The Middle East Channel

Reform or the flood in the Gulf

As the GCC foreign ministers huddled in a Bahraini capital seemingly under siege, it is clear that the predicted stability of the oil states is being put to the test. Most analysts believed the Gulf would be spared the wave of rebellion spreading across the Arab World due to their relative wealth and welfare provisions ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

As the GCC foreign ministers huddled in a Bahraini capital seemingly under siege, it is clear that the predicted stability of the oil states is being put to the test. Most analysts believed the Gulf would be spared the wave of rebellion spreading across the Arab World due to their relative wealth and welfare provisions for their populace. Yet Bahrain’s pre-emptive promises of increased social spending and direct subsidies of $2,700 per family did not prevent robust protests this week. Analysts also suggested that monarchies are less prone to revolutionary fervor than the Arab faux republics; legitimacy is based on religion and paternalistic care of citizenry, not on the false promise of public sovereignty in the republics. Yet it is exactly that paternalistic authority that is being called into question by political activists across the Gulf.

In fact, the demands of Gulf activists, and increasingly Gulf publics, are broadly similar to those coming from Tunisia and Egypt: We want accountable governance, free of corruption. We want popular participation and to have our say on the issues that affect us. And we want to be free to speak our minds — to assemble online and off without fear of intimidation or arrest. In short, Gulf publics, and particularly Gulf youths, want to be full citizens.

This includes a yearning to feel part of a national project. The states with the most ambitious leaders — Qatar, and Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the UAE — are more immune to unrest, most directly due to their tremendous wealth, but also because of their dynamic campaigns for international recognition. There is pride in their accomplishments; the whole Gulf celebrated Qatar’s successful bid for the World Cup 2022 as a coming out party. But increasingly, Gulf citizens want to play a direct role in shaping the destiny of their states. 

This desire for national pride attests to something deeper: a longing for national unity. Particularly in the societies with the most active opposition agendas — Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia — there is a palpable yearning to be free of the discordant politics their monarchies have rendered. Because ruling families have perfected the game of divide and rule of different interest groups competing to be the loyal opposition to the wealthy political center, Gulf publics are factionalized — by ideology, by tribe, by sect, and even by mundane issues such as business interests. Political projects of reform, then, often fall prey to societal divisions.

For these reasons, the Egyptian revolution — its unifying national rhetoric and its success — resonates powerfully in the Gulf, particularly with the youth. Only a week out from the fall of the Mubarak regime, there are significant grassroots efforts to use the momentum from Egypt to push for meaningful reform.  But to succeed in their efforts, Gulf activists must follow the lead of the youthful protestors in Egypt and find a way to overcome the politics of division.

The difficulty in doing this is on full display in Bahrain, an island nation with a Shia majority ruled by a Sunni monarchy. Bahrain has one of the most active civil societies in the Gulf, being home to the first labor strike in the Gulf back in the 1930’s. In the 1990’s, an uprising centered in disadvantaged Shia villages forced the authoritarian monarchy to compromise: the new Emir Hamad welcomed back exiled dissidents and promised the resumption of parliamentary life, disbanded since the 1970s. But the half reforms ushered in through a strategically altered constitution failed to curb royal corruption or redress the blatant imbalances in wealth and opportunity in the small emirate. The elected parliament seemed unable to meet these challenges, hemmed in by gerrymandered districts, a royally appointed upper house, and a poisonous sectarianism, encouraged by the ruling elite in a classic strategy of divide and rule.

Bahrain’s own Facebook-organized "day of rage," then, sought to emulate the methods of Egypt’s popular rebellion to break through this impasse. And as thousands of newly energized youth flooded the Pearl roundabout joining opposition members from the cross-sectarian leftist Wa’ad movement and the centrist Shia al-Wefaq, the demand for a genuine constitutional monarchy appeared to be gaining traction. The shocking violence unleashed on peaceful protestors over the last two days, then, may be a testament to just how much the potential of this new coalition shook the regime. They are certainly not alone in their panic: the statement issued by the GCC foreign ministers assembled in an extraordinary show of support for the Bahraini ruling family hinted at outside interference (read: Iran) but their fear is of their own newly empowered populations.

In Kuwait, the current government headed by Nasser Mohammed Al-Sabah has been inadvertently doing its part to unify the usually fractious opposition. Back in December, it vastly overplayed its hand in sending security forces to attack an opposition gathering, resulting in the injury of several members of parliament and the arrest of a popular constitutional scholar. After narrowly surviving a vote of no confidence in the parliament over this issue, the government entered a second crisis when it was revealed that a Kuwaiti man under detention for alcohol smuggling was tortured to death at a police station. These discrete events play powerfully into a rising opposition narrative warning against a rise of authoritarianism in the normally open emirate, with greater controls on media, the jailing of a prominent critical journalist, and persistent threats to curb the power of Kuwait’s spirited parliament, or to close it altogether. 

In response to these threats to civil and political liberties, a group of internet savvy youth encompassing both former Muslim Brotherhood members and liberals has emerged. The group is named the "Fifth Wall" in honor of the constitution which they view as protecting the integrity of the state much as Kuwait’s famed wall once protected it from foreign invasion. Their program, communicated through Facebook and Twitter, calls for a "youth rebellion to work for freedom and respect" and certainly resonates with the broader climate of youth revolt. 

The power of tweeting Kuwaitis should not be underestimated. In 2006, an Internet and SMS organized protest movement against corruption and tribal division brought down the Kuwaiti government, forcing early elections and the re-organization of Kuwait’s electoral districts: a successful campaign for electoral reform known as the "Orange Revolution." More recently, the Fifth Wall used its 6,000-member Twitter feed to call for a protest at the National Assembly on February 8th — the date on which the Minister of Interior had been due to appear in parliament to be questioned for the torture allegations. Apparently seeking to avoid the link with the swelling protests in Egypt, the Kuwaiti government took pre-emptive action, announcing the resignation of the Interior Minister the day before the Fifth Wall protest was to take place. The group has vowed to continue their campaign for the protection of the constitution, and has set a new date of March 8th for protests to bring down the Prime Minister. The government is said to be monitoring social networking sites, prompting the opposition to call for a parliamentary discussion on new media freedoms.

These activist publics are very troubling for the heavyweight in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia. Just as revolution spread from peripheral Tunisia to the Arab heartland of Egypt, so too might discontent spread from the Gulf littoral to its center. Saudi Arabia has seen a decline in open political opposition since the emergence of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula drew the reformist Islamist opposition closer to the state, while liberals have been reluctant to undermine the reform-minded King. Still, while real reform has been made in education, the judiciary, and in the economy, no progress has been made in political liberalization since the partial municipal council elections of 2005. 

Those elections were seized upon by disaffected Shia and opposition-minded Islamists, prompting the regime to end this mild experiment in electoral representation. However, the problems fueling this discontent are real: unemployment, persistent nepotism and corruption, deteriorating public services, a sterile public sphere still hostile to public participation and debate, and for the youth, boredom. In this new protest environment a group of liberal Islamists announced the formation of the Kingdom’s first political party this week — and were promptly arrested. 

There are simply not enough avenues to allow for this discontent to vent, which is not quite the same thing as containing it. And there are certainly no vehicles to convince an increasingly globally connected and educated youth that they have a part in shaping their common future. One Saudi blogger recently did the calculations and noted wryly that for a population whose average age is 19, the average age of Saudi ministers is 65 and 61 of Shura Council members.  Can this perilous political environment — not to mention the inevitable upcoming leadership succession — be effectively navigated by an aged leadership without engaging its young public?

In this context, the words of Sahwa sheikh and now regime supporter Salman al-Awda that "throwing a few crumbs at the people" is not enough; that Arab leaders must commit to radical reform or hear calls for the fall of the regime, sounds a lot like a warning. Unless they violently turn on their own people as the Bahraini ruling family has regrettably done, the Arab Gulf states are not headed for revolution. But without some preventative infrastructure they may find themselves under water — much like the streets of Jeddah after a flash flood.   

Kristin Smith Diwan is an Assistant Professor of Comparative and Regional Studies at the American University School of International Service.

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