The toppling of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year sent shock waves throughout the world. As the months have gone by since the start of this Arab Spring, the region has continued to witness waves of protests demanding fundamental changes to the existing political and economic orders.
As a result of these calls for change, the region has reached a breaking point, with the old style of governance, long disconnected from the sentiments of the population, gradually crumbling. For many decades-old regimes, survival can only mean adapting to this new environment. Nonetheless, many of the region’s governments have eschewed the necessary political, social, and economic reforms, and have instead pursued the old tactics of cash handouts and financial subsidies to quiet the people’s demands. Such moves, however, are arguably only temporary solutions to the growing likelihood of full-blown unrest.
Among the regional actors advocating for these outdated strategies is the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The GCC, which is composed of the six Gulf-state monarchies, has worked to counter the Arab Spring by tightening, expanding, and re-asserting the GCC alliance while pursuing a ‘counter-revolutionary’ policy to maintain the status quo. The GCC’s response to the unrest in Bahrain and Yemen embodies this policy, demonstrates the flaws of this strategy, and highlights the reasons why it has and will likely continue to fail.
The GCC: A Union of the Status-Quo
The GCC was formed in 1981 on the pretext of furthering political and economic integration between the Gulf states. In reality, however, the union’s implicit aim has been to ensure the continued existence of the oil-rich monarchies, and their alliance with the United States.
Over the last three decades, the GCC has frequently demonstrated its tendency to uncritically support U.S. interests, including: (1) the GCC’s financing and encouragement of mujahidin groups to oppose the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan; (2) the GCC’s support, financial and otherwise, of Iraq during the Iraq-Iran War; (3) its support for ending the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1990-1991 and for the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003; (4) the GCC’s backing of north Yemeni royalist forces against the Marxist south during Yemen’s civil wars; (5) the Council’s opposition to Iran’s regional ambitions; and (6) the GCC’s support for limited normalization with Israel; and (7) its role in ensuring price controls over oil production and pegging oil barrel prices to the U.S. dollar.
The GCC has, however, never been and still is not a solid alliance. Much of its history has been marred by transnational squabbles between royal families, fears among the smaller Gulf countries of Saudi hegemony, and disputes over the nature of the political and economic union. Nonetheless, as current events continue to unfold, the GCC members have put aside these disputes have been put aside and united in the interest of long-term survival.
The predominately peaceful mass mobilization in Bahrain during the early phase of the so-called “Arab Spring” was the first substantial threat to the Peninsula’s long-standing monarchical systems. Bahrain’s Al-Khalifa family, which for 200 years has ruled the country through a combination of repression and foreign support, was gradually losing control as protests continued to grow. These demonstrations, which included all religious sects, emerged from the country’s long history of grassroots mobilization against the social, political, and economic discrimination meted out by the Al-Khalifas. For the neighboring monarchies, these protests were incredibly unsettling. For Saudi Arabia, the Bahraini protests were particularly threatening and even inspired uprisings in the country’s oil rich eastern provinces, which are populated largely by marginalized Shiites.
Mimicking the revolutionary tactics used in Egypt, from February 14 until March 14, the Bahraini protesters mobilized around Pearl Square in the center of the capital, Manama. However, on March 14, the Peninsula Shield Force, a joint military group formed between the Gulf states in 1984, was sent in. The mission of the group, which was composed mainly of Saudi troops, was formally described as protecting Bahrain from “external threats.” Claims about such threats have been and continue to be central to the government’s strategy for countering the movement. Accusing the protestors of ties to Iran, the government has sought to delegitimize their calls for change. Qatari state TV has joined in this ploy, reporting that Bahraini protesters were, in fact, foreigners.
The arrival of the Peninsula Shield Force brought an Orwellian-style crackdown against the protestors. A three-month state of emergency was declared and the forces, using tanks, helicopters, and armored vehicles, cleared the protesters from Pearl Square. Many opposition leaders and protesters were arrested and sentenced to death, others were fired from their jobs and harassed in schools and hospitals. Mosques were demolished, and Pearl Square was bulldozed. The image of the iconic square was even removed from the Bahraini currency.
The involvement of the Peninsula Shield Force, which was backed by the United States and Europe in exchange for GCC support of the NATO-led attacks against Libya, has effectively suppressed the protests. Although sporadic clashes and protests continue in Bahrain, the intensity and momentum of the movement has been significantly minimized. Since March 14, the ranks of the Forces have been bolstered by more troops from other Gulf States as well as from allies like Pakistan and Morocco. While the state of emergency was lifted on June 1, the Force has stayed and is expected to remain in Bahrain for some time to come.
The GCC member states used a different approach in Yemen. Although protests broke out on January 27, it was not until February 11 that the demonstrations paralyzed the country’s leadership. Hundreds of thousands, and at times millions, took to the streets in a country with long-standing tribal, political, geographic, religious and generational conflicts. Like the other movements in the region, protestors called for an end to corruption and the immediate removal of the country’s ruling regime headed by President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Through a combination of a sophisticated patronage network, derived primarily from Saudi and foreign funding, and a manipulation of the “war on terror,” Saleh has been able to maintain his 30 year rule over the country. To defeat this entrenched regime, the protestors maintained an incredible unity, notwithstanding their differences, and followed a non-violent agenda, despite the ready availability of weapons and the use of force by Saleh’s regime.
For security reasons the GCC, particularly Saudi Arabia, was interested in protecting the status quo in Yemen. However, as mass resignations and defections within the Yemeni military began to increase, it was clear that stability would require removing President Saleh. In early April, a GCC proposal was put forward, with backing from the United States and Europe, that called for a “stable transfer of power” and the removal of Saleh. The proposal was later amended to include a 30-day handover period to a transitional unity government, which was to be equally composed of members of the Saleh regime and opposition parties. The amended proposal also guaranteed prosecutorial immunity for Saleh, his family, and supporters. On May 1, the head of the GCC, Abdulaltif Al-Zayani, arrived in Sana’a to discuss this proposal with the government and opposition parties. The talks, which were unsuccessful, were used by Saleh to buy more time to consolidate his power. Although the opposition parties accepted the deal, the protestors, led by the Youth Movement, rejected the terms of the GCC-brokered agreement and put forward their own “counter-proposal.” Since the failure of negotiations, government repression has escalated and the country appears to be sliding towards civil war.
In addition to its political failure, the GCC’s agreement clearly ignored the will and sentiments of the people on the ground. Although political accountability is typically crucial to the success of post-conflict transitions, the agreement failed to hold Saleh and his peers accountable for years of corruption and violence. Additionally, the GCC deal circumvented Yemen’s energized civil society and assertive youth movement. Instead, the GCC relied upon the usual tools of elite power politics to support its agenda. By ignoring new political actors, the GCC has demonstrated its willful ignorance of current realities.
The GCC’s approach to Yemen has also highlighted small fractures within the organization. Early on, Qatar pulled out of the Yemen negotiations, and gave the protesters a voice through its news agency, Al Jazeera. Qatar, the only “other Wahhabist state,” has long had a bitter feud with Saudi Arabia over issues of foreign policy and the existence of Al-Jazeera. Although the feud has thus far been muted, it may return in full force once the volatile regional developments settle.
Pushing Forward the ‘Counter-Revolution’
Time will tell if these measures will bear fruit or lead to a backlash against the GCC. Permanent occupation of Bahrain is unsustainable and has already received opposition from within GCC states, especially from the eastern parts of Saudi Arabia. As history has demonstrated, the discontent within Bahrain will remain as long as political, social, and economic discrimination continue. Indeed, protests have already surfaced again. Yemen, for its part, is witnessing the beginnings of a civil war because of GCC failures in mediating an acceptable “political settlement.” A full-blown Yemeni civil war would indeed involve its neighbors, politically as well as militarily, to the detriment of all; already, Saleh has been injured in an apparent assassination attempt and has been flown to Saudi Arabia for treatment, leaving the country in a very vulnerable situation.
At the same time, the GCC seems to be creating alliance with other regional autocracies. Jordan and Morocco, the only monarchies outside the Peninsula, have been tapped to join an expanded GCC. The move would bring into the organization two more Arab countries allied with the U.S. and Europe. For Jordan and Morocco, membership in the GCC would bring an economic life-line that these government would likely use to stave off the mounting protests in their respective countries.
With the region splitting along democratic and autocratic lines, the GCC seems to be holding on to dreams of an Arab region that once was. While the future of the GCC and the Arab Spring remain unclear, the endgame is fast approaching and new realities have emerged. The GCC’s responses to these developments demonstrate that it has yet to come to terms with the new region that has blossomed around it.