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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 May, 2005, 10:30 GMT 11:30 UK
Long road to Gulf democracy
Frank Gardner
By Frank Gardner
BBC Security correspondent

As Britain goes to the polls, Frank Gardner examines democratic developments in the Gulf.

Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz
In Saudi Arabia all the powerful positions are enjoyed by one family
Think of the Arab world and it has to be said that free and fair elections do not exactly spring to mind.

This is after all one of the last remaining parts of the world where unelected leaders cling stubbornly to power.

They share it with family and cronies, then often pass it on to their sons.

In Saudi Arabia for example, the all-powerful posts of king, crown prince, defence minister and interior minister are all filled by brothers and half-brothers from the same family.

Even in staunchly republican Syria, the post of president slipped seamlessly from father to son five years ago.

In Libya and in Egypt the incumbent rulers are busy fending off rumours that they plan to do the same with their sons.

Even when elections are held they have tended to be a sham, returning a military-backed president to power with what officials claim is "over 90% of the vote".

Tribal society

Recent municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, while still a promising beginning, were boycotted by many since half the places on the municipal councils are still filled by government appointees.

The councils anyway have very limited political power.

To us in Britain this might all seem hopelessly unfair and undemocratic.

But what we tend to forget is that it has taken nearly 800 years for British democracy to evolve.

Even just 100 years ago women here still did not have the right to vote or stand for parliament.

But the countries of the Arabian peninsula especially are being expected to evolve in the space of a few generations from a nomadic, tribal society, to one that is compatible with the rest of the world in the 21st Century.

Election fever

A few years ago I had the chance to see first-hand just how hard that transition can be.

The tiny Gulf state of Qatar was holding its first municipal elections.

The ruling emir had shocked his neighbours by decreeing that women could both vote and stand for office.

Since Qatar is effectively a city state with most of the population living in the capital, Doha, getting elected to the municipality was seen as an enticing prospect.

I flew into a city in the grips of the nearest thing the Gulf had to election fever.

Giant posters carried the smiling, paternal faces of various candidates, their beards neatly trimmed, their traditional white thaub robes all ironed and spotlessly clean.

I did not notice any pictures of the female candidates, but purple and white flags, the national colours, flapped limply in the sweltering heat.

Omani frankincense

It was everyone's patriotic duty to vote.

I went off to interview a female candidate who, despite her modest Islamic headscarf, had a larger-than-life personality and an unshakable conviction that she was going to win.

On the eve of election day I was invited to Qatar's equivalent of a political rally.

Outside the sand-coloured walls of a nondescript villa gleaming four-wheel-drive jeeps had been parked haphazardly.

The food was laid out on mats on the floor so that dozens of people could eat at the same time
It was after dark but small children were playing unsupervised between the wheels of the cars.

I stepped inside to be met by a waft of Omani frankincense that coiled up to the ceiling from small burners placed around the room.

The host - who was also the candidate - was busy waving his guests towards dinner.

Instead of a table, the food was laid out on mats on the floor so that dozens of people could eat at the same time, sitting cross-legged, shoulder to shoulder.

Unlimited sheep

There were plates of stuffed vine leaves, meatballs with pine nuts, and skewers of grilled lamb.

But placed at intervals were huge trays bearing the carcass of a whole cooked sheep, skull, innards and all.

Known as qoozi or "seethed sheep", it is a popular dish in the Gulf and considered the height of hospitality.

The men rolled up their right sleeves and dived in, making sticky balls of food in their fists then tossing them into their mouths.

The men all told their wives and sisters not to vote for me
Qatari female candidate

There was no conversation. In fact, there was no visible sign of any electioneering either.

But there did not need to be any, the candidate had already published his promises and tonight was the icing on the cake, the proof that here was a local figure generous enough to buy his neighbours unlimited plates of seethed sheep.

The next day I came across a group of British MPs, down in Doha to observe the elections.

They pronounced them largely free and fair but my female candidate was far from happy.

She had been soundly trumped by all the male candidates, even the women voters had largely ignored her.

"It's not fair," she complained, "the men all told their wives and sisters not to vote for me."

Democracy in the Gulf, it seems, begins at home, and still has a long way to go.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 5 May, 2005 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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