x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Gulf parliaments to focus on world clout

The leaders of Gulf parliaments meet in the capital to discuss better ways of co-operating and increasing the region's global influence.

ABU DHABI // The leaders of Gulf parliaments meet today in the capital to discuss better ways of co-operating, and to increase the region's influence internationally.

The meeting comes ahead of the GCC summit in Abu Dhabi next month, when the heads of state will gather for a two-day conference in which economic issues such as the Common Gulf Market and security in the region, particularly in Yemen, are expected to dominate.

The parliamentary agenda focuses on co-ordination between Gulf parliaments in an attempt to increase their clout on the international stage. The speakers of parliament will examine a report on the collaboration of the GCC states. The strategy would create a Gulf parliamentary delegation that would represent the GCC in upcoming visits to the European Parliament and the US Congress to promote Gulf interests.

The meeting was expected to approve a UAE proposal for an annual GCC parliamentary conference.

"It is clear that the parliaments are now playing a bigger role in co-ordinating joint efforts in the Gulf," said Mohammed al Hulwah, a member of the foreign relations committee in the upper chamber of parliament in Saudi Arabia. Gulf issues have often dominated the agenda of Arab parliamentary meetings as the GCC grows more assertive.

"We lay out the issues of the Arab world from a Gulf perspective," said Mr al Hulwah. This has meant that political issues crucial to the Gulf, such as the UAE's stand-off with Iran over the occupied islands of Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunb, as well as Saudi Arabia's push for stability in Yemen, have dominated Arab agendas, he said.

However, he believes that Gulf parliaments are likely to be more influential on the domestic front than leading foreign policy. An expanding legislative and oversight role locally is the best way they can provide a direct benefit to citizens, Mr al Hulwah said.

"These are consultative parliaments," said Abdulaziz Sager, the chairman of the Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre. "The state has the right to listen to them or not."

Many representatives are appointed by the state, which points to the fact that many Gulf central governments are not eager to give up law-making powers, he said. The role of the parliaments is given prominence depending on external pressure for political reform, he said.

"If the general mood is one of promotion of democracy then they are brought to the surface," he said.

There are three elements to reform in the Gulf, said Mr Sager - it should be internal, gradual and focus on local issues such as social development and religion. Internally, there is little demand for political reform.

"As long as there are economic gains, the demand for political reform and participation will decline," said Mr Sager. The state is also the biggest employer for locals and provides economic benefits to its citizens, making opposition even less likely to flourish.

A key element to the co-operation is learning from Gulf states with influential parliaments, such as Kuwait and Bahrain. One item on the agenda is an examination of elections in Gulf countries with bicameral (two chamber) legislatures.

Bahrain's parliamentary elections have brought political reform to the spotlight. The government was accused of stifling the opposition after the arrest of opposition activists ahead of elections last month.

Bahrain's leaders have denied the arrests were politically motivated, and the elections featured a high turnout and a slight gain for the main Shiite opposition party.

Kuwait is also likely to be an interesting case study, since many in the Gulf see its parliament as having often been obstructive, slowing down development in the country.

"You cannot equate Bahrain and Kuwait with the rest of the Gulf countries, but they will benefit from their experience," said Mr Sager.