On 30 January 2013, Gianluca Parolin presented his research on authoritarian constitutionalism in the Persian Gulf states at the Constitutional Transitions Colloquium. Parolin is Assistant Professor of Law at the American University in Cairo, a Global Research Fellow at NYU School of Law, and a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Transitions for 2012-13. A video recording of his presentation is available here.
Parolin argued that the constitutions of the Gulf states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) are not merely ornamental, but in fact serve several important purposes. First, he demonstrated that the ruling families of the Gulf states increasingly rely on constitutions as a source of legitimacy. Second, when faced with popular demands for more meaningful political participation, Parolin explained how ruling families will often use constitutional provisions to control dissent within the existing system, by expanding parliamentary powers, or creating new representative bodies. Third, Parolin highlighted three parliamentary powers that have the potential to check the power of the ruling families: Parliament’s ability to question ministers, the “no confidence” vote, and the “non-cooperation” vote.
While acknowledging that parliaments in the Gulf states have a long way to go before they are able to provide a reliable and powerful counterbalance to the ruling families, Parolin cited examples from Bahrain and Kuwait to illustrate that ruling families have been required to make costly concessions in terms of their powers to prevent popular unrest from spiraling out of control. Whether these incremental grants of power to the legislative branch will be sufficient to satisfy public demands for change remains to be seen.
The next session of the Constitutional Transitions Colloquium, on 13 February 2013, will feature Professor Mohammad Fadel of the University of Toronto.