An expert's point of view on a current event.

Why the Sheikhs Will Fall

The Gulf monarchies were once thought immune to the uprisings sweeping the Arab world. Not anymore.


On April 22, a Kuwaiti judge announced that opposition figure Musallam al-Barrak would be released on bail, prompting cheers from his supporters packing the court. Barrak's refusal to hand himself over to the authorities last week to serve a five-year sentence for criticizing the emir symbolized the intensifying resistance to autocracy in the oil-rich state.

On April 22, a Kuwaiti judge announced that opposition figure Musallam al-Barrak would be released on bail, prompting cheers from his supporters packing the court. Barrak’s refusal to hand himself over to the authorities last week to serve a five-year sentence for criticizing the emir symbolized the intensifying resistance to autocracy in the oil-rich state.

In the wake of Barrak’s sentencing, thousands of Kuwaitis took to the streets in solidarity, sporadic clashes broke out with security forces, and dozens of key activists recited his controversial speech. The stage now seems set for a long summer of confrontations between large sections of Kuwait’s emboldened citizenry and an entrenched, traditional monarchy that has abandoned its democratic pretensions and is pressing ahead with police state strategies.

The contrast between now and summer 2012, when the British edition of my book After the Sheikhs went to press, could not be starker. Back then, there was little, if any, mainstream discussion outside the Middle East itself of the prospect of serious political unrest in the Gulf monarchies. Academics and policy wonks, at least in the monarchies’ Western allies, had for the most part set these states apart as somehow exceptional and aloof from the Arab Spring movements sweeping the region.

This position was both predictable and understandable. Using a mixture of carrots and sticks, the poorer Gulf monarchies had managed to contain most of the protests that had spilled onto their streets in the immediate aftermath of the revolutions in North Africa. Meanwhile, the wealthier monarchies seemingly remained in command of largely apolitical, well-heeled societies with little if anything in common with those dwelling in the angry tenements of Tunis, Cairo, or Tripoli.

Since then, however, much has changed. By winter 2012, Western media had begun carrying articles foreshadowing either monarchical collapse — or at least some serious impending turbulence. Reports on protests, trials, growing poverty, and cyberspace activism in the Gulf states became commonplace — even leading U.S. think tanks broached the topic of "Revolution in Riyadh."

The international commentariat seemed to have finally become aware of the rising discontent among large swathes of Gulf nationals, and better plugged into regional grassroots campaigns and emerging opposition groups. The world was starting to pay attention to the struggle between the people of the region and their increasingly authoritarian and reactionary elites.

This current, unprecedented international interest in Gulf politics — and the possibility of a "Gulf Spring" — is in many ways due to the hundreds of headline-grabbing incidents that have taken place in the region over the past six months. Almost without exception, these stories have provided compelling evidence in support of the central thesis of the book: namely, that traditional monarchy as a legitimate regime type in the region is soon going to reach the end of its lifespan.

Most of the Gulf states are now caught between unsustainable wealth distribution mechanisms and increasingly powerful "super modernizing forces" that can no longer be controlled or co-opted by elites. The former dynamic continues to manifest itself in widening wealth gaps and increasing real unemployment, despite ramped up public spending programs and urgent public sector job creation schemes. These counter-revolutionary "rentier outlays" are likely to keep spiraling — the International Monetary Fund has already predicted that even the wealthiest of the monarchies will run budget deficits within a few years. And in the poorer states, where this strategy is now increasingly inapplicable, street protests keep growing and regimes have had little option but to openly crack down on dissidents.

As for "super modernizing forces," notably including social media, a veritable battle in cyberspace has now begun. New legislation has been introduced, or is about to be introduced, in all six monarchies, with the aim of tightly policing online dissent and meting out heavy punishments to all would-be critics. But this strategy seems as unsustainable as sky-high public spending: Several of these states now have the highest social media usage rates in the world — massive online political discussions have made Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube the region’s new de facto parliament.

Detailed, substantiated criticism of governments has become commonplace, with exposés of ruling family corruption and public insults directed at hitherto unchallengeable elites being digested by millions each day. Such disparagement of rulers was almost unimaginable prior to 2011, but now it is almost fashionable for young Gulf nationals to question their autocrats.

In Bahrain — still the vanguard of the region’s revolt — the past few months have witnessed only further tragedy and despair. Despite fresh promises of dialogue and some minor political concessions, including promotions for supposed moderates, the ruling family and its allies in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have firmly held the line. The island nation’s elites have refused any significant reforms and kept hundreds of activists behind bars, thus distancing themselves more than ever from the majority of the population.

Bahrain’s extensive public relations campaign to depict the long-running uprising as primarily a sectarian conflict, or part of an Iran-Arab struggle, has continued unabated — albeit with declining plausibility. With a resurgence in mass protests in February 2013, resulting in further deaths and clashes, it seems increasingly unlikely that the Bahraini monarchy can regain its legitimacy. As such, the ruling Al-Khalifa family will effectively become the first of the Gulf dynasties to have been publicly rejected by the majority of its subjects.

Across the causeway in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, the protests have also continued to gather pace. While modest in size for much of 2012, not least due to announcements from senior clerics and government officials that protests are "un-Islamic" and illegal, they had become much larger by the end of the year. Following the death of a young man at the hands of security services in December 2012 — thought to be the 12th such killing of the year — an estimated tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets, many chanting slogans opposing the ruling family.

The nascent protests in predominantly Sunni provinces of the kingdom are in some ways even more problematic for the House of Saud. These demonstrations are much harder to frame as a sectarian clash, and have mainly been campaigns for the release of political prisoners. In the northern Al-Qassim Province, for instance, large numbers of women and children have taken to the streets. In some cases, demonstrators have burned pictures of key ruling family members and resisted arrest.

Several other "trigger incidents" have taken place in Saudi Arabia, underlining how brittle the state is becoming despite its enormous public spending spree. These include the jailing of leading human rights activists, public outrage over the apparent unaccountability of various ministers, the disappearance of activists from other Arab monarchies in Saudi territory, and the arrest of numerous social media users. Last year also witnessed the highest rate of executions in the kingdom yet — many of which were widely debated and criticized, as they included beheadings and crucifixions for crimes such as blasphemy and "sorcery."

In Kuwait, authorities have grown alarmed at the seemingly uncontrollable discussion of their government’s shortcomings, and have been arresting online activists with alacrity over the past few months. The crackdown has continued offline too, with key critics — including leading form
er parliamentarians and members of powerful tribes — having been imprisoned after what have been described as "show trials." As with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s elites, the ruling Al-Sabah family’s increasingly repressive tactics seem to be losing them support from significant constituencies: Parliamentary elections in December 2012 were largely boycotted, thus denting the Kuwaiti elite’s ability to keep employing ‘liberal autocracy’ strategies.

Perhaps most worryingly for the monarchy, the previously fragmented opposition groups — ranging from youth movements, to Islamists, to disaffected tribes — seem to be slowly coalescing. A broad-based opposition coalition was formed in March 2013, and it is pushing for a multi-party system with a "democratic rotation of power." The coalition seems poised to become the first properly organized Gulf group to press successfully for significant political reform, with constitutional monarchy as its minimum demand. 

The United Arab Emirates’ rulers — or more specifically the tight-knit group of brothers surrounding the crown prince of Abu Dhabi — also seem more resolute than ever to tackle their opposition head on. That has effectively sidelined their late father’s well-honed social contract with his subjects, in favor of the sort of strategies employed by a police state.

The dozens of political prisoners seized over the course of 2012 swelled to nearly 100 by the beginning of 2013, with a "national security trial" beginning in March 2013. The defendants stand accused of trying to "seize power," and were even accused of setting up a "military wing." All foreign media have been banned from the courtroom, and foreign observers from NGOs and law firms were barred entry to the country. Though the defendants are made up of academics, lawyers, students, judges, and even a member of the ruling family — most of whom identify with a well-established and peaceful indigenous Islamist organization that has been gently pushing for parliamentary elections — the authorities seem determined to find a link between them and outside powers.

Given the fairly homogenous makeup of the UAE’s population, it has proven harder to present opposition groups through a sectarian lens. Instead, the detainees are regularly portrayed in the state-affiliated media as in league with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. But disturbingly for the authorities, the detainees appear to be enjoying growing support across the country: Widespread online discussion about the case is taking place, often in the defendants’ favor, and members of their extended families have campaigned loudly for their release.

In the past few months, the UAE has also played an increasingly active role in guaranteeing the collective security of the Gulf monarchies. It has joined Saudi Arabia in providing significant financial assistance to Bahrain and Oman, and denied entry into the country to academics, journalists, and lawyers who have expressed support for the opposition in Bahrain.

While Oman has not yet seen further protests, the country is perhaps best understood as being in a holding pattern. The various promises made by the government, especially regarding public sector employment, have not yet been fulfilled, and there is growing discussion about the sustainability of a system that relies on substantial Saudi and UAE grants. Youth groups appear more restive than ever — several online activists have been arrested and charged with insulting the aging ruler, while intellectuals now openly talk of the vacuum that will develop in the wake of his death. With billions of dollars now invested in Oman’s survival, much will rest on the Riyadh-Abu Dhabi axis’ willingness to permit some kind of political opening at that stage rather than encouraging the same sort of repression that is now being used in Bahrain.

To the surprise and disappointment of many, the past few months have weakened Qatar’s credentials as the last remaining liberal autocracy in the Arab Gulf. The detention and trial of a well-known poet who had expressed solidarity with Arab Spring movements elsewhere in the Middle East, and had implicitly criticized the Gulf monarchies, was followed closely, not least by the country’s substantial expatriate population and Al Jazeera‘s journalistic community. Given Qatar’s media, financial, and even military support for the Arab revolutions of 2011 and 2012, most had expected a full pardon for the prisoner — but to widespread dismay, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for insulting the ruler, later commuted to a 15-year sentence.

Given the sensitive subject matter, the Qatar-funded satellite channel Al-Jazeera was unable to report properly on one of the most important stories in its own backyard. Its coverage of the incident was initially non-existent and then poor, reflecting the reality of having to operate within the confines of a traditional Gulf monarchy. Since then, further Qatari activists have been seized and jailed. With most citizens continuing to enjoy an extremely high standard of living in gas-rich Qatar, the possibility of protests or large rafts of political prisoners is undoubtedly still very low. But recent events have led to palpable tension, provoking more outspoken comments from intellectuals and sections of the elite. Meanwhile, youth activists seem to be following the regional trend — taking their dissent online and participating in often critical discussions of ruling elites.

With even larger protests on the horizon, the window of opportunity for the region’s autocratic rulers to agree to some sort of compromise solution — possibly constitutional monarchies with elected legislatures — seems to be closing. With only minor exceptions, these regimes have adopted zero-tolerance policies on dissent — regardless of the cost to their long term legitimacy and prosperity. Even though the Gulf version of the Arab Spring may look a little different to its manifestations in North Africa and Syria — and however inconvenient it may be to international allies and partners — it is now a phenomenon that cannot be avoided.

<p> Christopher M. Davidson is reader in government and international affairs at Durham University. He has authored several books on the Gulf states and has held academic posts in the United Arab Emirates and Japan. This is an adapted excerpt from his new book, After the Sheikhs. </p>

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