Counterrevolution in the Gulf

How the monarchies are striking back against the Arab Spring.


While Tunisians and Egyptians are enjoying their newfound freedoms, forming political parties and holding passionate debates on their countries’ futures, across the six Arab states along the Persian Gulf, a counterrevolutionary pushback against the Arab Spring is steadily gaining steam. Autocratic rulers are clamping down hard at home, closing down political space in an attempt to isolate their citizens from the transformative pressures at work elsewhere in the Middle East. It’s safe to say that — at least for now — the Gulf region is becoming more repressive, not less, with potentially dangerous long-term consequences not only for these oil-rich monarchies but also for their Western allies.

Saudi Arabia’s announcement on April 29 of sweeping new media restrictions is just the latest effort to narrow the parameters of legitimate political debate.  Saudi King Abdullah’s decree, which amended the 2000 Press and Publications Law, prohibited the media from reporting anything that contradicts Islamic sharia law or serves "foreign interests and undermines national security."

Such a vague — yet potentially all-encompassing — definition considerably tightens the noose of self-censorship in Saudi Arabia. It also includes provisions for closing publishers and banning writers who violate the decree from contributing to any media organization for life. With Saudi forces engaged in a highly sensitive crackdown in neighboring Bahrain, the creation of these new "red lines" sends a powerful signal that critical reporting or dissenting viewpoints will not be tolerated.

Back in March, Saudi Arabia also suppressed an effort by a group of intellectuals to establish what would have been the first political party in the kingdom: the Umma Islamic Party. Their call for peaceful political reform obviously unnerved the authorities, as five of the founders were arrested a week later. However, a spate of petitions  — including a Declaration of National Reform calling for constitutional monarchy, as well as a "counter-reform petition" warning of creeping liberalisation — suggest that Saudi officials have not been successful in squelching domestic debate.

It’s not only Saudi Arabia that’s cracking down on dissent. Beleaguered Gulf monarchies in Bahrain and Oman have violently suppressed demonstrations, while the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait also stepped up repressive measures. But it’s not just a backlash against events in Tunisia and Egypt — the roots of the authoritarian inward turn were visible well before the outbreak of the Arab Spring.

In the final months of 2010, simmering discontent in Kuwait and Bahrain was met by unusually blunt displays of force. In Bahrain, security forces detained more than 20 prominent opposition and human rights activists ahead of the October parliamentary elections. Meanwhile in Kuwait, a string of confrontations between the ruling family and the political opposition culminated in December with the use of force by security forces to break up a demonstration, during which four MPs were beaten and injured, and the death of a Kuwaiti citizen, who was allegedly tortured in police custody, in January.

The political temperature in the Gulf was therefore rising even before the start of widespread demonstrations in the Middle East. And the case of Bahrain, the first Gulf country to experience widespread protest, shows just how deep-seated some popular grievances are. The rapid swelling of the initial pro-democracy protests into a cross-sectarian movement for substantive political reform panicked the ruling al-Khalifa regime, which "invited" Saudi and Emirati forces to restore order in March, under the guise of the region-wide Peninsula Shield Force.

The foreign intervention has been accompanied by an escalation of repression as security forces ruthlessly eliminate all forms of dissent to the Khalifa’s continuing rule.  Doctors who treat injured protesters have been rounded up and lawyers representing them have been arrested. Opposition and human rights activists have been detained and allegedly tortured, and mysterious deaths in police custody have included one of the founders of Bahrain’s leading independent newspaper, Al-Wasat, which then announced its impending closure on May 2.

The apparent vulnerability of the Bahraini ruling family frightened other Gulf rulers, leading them to crack down on their own dissidents. Action was most concerted in the UAE, where prominent pro-democracy activists such as  Nasser bin Ghaith, professor of economics at the Abu Dhabi branch of the prestigious Sorbonne University, and Ahmed Mansoor, who founded the UAE Hewar online forum for political discussion, were both arrested. Gaith and Mansoor were among 133 Emirati intellectuals who signed a petition in March calling for the direct election of all members of UAE’s Federal National Council, and the passage of constitutional amendments to vest it with legislative and regulatory powers.

These arrests have been followed by an assault on civil society organisations. The UAE Ministry of Social Affairs dissolved the elected boards of the Jurist Association and the Teachers’ Association, replacing them with state appointees. An early sign of the chilling effect that these measures had came on May 2, when more than 200 lawyers issued a pledge of allegiance to the UAE rulers, denouncing "false statements" by "misled and deceived persons."

Gulf rulers have complemented their repressive tactics with a series of economic blandishments, such as announcing additional public sector jobs, pay increases, and benefits. Together, these steps have provided the royal families with a temporary breathing space. Few analysts expect anything like an Egypt or a Tunisia scenario to develop. But by ignoring the crucial social dimensions of the Arab spring and refusing to modify political structures that seem ever more anachronistic by the day, the Gulf states are trying to swim against the tide in the Middle East.

Pushback in the Gulf also raises awkward questions for the monarchs’ Western partners. Bahrain’s status as a Major Non-NATO Ally and the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet has caused the United States to remain silent about the ongoing crackdown there, a fact that sits uneasily with the United States’ rhetorical support for pro-democracy movements and the right to protest elsewhere.

But it’s not just policymakers that have been placed in a delicate situation by the crackdown in the Gulf: Universities such as the NYU and the Sorbonne, and other Western institutions such as the Guggenheim, have invested heavily in branch projects located in the UAE in recent years. Thus far, they have largely chosen to maintain a studious silence about the worsening human rights situation, leaving them open to charges of naivety or even complicity. NYU now faces an escalating backlash from staff and students over whether the kinds of rights, freedoms, and methods of political engagement they expect of an American university even apply in the authoritarian Gulf.

Don’t expect this tension to resolve itself anytime soon. As long as the Gulf states remain authoritarian bulwarks in a radically changing regional environment, Western governments and institutions will continue to find themselves caught between their values and their interests. And unless the ruling families acknowledge take measures to resolve their citizens’ simmering social, economic and political grievances, the next explosion in the Gulf could be greater still.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a fellow for the Middle East at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston.

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