Gulf States: studious silence falls on Arab Spring

New demands for political reform in the Gulf are meeting a repressive response by regimes especially panicked when pro-democracy protests swell into cross-sectarian movements for meaningful political reform. This brutality polarises opinion between advocates of reform and proponents of repression. It also poses a dilemma for western policy makers in their engagement with their strategic partners in the region.
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
25 April 2011

The Arab Spring is breathing new life into demands for political reform in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. Since the beginning of the popular uprisings in North Africa, a series of petitions and calls for meaningful change have rattled the Gulf monarchies. They have also tested the boundaries of permissible opposition in these authoritarian states. Yet the response has been repressive, as regimes have sought to close down political space and de-legitimise the act of dissent. The result has been a polarisation of opinion between advocates of reform and proponents of repression. This poses a dilemma for western policy makers and institutions as they struggle to balance engagement with these strategic partners without betraying universal principles of human rights. 


Rising political tensions

Petitions have played an important role in expressing and channelling societal pressures, particularly during times of upheaval. In Kuwait in 1989, thousands of citizens signed a petition seeking the restoration of the National Assembly (suspended in 1986). This was unsuccessful, but shortly after Kuwait’s liberation another petition (April 1991) pressured the Emir to implement the return to constitutional rule promised at the meeting of exiled Kuwaitis in Jeddah in October 1990. In Saudi Arabia, two notable waves of petitions in 1990-91 and 2002-3 followed the Gulf War (and American stationing of troops in the kingdom) and 9/11 respectively. Originating from a diverse cross-section of Saudi society (including both its Islamist and ‘liberal’ wings), the petitions converged in their support for sweeping political reforms, while differing markedly on their direction. Meanwhile in Bahrain, three petitions between 1992 and 1995 expressed support for the return of parliamentary politics (suspended in 1975) and free elections, freedom of speech, and an end to torture. These included one in 1994 signed by more than 23,000 Bahrainis, and another the following year by 300 prominent women calling for democratic reform.

In the late-1990s and early 2000s the need to renew the legitimacy of ruling elites and co-opt oppositional groups led to a period of political and constitutional reform. The measures included the introduction of municipal elections in Qatar in 1999 and a new constitution in 2003; direct elections to the Consultative Assembly in Oman in 2000 and the granting of universal suffrage in 2003; a new constitution and bicameral National Assembly in Bahrain in 2002; expansion of Saudi Arabia’s Consultative Council in 2001 and 2005 and the holding of the kingdom’s first (municipal) elections since the 1960s in 2005; female enfranchisement in Kuwait in 2005; and very limited elections to the Federal National Council in the United Arab Emirates in 2006. Together they amounted to an exercise in political decompression in a carefully-managed, top-down process of cautious change.

In recent years, the momentum of reform slowed significantly and, in some cases, entered into reverse. Saudi Arabia did not repeat its 2005 municipal electoral experiment, while announced parliamentary elections in Qatar never materialised. Each of Bahrain’s quadrennial elections was marred by problems, including opposition boycott (2002), allegations of gerrymandering (2006) and multiple arrests of activists (2010). Kuwait’s political system, which effectively pits the National Assembly in opposition to the government, has caused seven governments to fall in the last five years and paralysed effective decision-making. Moreover, developments in Bahrain and Kuwait in the final months of 2010 reflected rising political tensions in both countries. In both cases, the heavy-handed responses indicated that regimes were becoming more authoritarian and less tolerant of opposing viewpoints, even before the outbreak of the current unrest in January 2011.

During the run-up to the October 2010 elections to the Bahraini Council of Representatives, dozens of opposition and human rights activists were arrested. Many remained in detention for months thereafter and allegations of torture, which awakened memories of the 1994-99 uprising, were widespread. The clampdown demonstrated the ruling Al-Khalifa family’s instinct to suppress, rather than engage, an increasingly organised and vocal political opposition.[1] Social and political tensions also rose sharply in Kuwait during the same period, beginning with a political crisis that developed after persistent shortages of electricity occurred during one of the hottest summers on record in 2010. MPs accused the Ministry of Electricity and Water of corruption in the tendering and implementation of contracts, and the speed with which popular frustration morphed into political anger presaged the similar (though ultimately more momentous) trajectories of protest in Tunisia and Egypt six months later.

More troubling was signs that Kuwait’s much-vaunted political and media freedoms (relative to the other Gulf States) were being rolled back. A series of incidents occurred in the latter months of 2010 that threatened Kuwait’s reputation as the most open society in the GCC. In November, a prominent writer, Mohammed Abdulqader Al-Jassem, was convicted of slandering the Prime Minister and sentenced to one year in prison, before being released on appeal in January 2011. This prompted Amnesty International to label Al-Jassem a ‘prisoner of conscience.’[2] Just two weeks later, Obeid Al-Wasmi, a Kuwait University law professor openly critical of the ruling family, was also arrested and detained for three months before being released in February 2011.[3] Most spectacularly, state security forces attacked and forcibly broke up a demonstration in December 2010, during which four MPs and a number of other participants were beaten and injured. The incidents culminated in the death of a man allegedly tortured in police custody in January 2011, and the resignation of the Interior Minister shortly thereafter.[4]


Protests and petitions

The political temperature in the Gulf was therefore rising even before the outbreak of widespread demonstrations throughout the region, and the confluence of opposition demands and repressive responses suggested a tinder box awaiting a spark. Predictably in light of its history of socio-political tension, Bahrain was the first Gulf country to experience widespread protest. Once the initial pro-democracy protests swelled into a cross-sectarian movement for meaningful political reform, their numbers and social inclusiveness panicked the authorities into a brutally repressive response. After an initial attempt in February to smash the protests using the Bahrain Defence Force failed to quell the protests, and an attempt to create a ‘national dialogue’ broke down as extremists (on both sides) triumphed over moderate voices, the government ‘invited in’ Saudi and UAE forces in March under the pretence of the GCC-wide Peninsula Shield Force. Although ostensibly protecting critical infrastructure, accounts have since emerged of Saudi and Emirati troops conducting house-to-house raids and manning security checkpoints, thereby playing an active role in crushing all opposition to the Al-Khalifa’s rule.

Smaller-scale (yet still significant) protests also occurred in Kuwait, Oman (where they were galvanised after state security forces opened fire and killed demonstrators in February) and Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province. The latter were notable for demonstrations of pan-Shiite support as some Saudi Shiites paraded Bahraini flags and chanted slogans in solidarity with their oppressed brethren across the water. For the Saudi authorities, this represented an alarming turn of events, especially as the kingdom’s Shiite communities have long complained of marginalisation and religious oppression. In response, Saudi, Bahraini and other Gulf States’ officials turned to an old tactic of blaming Iran for meddling in their internal affairs, thereby externalising the roots of dissent and deflecting them from any possible domestic grievances. Thus, Bahrain’s beleaguered foreign minister (and avid tweeter) Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa claimed that GCC forces were in Bahrain “to deter an external threat,” adding that “We have never seen such a sustained campaign from Iran on Bahrain and the Gulf as we’ve seen in the past two months.”[5]

This tactic serves two purposes. First, it enables the (Sunni) regimes to de-legitimise Shiite-led opposition and demands for political reform by conflating the issues of Shiite loyalties and Iranian manipulation into one amorphous threat. Thus, Shiite activists in GCC states have long been depicted as potential or actual fifth columnists with allegiance to Iran. Second, by portraying Shiite demonstrators as disloyal and/or potential extremists, the regimes are playing a classic divide-and-rule card by hindering the emergence of a unifying cross-sectarian opposition group. Sectarian tensions have risen sharply throughout the Gulf, with Kuwait last week expelling three Iranian diplomats it accused of spying, Bahrain deporting 16 Lebanese expatriates and temporarily suspending Gulf Air flights to Beirut following a speech by Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah criticising the decision to deploy GCC forces to quell the unrest, and UAE foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan bluntly warning Iran to “respect the unity and sovereignty of Gulf countries.”

Yet these scaremongering tactics contrasted starkly with the initial grassroots campaigns for reform. These focused not on regime change but on a more equitable distribution of political power and an end to injustice and unaccountability. In Saudi Arabia in February, nine intellectuals applied to the Royal Court for recognition of what would have been the kingdom’s first political party, the Umma Islamic Party. Their call for peaceful political reform obviously unnerved the Saudi authorities as five of its founding members were arrested a week later.[6] However this failed to dampen discussions of reform, as multiple petitions circulating in February and March indicated a sizeable build-up of political pressure. These included a Declaration of National Reform calling for constitutional monarchy, a Message from Clerics and Thinkers calling for the election of the Consultative Council, and a counter Reform Petition from conservatives warning of creeping liberalisation. Energetic debates on the kingdom’s political direction, featuring contributions from all sides, are thus taking place, facilitated by (but not exclusive to) the growing use of Facebook and Twitter to communicate and organise.

Political ferment also rose sharply in the United Arab Emirates with a petition signed by 133 Emirati intellectuals in March, calling for the direct election of all members of the Federal National Council and constitutional amendments to vest it with full legislative and regulatory powers. One of its signatories, Ibtisam Al-Ketbi, a professor of sociology at UAE University, explained that the petition should not be seen as threat by ruling officials, but rather that “there is an aspiration to widen the margin of freedoms, as we have seen in some Arab countries…Every person wants to be part of the decision-making process. This is a just demand. The world is moving forward.”[7] Another of the signatories was Ahmed Mansoor, founder of the www.uaehewar.net website in August 2009 focusing on discussion of politics, development and society in the Emirates. This online forum featured hundreds of postings on sensitive issues (such as the acquittal in January 2010 of Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the half-brother of the President who had been captured on video allegedly torturing a South Asian man) before it was blocked the same month.[8]

The spate of petitions and activism did not leave untouched the other GCC states, with the notable exception of Qatar. Bahrain’s original ‘Day of Rage’ on 14 February was largely organised by online activists but the scale and severity of the post-March crackdown appears to have silenced dissenting voices, at least for now. In Kuwait, two youth groups appeared. One was entitled The Fifth Wall, its name alluding to the role of the constitution in protecting Kuwaiti freedoms in the manner that Kuwait City’s famous four walls used to safeguard its citizenry from outside threats. It used Twitter to organise protests (which never took off) against what it perceived as the rising authoritarian tide in the country. Meanwhile in Oman, popular demonstrations continued following the late-February killing of protestors, augmented by a wave of labour strikes, calling for better wages and job conditions, as well as vigorous prosecution of public sector corruption.[9]

On 19 April, a statement signed by 190 intellectuals from across the Gulf expressed alarm at “the conduct of some GCC governments in stifling peaceful demands for freedom, justice and democracy.” The signatories called for the release of all citizens, activists and politicians detained during peaceful protests, listing the names of 110 people arrested in recent weeks in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province alone.[10] The statement came only days after the arrest of three of the signatories of the UAE petition over the weekend of 9-10 April (with a fourth briefly detained a week later). They included Ahmed Mansoor (whose tweets [@Ahmed_Mansoor] vividly documented the hours leading up to his seizure), and Nasser bin Ghaith, a professor of economics at the Abu Dhabi campus of the prestigious Sorbonne university. Notwithstanding international disquiet (though notably not from the Sorbonne, which remained deafeningly silent on the arrests), the Emirati authorities have continued to close down oppositional spaces. Thus, on 21 April the Minister of Social Affairs issued a decree dissolving the elected board of directors of the Jurist Association, one of the most prominent civil society organisations in the Emirates and an institutional signatory to the March petition, replacing them with state appointees.[11]


What next?

The constriction of public debate and political space in the GCC states presents a series of policy dilemma, for the Gulf States as well as the international community. Within the GCC, policy responses have focused overwhelmingly on short-term measures such as handouts of cash (Kuwait, Bahrain), creating jobs in already bloated public sectors (Bahrain, Oman), and raising workers’ wages and benefits (Saudi Arabia, Oman). Even where announcements of reform have apparently been made, these have been extremely limited, as in the UAE announcement that it would triple the number of handpicked voters to participate in September’s elections to the Federal National Council (building on the 2006 election in which under 1% of Emirati citizens could vote), or the Omani cabinet reshuffle and delegation of legislative and regulatory powers to the hitherto-advisory Consultative Assembly, but left untouched the concentration of power that makes the Sultanate one of the world’s most absolute monarchies (where Sultan Qaboos bin Said is also Prime Minister and heads the ministries of finance, foreign affairs and defence).

Conspicuously absent has been any meaningful engagement with activists’ demands. The emphasis on handouts and censorship suggest regimes are relying on technocratic or technological solutions to the problems facing them. Yet these ignore the crucial social dimension of the 2011 Arab Spring, which has empowered people across the Arab world with notions of entitlement and a desire for justice and accountability in their rulers. This cannot be extinguished by a simple flick of a switch or flourish of a ministerial pen. Indeed, the prevailing approach was eloquently criticised by Nasser bin Ghaith just a week before his arrest: “They have announced 'benefits and handouts' assuming their citizens are not like other Arabs or other human beings… But this only delays change and reform, which will still come sooner or later.”[12]

The choice to suppress demonstrations rather than engage substantively with demands for reform is short-term at best. It leaves untouched the larger issues of political representation and socio-economic fairness and sustainability that lie at the root of the protests. Particularly in Bahrain, hard-line policies have weakened moderates and given succour to more extreme factions in the opposition, thereby allowing the government to claim that it lacks a credible negotiating partner. This depressing self-fulfilling prophecy has given rise to an exceptionally ugly situation, in which Bahrainis studying abroad who protested the crackdown have had their scholarships withdrawn,[13] lawyers and surgeons have faced arrest for representing or operating on protestors, opposition and human rights activsts have been detained and allegedly tortured (among them Ibrahim Sharif, head of the secular National Democratic Action Society),[14] mysterious deaths in state custody have included one of the founders of Bahrain’s leading independent newspaper Al-Wasat (Karim Fakhrawi),[15] and the Ministry of Justice announced it would begin legal procedures to dissolve the largest political opposition group, the (Shiite) Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, only backtracking following strongly-voiced US displeasure.[16]

These depressing developments portend a bleak future for Bahrain, headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet and a Major Non-NATO Ally of the West. American pressure to halt the banning of Al-Wefaq demonstrates that Western partners can use their leverage to extract concession that mitigate the worst of the abuses of power. However, the prevailing reaction among US and UK policy makers has been one of studious silence, epitomised by the State Department’s statement on 18 April that “the US supports the Bahraini leadership’s own embrace of the principles of reform and the respect for rule of law and coexistence.”[17] Western institutions with substantial prestige contracts in the GCC have shared in this apparent complicity with authoritarian rule. Thus, a spokesman for New York University’s flagship new Abu Dhabi campus reacted to the arrest of (Emirati academic) Nasser bin Ghaith by stating that “the institution does not take public stands on issues and policies that fall outside of its core mission…”[18]

They are not alone in choosing to turn the other way. In the UK as in the US, a phalanx of mostly-retired diplomats and military figures assure audiences that the Gulf monarchies are stable and riding out the storm of protest elsewhere. Their commercial and geo-strategic importance means the West will neither abandon any of its Gulf partners nor make a stand on humanitarian grounds. Tunisia, Egypt and Libya will not be repeated on the placid shores of the Gulf. This powerful layer of protection means that while the vortex of ideals and emotions generated by the Arab Spring has decisively not passed the Gulf States by, the outcome is likely to be a prolonged and messy standoff between the demonstrators, licensed opposition groups, and entrenched regimes. And while this places Western partners in a difficult position, caught between their core regional allies and mounting concern at the erosion of human rights and political space, the consequences for Gulf societies are momentous. For unless ruling families acknowledge that discontent is rooted in daily social, economic and political grievances, and take measures to convince their citizens of their commitment to credible reform, the next explosion could be greater still.


[1] http://www.opendemocracy.net/christopher-davidson-kristian-coates-ulrichsen/bahrain-on-edge

[2] http://www.bridgingthegulf.org/news/newsitem/article/////amnesty-urges-kuwait-to-free-writer-jassem.html

[3] http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2010/12/20101227143632271319.html

[4] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12381289

[5] http://www.saudigazette.com.sa/index.cfm?method=home.regcon&contentID=2011042198852

[6] http://ibnlive.in.com/news/saudi-authorites-detain-founders-of-new-party/143709-2.html

[7] http://arabia.msn.com/News/MiddleEast/gf/uae/2011/March/4158937.aspx

[8] http://www.currentintelligence.net/gulfstream/2010/11/15/the-strange-case-of-the-uaes-wwwuaehewarnet.html

[9] http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2011/04/201142215140646886.html

[10] http://www.gulfinthemedia.com/index.php?m=&id=560031&lang=en&

[11] http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2011/04/22/uae-government-dissolves-rights-group-s-board

[12] http://www.currentintelligence.net/gulfstream/2011/4/11/democracy-crackdown-in-the-uae.html

[13] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/apr/15/bahrain-regime-uk-students

[14] http://www.arabianbusiness.com/rights-group-claims-32-bahraini-doctors-missing-395667.html

[15] http://www.cpj.org/2011/04/al-wasat-founder-dies-in-custody-in-bahrain.php

[16] http://news.yahoo.com/s/csm/20110415/wl_csm/377297_1

[17] http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2011/04/201142215140646886.html

[18] http://nyulocal.com/on-campus/2011/04/12/uae-detains-prominent-professor-raising-questions-about-academic-freedom-at-nyuad

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