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Last Updated: Sunday, 13 January 2008, 20:35 GMT
The Gulf's wary path to democracy
Julia Wheeler

US President George W Bush with United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed
Gulf rulers are following Mr Bush's democratic lead at their own pace
During his speech in Abu Dhabi, US President George W Bush called on countries in the Middle East to embrace democracy.

He said this was the best way to defeat extremism.

Leaders in the Gulf can confidently tell George Bush they are already moving towards more representation for their people.

But they would almost certainly add that they are doing it at their own pace and in their own style.

In the past five years all six Gulf countries have given more of their people the chance to vote.

Limited choice

At one end of the spectrum, Kuwait has a parliament with real powers to question ministers and to call into question government decisions.

A year and a half ago, women were allowed to go to the polls for the first time as equals with Kuwaiti men.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the Gulf not to have national elections, but even this traditional Arab society has allowed municipal polls within the last three years.

The other Gulf states sit somewhere in between. Bahrain, Oman and Qatar have elections to national parliaments or councils, but the real power rests with the ruling sheikhs.

The United Arab Emirates held its first elections just over a year ago, but the government chose both the candidates and the electorate.

This restricted democracy is not what Mr Bush wants to see in the region, but the rulers here are not prepared to risk losing the power they and their families have enjoyed, in some cases for centuries.

Tribal custom

Many traditionalists argue that democracy here is alive, through the system of the majlis, or ruler's council.

Anyone, they say, has access to the sheikh by turning up and putting forward their point of view. It has worked among desert tribes for centuries, they argue.

Mr Bush believes that in the 21st Century, things have to be more formal.

At the same time though, he clearly feels able to deal with those who currently hold hereditary power in the Gulf.

If there was true Western-style democracy, he might find he was dealing with some altogether different characters.

Some might counsel that Mr Bush should be careful what he wishes for.

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