If 2005 was the year of the election in the Middle East, then reform will

be the watchword of 2006, as a host

of opposition parties, rights movements and religious groups try to consolidate political gains made in the last 12 months.

For once, much of the attention will focus on the Gulf. From February’s municipal elections in Saudi Arabia to December’s snap decision by UAE president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan to open up half of the seats on the Federal National Council to a general vote, a number of Gulf states squared up to democratic reform for the first time in 2005. Although many of these advances were symbolic, real progress was made in the development of civil society in the region. Kuwaiti women finally gained the vote in May, while a Qatari constitution came into force in June that enshrines the principles of equal rights, freedom of speech, a free press and freedom of assembly.

Even the most cursory elections have set a precedent for more meaningful reform in 2006 and beyond. The Saudi poll was

widely seen as a dry run for a partially elected Majlis al-Shoura (consultative council), the biggest proto-parliamentary body in the region. Substantial restructuring of the

150-member assembly is not likely until the end of its current four-year term in 2009, but it has been growing rapidly in legislative strength as well as numbers – the majlis

consisted of only 60 advisers in 1992, when it was formally established to oversee the

work of the Saudi bureaucracy. Since his accession in August, King Abdullah has indicated that further and faster political reform is on the cards. ‘Our people are just now beginning to open up to the world and I believe that with the passing of days in the future, everything is possible,’ he said in his first formal interview as monarch. Women’s rights and social justice are also high on the Saudi agenda.

Despite its new-found compassionate conservatism, the kingdom has been slower than most Gulf states to embrace political change. Kuwait has long had a functioning – if somewhat dysfunctional – parliament, and many other hydrocarbons producers have been emboldened by high oil prices and the generally benign economic conditions of the last two years (see Briefing, page 6). Doha, in particular, is expected to make great strides in 2006. Following the separation of the legislative and executive branches of the Qatari government last year, the state is now gearing up for its first parliamentary elections. Preparations are under way to finalise an election law, and constituency boundaries for the fledgling parliament will be drawn up by the end of February.

High hopes

To the north, Bahrain’s first parliament in more than two decades has proved a hotbed of debate, and although participation is still limited, there are great expectations of the next round of elections in a year’s time (see table). Meanwhile, another unique constitutional experiment is taking place in Iraq, where in the aftermath of parliamentary elections in December, Arab and Kurdish leaders, Sunni and Shia alike, are attempting to put aside their differences to forge a government of national unity.

The spread of the ballot box has lent many Middle East governments legitimacy in the eyes of the international community, and it would be churlish not to support recent developments. But political activists do warn of an undue US emphasis on elections at the expense of human rights (MEED 9:12:05, Cover Story).

The formation of a sovereign, elected government in Baghdad will give the US some cover for its proposed troop withdrawal, but it is a point that Washington is gradually taking on board. ‘I think that there has been some simplification of policy in recent years, where we were focused almost exclusively on elections,’ says a senior official within the U