Domestic and regional tensions have sharply raised the political temperature in the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait. Sectarian rhetoric, in particular, has escalated. Whether deployed by ruling elites, energised protestors, or simply by commentators and analysts, there has been a tendency to use sectarian language as a shield to deflect attention from the root causes of political and socio-economic unrest in various Gulf countries. It may take years to recover from the resulting damage to social cohesion in GCC polities.
Sectarianism is a social construct. It fluctuates with the changing nature of social and political identities. It frequently occurs during periods of pressure and upheaval. Recent history is replete with examples from the Balkans and the Caucasus following the respective collapse of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. In Iraq, ethnic and confessional loyalties were manipulated first by Saddam Hussein as a tool to remain in power, and then by spoiler groups competing for control and influence in the chaotic post-invasion vacuum of authority.
In the Gulf States, as elsewhere, calls for political reform have rattled ruling elites and tested the boundaries of permissible opposition. Yet, the response has been overwhelmingly repressive, as regimes have tried to close down political space and de-legitimize dissent. Sectarian rhetoric has been a central tool in the counter-revolutionary tool box, used to split opposition movements and rally governmental support.
The “gulf” in the Gulf
Bahrain and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia have experienced the most sustained and violent protests over the past twenty months. Local grievances in both regions interlaced with legacies of unequal access to resources and uneven development. These experiences sharpened local perceptions of identity long before the outbreak of Arab Spring protests, representing a tinder box awaiting the spark.
Nevertheless, early demonstrations at the Pearl Roundabout in Manama, Bahrain were remarkable for bringing together Bahrainis from all backgrounds. The protest slogan ‘No Sunni, no Shiite, just Bahraini’ posed a direct and immediate threat to the ruling Al-Khalifa regime.
As the number of protestors rapidly swelled to tens of thousands, it appeared that a unifying social movement was developing around calls for genuine reform and an end to the politics of discrimination. Similar protests occurred in other GCC states, including in Oman and in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, within communities largely cut off from wealth-creation and redistribution mechanisms.
Demonstrations in the Saudi city of Qatif began within days of the Pearl Roundabout uprising and have continued ever since, with hundreds of detentions and at least eleven deaths at the hands of the Saudi security services.
Even in relatively-richer oil-exporting states, such as Kuwait and the UAE, declaratory support for political change increased markedly during the spring of 2011, culminating in the waves of protest that eventually ousted the Kuwaiti Prime Minister in December 2011.
Taken together, these developments indicated that GCC states were certainly not unaffected by the zeitgeist moving so powerfully through the Arab world. However, with the partial exception of Kuwait, ruling elites responded with security-led crackdowns that targeted and imprisoned many advocates for change.
This response was most violent and sustained in Bahrain, where forces from Saudi Arabia and the UAE assisted the Bahrain Defence Force as it crushed the demonstrations and restored order. Opposition leaders were arrested, imprisoned, and given lengthy jail sentences, while several thousand Bahrainis were dismissed or suspended for participating in the protests.
Given the predominantly Shiite composition of the demonstrations, and the community’s more substantial grievances with the regime, these response measures affected Bahrain’s Shiite population most substantially.
Elsewhere in the region, security services in the UAE targeted signatories of a March 2011 petition that had called for mild political reform, as well as members of the Islamist Jamiat Al-Islah wa Tawjih (Association for Reform and Guidance) movement. At the time of writing, more than 60 people remain in detention amid allegations of mistreatment and rising international condemnation that has done great damage to the UAE’s image abroad.
In Oman, the political reforms and ministerial changes announced by Sultan Qaboos in March 2011, were little more than symbolic gestures that failed to stem the growing chorus of discontent, strikes, and unprecedented public criticism of the ruler.
Finally, in Saudi Arabia, the regime faced down its own ‘day of rage’ on 11 March 2011 through a combination of massive welfare handouts and the threat of overwhelming force against protestors. Neither strategy addressed the political, economic, or social challenges facing the Kingdom’s elderly authoritarian leadership.
The Sectarian Shield
Rather than make political concessions or reach a compromise with opposition leaders, Gulf rulers have instead prioritised tried-and-tested tactics to head off burgeoning demands for greater political participation from large segments of their populations.
As previously mentioned, increases in welfare spending, through handouts of cash and other benefits, have been a favorite tactic of GCC rulers looking to placate their people. These benefits have included promises of cash (Kuwait, Bahrain), the creation of jobs in already saturated public sectors (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman), and the raising of workers’ wages and benefits (Qatar, UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman).
The scale of spending is enormous. Saudi Arabia alone has announced two emergency welfare packages collectively worth $130 billion. This figure exceeds every annual government budget before 2007 and includes a provision to employ 60,000 additional Saudis in the Ministry of Interior alone.
In tandem with this largesse, government officials have also increased levels of sectarian rhetoric across the region. In particular, Saudi Arabia, Bahraini and other Gulf officials turned to the old tactic of blaming Iran for meddling in their internal affairs, thereby externalizing the roots of dissent and deflecting attention from any possible domestic grievances.
In the very early stages of the Arab Spring, shortly after the uprising in Bahrain, the UAE foreign minister, Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, bluntly warned Iran to “respect the unity and sovereignty of Gulf countries.” Not to be outdone, Bahrain’s beleaguered foreign minister, Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa, claimed that Saudi and UAE forces had entered Bahrain on 14 March 2011 “to deter an external threat.” He added 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.”
Other instances of sectarian language and policy-making proliferated throughout 2011 and into 2012. These included the suspension of flights between Gulf cities and Lebanon and Iraq and the tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats amid accusations of espionage, and the arbitrary deportation of tens, perhaps hundreds, of longstanding Lebanese residents from the UAE.
Meanwhile, in Bahrain, the ruling family and its loyalist supporters continued to ascribe all episodes of violence to Iranian manipulation, notwithstanding the failure of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry to find any basis for such claims. More troublingly, the highly uneven and selective response of Bahraini authorities to the uprising largely occurred along sectarian lines. Repressive counter-measures overwhelmingly targeted Shiite protestors, including the destruction of several dozen places of worship, as well as the state-run media’s systematic demonization and questioning of demonstrators’ loyalties.
“Sectarianising” the Arab Spring’s effects in the Gulf serves three purposes. First, it enables the (Sunni) regimes to de-legitimise Shiite-led demands for political reform by conflating issues of Shiite loyalty 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 play the classic divide-and-rule card, hindering the emergence of the kind of unified cross-societal opposition that briefly flowered in Bahrain in February 2011.
Third, the language of sectarianism dilutes and blunts international criticism of repressive policies by playing on anxieties in Western capitals, primarily Washington, DC and London, about Iran and the balance of influence in the Gulf.
Here, the baleful memory of the ‘Shiite crescent’ theory peddled by Jordan’s King Abdullah remains important in structuring American responses to the Arab Spring. In his new book, Obama and the Middle East, Fawaz Gerges points out that the Obama administration “has consistently measured every Arab uprising by whether it plays into Iran’s hands.”[i] Gulf rulers are well aware of this and know which buttons to press to ensure a sympathetic hearing in Washington.
It serves their interests to raise the spectre of an Iranian menace working through local agents to destabilise the Gulf States and weaken the West’s most reliable regional allies. Put simply, at a time of soaring international tension with Iran over its disputed nuclear program, the United States will hardly be willing to abandon its key security partners in the Gulf, which, in the case of Bahrain, also host its Fifth Fleet.
Conclusion: Troubled Times Ahead
Rulers in the Gulf have played a risky game in their approach to the protests. Continuing calls for reform across the region indicate that handouts announced in 2011 failed to purchase sufficient political support or end popular aspirations for civil and human rights.
The use of sectarianism as a fear-mongering tactic may well shore up local and international support in the short-term, but at the incalculable cost of widening societal divisions in the long run. Gulf polities contain numerous fissures, whether tribal or sectarian, between citizens and expatriates and even among different classes of citizens. Actions that question the loyalty of certain groups weaken the social fabric by highlighting and widening differences between privileged and marginalized communities. By fragmenting national identity and fuelling alternative identities along narrower sub-national or broader trans-national lines, a destructive self-fulfilling prophecy risks coming true
At their most basic level, Gulf responses to calls for reform have fallen short. The use of force and conspiracy theories, contrasts sharply with grassroots mobilization around issues of political rights, social justice, and greater participation in governance. These demands cannot be ignored or repressed or willed away in the hope that technocratic measures alone can satisfy these calls for change. It is unrealistic to imagine that handouts will successfully co-opt people into networks of patronage and support in the long term; they are fiscally unsustainable and already have caused great strain on Gulf economies.
In a region divided as never before between proponents of reform and supporters of the status quo, the manufacturing of real and imagined differences lessens the likelihood that any eventual political change may occur in an incremental and consensual manner.
*Kristian Coates-Ulrichsen is a research fellow at the London School of Economics, Co-Director of the Kuwait Research Program and Associate Fellow at Chatham House.
[i] Fawaz A. Gerges, Obama and the Middle East: The End of America’s Moment (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p.110