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Troubled waters in the Gulf

The Qatar crisis has ensured that the region can no longer boast being an oasis of tranquillity

These are, to put it mildly, unsettling days for the Arab Gulf states. The Qatar crisis demonstrates dramatically what they had perhaps been unwilling to accept before: the comfort blanket of solid and enduring political stability has been removed.

After decades of quiet oil-funded prosperity and back-seat regional politics, the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) face a maelstrom of challenges.

Even before the Qatar controversy erupted, the population of the Gulf was witnessing a radical change in leadership stylesat least in two of the key GCC states, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Two charismatic and ambitious leaders, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the son of the king of Saudi Arabia, and Muhammad bin Zaid, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the strongman of the UAE, have led the way.

These two young and energetic princes have challenged the traditional structures and mechanisms of Gulf leadership, offering a new approach that's more decisive, but less accountable and less predictable.

It's less accountable because they've swept aside the concept of seeking consensus in private among the different branches of a ruling family before taking major decisions. This informal consultation process was always hailed as the Gulf's own particular form of democracy.

Princes around the country would hear the concerns and aspirations of the people and their views would go into the mix before the king or emir decided what to do. Now, in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, that way of doing things has pretty much gone.

Because that consultation process has been ditched, and no-one knows what to expect next, life is less predictable. In the case of Saudi Arabia, for example, out of the blue the country was plunged into a war in Yemen, civil servants' pay was first slashed then just as suddenly restored, and most recently, without warning, a siege was imposed on Qatar. In the UAE's case, the surprise engagement in the Yemen war left Emiratis in shock as casualties mounted.

Presidential powers

The continuation of this new leadership trend would gradually give the two men involved a status more akin to an all-powerful president than a king, more like Sisi of Egypt than the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. For many Gulf citizens this represents a traumatic break with tradition, disturbing in a region where change has always been gradual and measured, and the future has never looked anything other than calm and secure.

There is a danger that the populations could feel even more disenfranchised than before. And with the solid support of the Trump administration, which has cast aside Obama's dictum that Arab states adhere to high standards of human rights, dissent would be firmly stifled.

Against this background of unprecedented nervousness about the future came the Qatar crisis. No matter how it's resolved eventually, through mediation or conflict, the GCC's underlying principles have already been severely damaged-and with it the Gulf's image of unassailable stability.

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