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Page added on February 21, 2011

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Rules Scramble to put Lid on Popular Dissent

Public Policy

The wave of popular uprisings across the Middle East has triggered a fresh round of government handouts and offers of greater political participation, as rich and poor countries alike try to quell or pre-empt unrest.

The United Arab Emirates, seen as one of the most politically stable countries in the region, has unveiled limited electoral reforms, while administrations from Syria to Morocco have announced extra subsidies.

The action highlights how Middle Eastern regimes see a common need to assert their legitimacy as the spirit of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions spreads ever wider.

The UAE, which has vast wealth and a small population of nationals, last week announced a plan to increase the number of emiratis that will vote in elections for its Federal National Council.

The minimum size of the electoral college each emirate appoints is to be increased three-fold, in a move that officials cast as part of a gradual effort to increase political participation.

Syria last week reduced import taxes on a range of basic goods, in an attempt to keep prices down, and started distribution from a new $250m fund aimed at helping the neediest families.

Although the fund has been planned for some time, its implementation is widely believed to have been accelerated in response to events in Egypt and Tunisia.

The tiny state of Oman last week raised the minimum wage for nationals working in the private sector by 43 per cent in an effort to raise living standards, the state news agency reported.

While global attention has focused in the past few days on the violent crackdowns by security forces in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen, protests of varying sizes have been taking place in other countries, despite efforts by some governments to defuse them.

Thousands of people demonstrated on Sunday across Morocco, seeking political change and curbs on the powers of King Mohammed, even though the government had promised €1.4bn ($1.9bn) in extra subsidies to soften the impact of rising prices of basic goods.

In the oil-rich monarchy of Kuwait, the government last month said all citizens would receive a KD1,000 ($3,500) grant and free food staples for 13 months to celebrate the 50th anniversary of independence and mark two other anniversaries. Dozens of stateless Bidun people, who are prevented from working, were injured or detained after demonstrating on Friday, Human Rights Watch said.

In Jordan, the government last month announced a package worth about $550m of increases to salaries, pensions and food subsidies. These failed to save the government of Samir Rifai, who was sacked by King Abdullah, and weekly demonstrations continue.

FT



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