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The Arab Spring and Sectarianism in the Gulf

The West has sacrificed any interest it once had for democratization in the Gulf.

The world watched with great interest as mass protests, starting in December 2010, swept the Arab world, most prominently leading to the ouster of Egypt’s and Tunisia’s long-standing presidents. In Libya, an armed opposition campaign, with NATO air support, brought a violent end to Muammar Qaddafi’s 42-year rule. The initially peaceful protests in Syria against the Assad government turned into a bloody civil war, which has cost more than 100,000 lives, led to over 2.1 million refugees, and continues to rage on.

Almost forgotten were protests in the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf – namely the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain , Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Apart from temporarily heightened coverage of the protests in Bahrain, events in the Gulf were mostly left in the background, as the turbulent events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria dominated the headlines.

The GCC countries are hereditary monarchical systems, with varying degrees of parliamentary influence. Kuwait’s parliament, for example, first elected in 1963, has law-making and certain veto powers in the country’s system of a constitutional monarchy in which the Emir has the final say on policies. In contrast to that, the Shura Council in Saudi Arabia, seen as an absolute monarchy, has very limited rights and draft laws are always to be approved by the king. In a recent move, however, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who appoints all members of the council, for the first time nominated 30 women to join the Shura Council.

Overall, parliaments in the Gulf are not the centers of power, as ultimate authority lies with the executive and its rulers.

The importance of this region derives from the fact that several key Gulf states, first and foremost Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are crucial players in the global energy market with Riyadh holding “almost one-fifth of the world proven oil reserves” and being the largest producer and exporter of total petroleum liquids. Qatar is currently the world’s largest supplier of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) and holds the third largest natural gas reserves in the world. Both states rely heavily on rents from natural resources; despite diversification efforts, a common pattern in the Gulf. Furthermore, the United Arab Emirates is the “United States’ single largest export market” in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

Apart from economic ties, several Gulf states have close political and military relations with Western countries. Bahrain hosts the US Navy’s fifth fleet and signed a defense cooperation agreement with the United Kingdom in 2012. Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar serves as the forward headquarters of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM). Moreover, Kuwait is considered as a counterterrorism partner for the US and played an important role in the Iraq War as a key platform for US and coalition forces’ operations. US-Saudi relations have been a cornerstone of US strategy for the Middle East.

However, many human rights organizations have criticized Gulf states for their poor human rights record, which includes the repression of political activism and freedom of expression. Qatar recently came under fierce criticism, following reports that were made public by The Guardian of serious mistreatment of migrant workers. These migrants were brought to the country to build the 2022 FIFA World Cup construction sites.

Fair Observer’s Middle East Editor, Manuel Langendorf, speaks to Dr. Toby Matthiesen, a renowned expert on Gulf politics from the University of Cambridge.

Matthiesen is the author of the recently published book, Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t, which talks about political uprisings and political dissent in the Gulf states. He received his PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, examining: “The Shia in Saudi Arabia: Identity Politics, Sectarianism, and the Saudi State.” He is currently a research fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge, and a research officer at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

Langendorf and Matthiesen talk about the stability of regimes in the Gulf, an upsurge in activism, Western interests at play, and the role of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Manuel Langendorf: You recently published a book entitled:    Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t. What is your main message in the book and what propelled you to write it?

Toby Matthiesen: I had worked on the Gulf States and sectarianism for my PhD, and was in Bahrain on a research trip when the uprising started. So I saw the historic events unfolding before me, and started to understand the sectarian logic behind the crackdown.

The main message of the book is that the Gulf regimes were willing to go all the way to prevent any GCC state from becoming a constitutional monarchy or a democracy, and one of the main tools they employed was increasing sectarianism.

Langendorf: How were protests in the Gulf states covered by the media? Were there any common patterns and shortcomings?

Matthiesen: While Bahrain did receive some coverage in early 2011, the Gulf protests and crackdowns have generally received much less attention than comparable events across the region. This is partly because of access restrictions for Western media, but also partly a result of PR campaigns financed by the GCC states.

Particularly, Bahrain has spent millions through PR companies in the US and in Europe to try and change its tarnished reputation.

Langendorf: As we witness continuous unrest, especially in Bahrain, do you see the stability of the GCC’s rulers in danger? What are the prospects for real change?

Matthiesen: I think it is a long process. The GCC states have been quite effective at repressing the different movements for change. Kuwait and Bahrain are the countries that may have to change first; the others will try to hold out for longer.

We should not expect the ruling families to give in to reformist demands without pressure. I think that if these countries do not profoundly reform, there may come a time when these states fracture and descend into civil strife.

Langendorf: Many human rights organizations criticize the Gulf states’ repression of political and religious activists? A recent case was the warnings by Saudi ministries against participation in the October 26 campaign to demonstrate the factual ban on women driving cars. Have the Arab Uprisings which started in Tunisia almost three years ago brought an upsurge in activism in the Gulf?  

Matthiesen: Yes, definitively. Whether the ruling families like it or not, we have seen a new repertoire of contention spreading across the Gulf, including to Saudi Arabia. These instances of protests, petitions, driving campaigns, student protests, online debates and so on, may not be threatening the core of the system, yet they are steps towards a further politicization of the population on a hitherto unseen scale.

Langendorf: Given the fact that the Gulf still holds massive natural resources and the US Navy’s 5th fleet is stationed in Bahrain, what role have Western interests in the Gulf played during the uprisings?

Matthiesen: They have been crucial in shaping Western non-responses, particularly towards the Bahraini uprising. The US does not want to jeopardize the future of its naval base in Bahrain by taking a too-strong position towards democratization.

The West has essentially sacrificed any interest it once had for democratization in the Gulf for economic, strategic and security interests. This strategy may be self-defeating, however, since long-term unrest and civil strife in Bahrain will also endanger the future of the naval base and of the security of the Gulf states more generally.

Langendorf: Several Gulf states have lent diplomatic and financial support to the new military-backed government in Egypt after the ouster of Mohammed Morsi in July. Many have interpreted that as part of these governments’ strong anti-Brotherhood stance. Was or is the Muslim Brotherhood a real threat to the ruling families of the Gulf?

Matthiesen: Yes, definitively. The Muslim Brotherhood is the most organized quasi-opposition force in most GCC states. This is why Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait, in particular, sought to weaken them in Egypt, so that they will not be empowered in the Gulf.

We see a regionalization of Gulf security dynamics, where key Gulf states seek to defend their national security interests far from their borders in Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, and elsewhere.

Langendorf: There has been much talk about a rivalry between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Both countries, for example, seem to back different Islamist forces in Syria and Egypt. As an observer of Gulf politics, what is your take on this rivalry?

All the smaller Gulf states, except Bahrain, are wary of Saudi Arabia’s influence in the GCC. Saudi Arabia’s size, wealth, and military power makes it the dominant force in the GCC. The rivalry with Qatar has to be seen in this context.

Also, Qatar wants to be the leader of a new kind of political Sunni Islam that is at odds with the ways in which the Saudis want to use Islam. This is why Qatar has supported the Muslim Brotherhood, while Saudi has cracked down on the Brotherhood. But Qatar punched above its weight, and while we still do not really know what the reasons for the abdication of former Emir Hamad were, the new Emir has certainly tried to ease tensions with the Saudis.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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