Will Gulf States Deliver on Talk of Human Rights Change?

Two incidents in the Persian Gulf outraged the world.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, May 5, 2009— -- Two stories from the Persian Gulf provoked shock and outrage from the international community in the past weeks.

The first, from the United Arab Emirates, grew from a tape aired by ABC News of Sheikh Issa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a member of the royal family, brutally torturing an Afghan man in the desert. The second, from Saudi Arabia, was the annulment of what struck many in the the West as an unholy marriage between an 8-year-old girl and a 58-year-old man.

The incidents are distinct, one the case of an apparently wayward and cruel man, the other of a traditional practice. But what happened in the UAE and Saudi Arabia stemmed from the same political reality.

As high-profile members of the international community, Saudi Arabia, a member of the G-20, and the UAE, an emblem of modern Arabia, are subject to international scrutiny. With their top-down rule, the respective royal families can make change happen quickly, given the political will among key leadership.

The two cases followed a familiar pattern: A negative story breaks, the international media reacts and global public concern generates a rare and unusually bold official response that may even result in condemnation.

"The Government of Abu Dhabi unequivocally condemns the actions depicted on the video," wrote the Human Rights Office of the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department, vowing to investigate the tape and issue a public report. While all are equal under the UAE constitution, it is unprecedented for a state institution to criticize and, potentially, take on a member of the royal family.

In Saudi Arabia, news of the 8-year-old divorcee brought to a crescendo the growing pressure, from global voices as well as from Saudi human rights activists, to ban child marriage in the kingdom. By Saturday, Saudi had announced its courts would review standing marriage laws and consider a minimum age of 18.

"Clearly, they're under more of a pressure because of the media attention that stories like these receive now," said Theodore Karasik, a former Middle East analyst with the RAND Corp. who is now based in Dubai, UAE.

Government Statements Yet to Be Tested

The government statements have yet to bear fruit, however. The test in the capital Abu Dhabi will be the transparency and critical honesty of its human rights report. In Saudi, if courts do set a minimum age, they'll have to prove they can enforce it; child marriage happens across the Arabian Peninsula and would have to be rooted out of rural areas.

One potential bright spot is that Arab women and homegrown human rights activists have been mobilizing to protect young girls, working to abolish child marriage from their communities. Nojoud Ali, a former child bride in Yemen who divorced last year at the age of 8, has since become a representative for change in tribal customs.

For Saudi Arabia, which faced scrutiny after 9/11 for its radical conservatism and inconsistent legal system, the dual goals of reform and public relations have been the emphasis of the reigning King Abdullah's term. In the UAE, a country that has spent billions on projects to boost its image, change is essential for the state to keep its reputation as a modern society that abides by world-class standards.

A first for the Arab world, the UAE has cultivated two parallel government departments -- "Brand Dubai" and "Brand Abu Dhabi" -- to promote each city-state in the global arena. The tarnish of a negative news story cuts into what those agencies are trying to accomplish.

The shame factor is culturally potent, embedded in Bedouin values of saving face and keeping quiet about one's dirty laundry. Both states are allies of the United States eager to emerge as good global citizens, rebranding the Arab oil billionaire as the benevolent sheikh. Gulf states, concerned with their reputation abroad, are especially susceptible to negative publicity -– in this case, reconsidering state policy in the wake of global news coverage and public response.

But analyst Karasik emphasized that pressure from the global media has its limits (there was little reporting on the Sheikh Issa case from the local UAE media, for instance). Change can come quickly, but only when leaders want it to.

"They won't have anything imposed from outside," he said. "They'll do these investigations and reviews, on their own time scales, with their own procedures.

"Political and social reform will happen at their own pace and no one else's."