For many in the West, the Middle East's evolution may appear slow, however true change is needed at an institutional level which, as Damien Phillips explains, is no easy feat.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Arab Spring and the dashing of its exuberant hope on the rocks of harsher underlying realities. While several countries in the region have ended up in an even worse position than before, some, like Qatar and Oman, are embedding admirable evolutionary shifts that increasingly look set to succeed where more radical and revolutionary changes have thus far failed.

In Egypt, the sudden collapse of Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian rule ushered in the Muslim Brotherhood, who formed a new government under President Mohamed Morsi. Polarising, divisive and failing to address Egypt's economic woes, Morsi was subsequently deposed in 2013 by a military coup. Today, Egyptians live under a military dictatorship headed by General Abdel al-Sisi whose regime is more brutal and authoritarian than ever before.

In Tunisia, the rapid quest for political and democratic change has resulted in economic turmoil, corruption and political dysfunctionality that has witnessed twelve ineffective governments in ten years.

In Lebanon, political chaos erupted and continues unabated. The country is nearing total economic collapse, its public debt-to-GDP ratio the third highest in the world and its unemployment rate stands at more than 25%. 

In Libya, Syria, and Yemen, the Arab Spring failed. Like so many revolutions before, it merely triggered years of civil war, rampant state failure, and wholesale death and destruction.

Revolutions are rarely successful because you cannot turn a country or its society into a successful liberal democracy overnight. You must first build the foundations of liberal democracy before you can expect the processes of democracy to function. Crucially, social and economic development is essential to establishing the foundations of a mature society in which disputes can be peacefully resolved. Going straight to democracy invariably leads to competing groups fighting over resources (often in tribal or ethnic conflict), extremist ideologies, a tyranny of the majority, and vast swathes of corruption.

Gaining independence from the UK in 1971, Britain's staunch ally Qatar is charting a steadier and more successful course to development, embarking on a long-term programme of institutional, social and economic reform. Chief among these is an ambitious project of investing in the human capital of all its citizens. From the mid-1990s, successive Emirs have sought to ensure that the country's schools and universities are of the highest quality. Today, the UN classifies Qatar as a country with a very high human development rating and by this measure it is widely regarded as the most advanced Arab state.

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Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani has sought to build on the country's successes in education with improvements in infrastructure, health care, and the expansion of Qatar's manufacturing, construction, and financial services sectors. Its free market economy, with no personal income tax or domestic corporation tax, has seen growth rates and wealth creation soar.

Combining strong institutions with high levels of social and economic development, the resulting stability now enables Qatar to pursue democratic reforms first muted with the adoption of its constitution, and approved in a referendum, in 2003. 

In November 2020, the Emir announced that in October 2021 30 out of 45 members of the country's main legislative body, the Shura Council, will be elected by members of the public. After the elections, the Shura Council will then have the power to dismiss ministers, approve the national budget and propose legislation.

Oman is following a similar path. Starting in 1970 under the late Sultan Qaboos, this Gulf state pursued a relentless economic development strategy which took its GDP per capita from $354 to just under $15,000 in 2020. Qaboos prioritised infrastructure, such as roads and highways, together with education. He joined the Word Trade Organisation in 2000 thereby signalling Oman's ambitions to global markets.

Oman's new Sultan Haitham has shown the same commitment to prioritising the country's economic development ahead of radical democratic change. In recent years, low oil prices have led to widening government deficits and rising unemployment among the country's large youth population.

Despite a clamour for major democratic reform, Sultan Haitham has opted to first re-establish economic stability and growth, and to strengthen Oman's institutions. New laws were issued in 2020 and 2021 that set the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary as the basis for governance. Freedom of expression and opinion, together with freedom of religion were rightly enshrined in law for the first time.

For foreign observers, the pace of change in Qatar and Oman may at times appear slow. But these often unglamorous, incremental, and deep-seated changes are what establishes the underlying institutional architecture needed for sustainable change and growth. While mistakes will be made, both Qatar and Oman show that lasting, meaningful change in the Middle East is possible.

Recent history is littered with examples of the consequences of rushing ahead in the quest for democratisation, but when it comes to enduring reform the tortoise beats the hare.

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