, of all GCC countries, compared to 49 percent in Kuwait, which ranks the highest. There should also be more women's organizations. Many such organizations cannot be managed independently and are often subject to government checks or are tied to a religious party. Nevertheless, women's organizations are essential for the development process in the GCC region.
After working on all the above recommendations, there will be a need for federal and regional integration in areas of the economy, defence and foreign policy. Members of the GCC should try to bury any vestiges of historical disagreement or conflict between them, if they are to achieve a reformed and sovereign GCC region.
The lessons learned from the Arab revolutions are that building a liberal democracy overnight can be misused and freedoms misinterpreted, resulting in chaos and corruption. GCC states need to understand that institutional reform during such turmoil in the region is inevitable. To avoid any anarchy or further instability in the GCC region, there needs to be a step-by-step approach to building democracy, with the focus on development and reform. This path is the means, in addition, for GCC states to protect themselves from both foreign and domestic opportunists.
Najat AlSaied is a Saudi PhD researcher in media and development at University of Westminster in London. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.