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Paying off protesters

Reza Aslan

Kai Ryssdal: The United Nations put the Syrian protests into distressing context today. The U.N. says 3,500 people have been killed there since mid-March.

It's been a year of change all across the Middle East, except for one small slice of the region: the six countries that are members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait are probably the best known. Yes, they've had some protests -- but they haven't really gained traction.

Commentator Reza Aslan says to know why: All you've got to do is follow the money.


Reza Aslan: The aging monarchs of the Gulf Cooperation Council (or GCC) have thus far managed to avoid the fate of Arab dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya by essentially bribing their populations into submission.

Saudi Arabia pumped $36 billion into its public sector, giving state employees pay raises and offered financial aid to students. Kuwait doled out $4,000 grants and free food rations to its citizens. Oman and Bahrain are using a $10 billion aid package to provide housing and employment opportunities for their restive populations. Even countries who want to become part of the GCC -- Morocco and Jordan -- have joined the spending spree.

But these measures seem aimed simply at keeping the rulers in power. They have not addressed the very real grievances of the protesters: poverty, unemployment, government corruption, lack of political participation. All of the issues that led to the Arab Spring in the first place.

In fact, these stopgap measures could spell further trouble for the countries of the GCC.

Take Bahrain. The tiny island kingdom's increased spending in 2011 has put its 2012 budget shortfall at nearly $200 million. That might not seem like a lot by U.S. standards, but it is 10 percent of Bahrain's gross domestic product.

In any case, it's not as though the spending spree has stopped protests. Just recently rallies were staged in Saudi Arabia's Qatif region against random imprisonments and political repression. That should serve as a reminder to us all that the young men and women who have sacrificed so much to challenge their repressive governments can't be so easily bought off.

The Arab Spring is not just about fair wages and economic inequality. It is about something far more significant. It's about dignity and the desire to have a voice in one's governments. And that is an aspiration that no amount of money can stifle.


Rysssdal: Reza Aslan is the author of "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam." Send us your thoughts -- write to us.

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