Blow-Up in the Gulf

The revolution arrives in Bahrain … and Kuwait, and the Emirates.


DOHA, Qatar — Following sympathy demonstrations in front of the Egyptian Embassy in Manama, Bahrain, on Friday, Feb. 4, protesters there have declared a "day of rage" on Feb. 14, nine years to the day after the country declared itself a constitutional monarchy. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, a Sunni, rules over a Shiite-majority population that has long called for greater political representation — though certainly without the urgency that has characterized recent opposition rhetoric, which includes a list of 14 demands: "releasing all [political] detainees and compensating them, reforming the judiciary system … banning alcohol and prostitution … [and] halting torture and human rights abuses." Is the revolution coming to the Persian Gulf states?

The Persian Gulf was meant to be immune to the types of social and economic pressures that have been thought to be the catalysts for recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. The oil-rich Gulf monarchies, from Kuwait to Oman to Bahrain, have so far remained largely untouched by the wave of political protests sweeping across the region. But in the past few days, that has begun to change. Now, the Arabian monarchs — historically protected from the need to democratize by their massive oil fortunes and close relations with the West — are confronting a serious and growing threat to their legitimacy from protesters empowered by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

Bahrain has a long history of subduing its Shiite minority, which has been involved in past attempts to take over power, dating back to the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, an Iran-backed Shiite group that attempted a coup in 1981. Last August, possibly cracking down in prelude to the Oct. 23 parliamentary election, the government detained hundreds of Shiites during anti-government street protests. Many of the detainees allege that they were tortured while in jail. In the days before the election, government officials blocked the opposition party’s website and banned local news coverage of the arrests.

Sheikh Ali Salman, the leader of Al Wefaq, the main Shiite political group, alleged that at least 2,000 voters were blocked from casting ballots in October because of incomplete lists. Al Wefaq has claimed that Bahraini leaders gerrymandered voting districts and created a program to give citizenship to Sunnis from across the Middle East to alter the country’s demographic balance.

The government has also clamped down on the press and NGOs, said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, blocking websites and arresting activists. And 25 Shiites from last fall’s round-up are currently being tried under terrorism charges (two in absentia), trials that have only inflamed sentiments on both sides.

The latest protests are being organized by the same Shiite groups that organized the last round of demonstrations in the fall. But they are joined by Islamists, human rights activists, intellectuals, and several Sunni groups, according to Christopher Davidson, an expert on the Persian Gulf region at Durham University in Britain.

In an attempt to address popular grievances, King Hamad this week ordered a hike in food subsidies and reinstated welfare support for low-income families to compensate for inflation, according to the state-run Bahrain News Agency. Opposition groups expect further concessions during a scheduled speech by the king on Feb. 12.

But these efforts may not go far enough to stave off a revolution, Davidson said.

"Bahrain is the most likely of the Gulf monarchies to face a broad opposition-led demonstration," he told me. "[The problem] is not merely a sectarian issue, but rather a widespread concern over an increasing wealth gap between regular Bahrainis and the ruling elite. I believe there is potential for an unseating of the current regime."

In a statement on their Facebook page, organizers of the Feb. 14 rally accuse the Sunni-lead government of "suppress[ing] the legitimate rights of the people" and call for a new constitution and investigations into "economic, political and social violations."

"Events in Tunisia and Egypt convinced the Bahraini [opposition] that change could happen if there is a will," said Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab. "People have realized that they are stronger than they thought."

And Bahrain seems to just be the tip of the spear. Unrest is spreading across the Gulf states, with coordinated anti-government protests also planned in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

"By the beginning of March, we will have an idea if serious unrest in the Gulf is likely," said Davidson.

In Kuwait, planned protests are being scheduled to coincide with the upcoming 50th anniversary of the country’s independence from the British Empire. The Kuwaiti government also appears to be shelling out for domestic peace. In an attempt to stave off discontent, the government recently announced a $5 billion domestic aid package. And just a day after the protests broke out in Egypt, the Kuwaiti parliament approved further legislation to grant each citizen 1,000 Kuwaiti dinars, or $3,580, and subsidize the cost of basic food items over the next 14 months. The payouts will begin Feb. 24 and will be given to all Kuwaitis over 21 years old.

The emir’s office claimed that this grant was a one-time deal to celebrate Kuwait’s 50th anniversary of independence. But, "given the nature of the gift — specifically to offset high food costs — this seems to be too much of a coincidence," Davidson said.

Meanwhile, in another attempt to show good faith, Kuwait Interior Minister Sheikh Jaber al-Khaled al-Sabah resigned this week amid an investigation that a Kuwaiti citizen was tortured to death in police custody.

A cross-faction opposition group called "The Fifth Fence" postponed until March 8 a planned anti-government rally as a result of the minister’s resignation. "We still believe that the departure of this government is the only step that fulfils our demands," the group said in a statement promising that demonstrations would continue.

Activists in the United Arab Emirates have also begun to mass in protest of the government’s treatment of citizen bloggers and activists.

In July, police arrested four UAE citizens after they attempted to organize a protest against an increase in gas prices, according to a Human Rights Watch report released last month. Educated youth in the UAE are angry with the governments’ strong-arm tactics to curtail freedom of speech and association, and citizens in the poorer emirates are angry about fewer job opportunities.

Here, the opposition is made up of an educated younger generation, along with Islamists and citizens of poorer emirates such as Ras al Khaimah. Unlike in Bahrain and Kuwait, no large-scale protests have yet been planned. But human rights bloggers and student activists took to Twitter and Facebook to decry the arrest last week of a former teacher, Hasan Muhammad al-Hammadi, who was arrested after coming out in support of Egypt’s anti-Mubarak demonstrations in a speech during Friday prayers. UAE officials were outspoken in their support for Hosni Mubarak from the beginning of clashes in Egypt.

If there’s a quiet spot in the region right now, it’s Qatar, the world’s top liquefied natural gas exporter, which experts say is unlikely to experience anything like the agitation going on in Bahrain and Kuwait. Qatar has never suffered rulers as oppressive as those in Bahrain or, certainly, in Egypt. Meanwhile, its GDP is huge and the country is booming, expecting to spend $100 billion over the next five years on infrastructure projects including road and rail networks planned before it was chosen as host of the 2022 soccer World Cup, as well as air-conditioned stadiums. As a result, Qataris see their interests as aligned with the government’s.

The same is probably not true for Qatar’s neighbors — as we will learn for certain very, very soon.

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