Conservative oil-rich Gulf monarchies need to introduce political reform and modernise their education systems as part of a comprehensive programme of change, regional experts say.
Gulf Arab states have undergone social change brought about by economic development, such as women's entry into the workforce, Saudi academic Khalid al-Dakhil told a conference in Abu Dhabi organised by the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research.
What remains conspicuously absent in most of them is "political reform as part of a comprehensive reform programme", said Dakhil in a paper read on his behalf.
The three-day conference began on Monday under a theme which places the region "between conservatism and change".
Speakers agreed that the emirate of Kuwait has gone further than any of its other Gulf Arab neighbours in democratising.
But Kuwaiti political science professor Abdullah al-Shayiji cautioned that "the Kuwaiti model touted as a prototype is facing a lot of challenges".
Kuwait's emir dissolved parliament in March after a standoff between the elected house and the government, and he called early polls for May.
Bahrain also has an elected parliament but it is counterbalanced by an appointed upper house, while other Gulf states have consultative rather than legislative assemblies.
Political parties remain banned across the region, although political groups operate as de facto parties in Kuwait and Bahrain.
"Gulf societies are outpacing the political regimes on the road to reform," Dakhil said.
Saad al-Ajmi, a Kuwaiti liberal political activist and former information minister, said the conference's name should have placed the Gulf "between backwardness and change".
Conservatism does not preclude change, he argued, as evidenced by the record of conservative leaders such as former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
Bahraini former education minister Ali Fakhro called for "fundamental modernisation" of the education system as part of a comprehensive modernisation drive.
The question of whether modernising education is a prelude to modernising society and politics or vice versa will remain a matter of debate, Fakhro said.
"But if one must choose, then political modernity is the key... [Arab] regimes have totally swallowed society. The state is in charge of everything," he said.
Michael Hudson, director of the Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, said that due to their "extraordinary socioeconomic development," Gulf states were "facing political challenges that their traditional
patrimonialism may be hard-pressed to handle". (AFP)
Gulf needs political reform, say experts