The Gulf monarchies appear to have survived this round of convulsions, but it is at their own peril that they ignore the fires likely to come next time around.
In early 2011, when enthusiasm for what we then called the “Arab Spring” was at its height, one of my colleagues spoke to her friend in the region, and enthused about the prospects of widespread change. “Yes, this change is very exciting,” her friend said, “and we pray it happens in someone else’s country.”
The wisdom of this sentiment, perhaps difficult to fathom when the regional upheaval was discussed only in awed tones, cannot at this point be denied. Every country that has either experienced or is in the process of revolutionary change has been gripped by significant problems, in some cases leaving citizens in a demonstrably worse condition. The most obvious example is Syria, where over 115,000 have died in the country’s civil war, and the ascendance of extremist rebel factions makes the prospect of post-civil war governance appear bleak. Libya’s growing lawlessness puts a question mark on the country’s future, where the central government is struggling to establish its authority even in its own capital. And the many woes post-revolution Egypt is experiencing have by now become the stuff of front-page news.
Though none should mourn the passing of brutal dictators, there are worse things. Somalia’s Mohamed Siad Barre was as about as rough an authoritarian as they come, and human rights activists who pressured Western governments to cut off aid to his regime in the late 1980s certainly thought they had done something noble. When the Somali dictator was forced to flee Mogadishu in 1991, none mourned him. Yet bad as Siad was, the anarchy that succeeded him, and consumed Somalia for more than two decades, proved far more destructive of rights and lives.
As the Arab world faces the possibility that its dictators are giving way to even greater problems, the region’s revolutionary fervour has dimmed. In the Gulf Arab monarchies, the impact has been the diminution of both protest movements and also political opposition. These states appear to have survived this round of convulsions, but it is at their own peril that they ignore the fires likely to come next time around.
Bahrain, a Shia-majority country led by a Sunni monarchy, has experienced the greatest challenges stemming from the turmoil of the Arab Uprisings. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen notes that although the Bahrain uprisings had meagre beginnings in 2011, largely confined to Shia villages at first, “the demonstrations gathered momentum after Bahraini police killed two protestors on 14 and 15 February.” Though the protests were broad-based initially, with ecumenical slogans like No Shiites, No Sunnis, Only Bahrainis, they came to be seen as a sectarian affair over time, particularly after the Gulf Cooperation Council sent in a force of around 1,000 Saudis and 500 Emiratis to stabilise the monarchy.
Ulrichsen demonstrates that when this past summer rolled around, the uprising was “contained but not resolved.” Both sides of the conflict, Ulrichsen concluded, ‘hardened’ during the course of the conflict, making a political resolution less likely.
Indeed, late August saw renewed demonstrations, as protesters took to the streets on August 23 to protest new laws restricting political dissent. Security forces have occasionally been targeted by attacks, including an August 29th car bomb in the Shia village of Jad Fahs that injured four police, and a September 6th bombing in Sitra Wadyan during a patrol. By the end of September, thousands were taking to the streets to protest the arrest of opposition figure Khalil al-Marzuq, with demonstrators hurling stones and petrol bombs at police, who used tear gas.
Though the renewed protests are obviously a concern for Bahrain’s monarchy, the situation is unlikely to return to what it was in 2011, when regime change seemed a real possibility. If nothing else, other GCC states can again step in if the conflict deepens.
Kuwait has seen an escalation in opposition politics in its Parliament, but the Emir appears to have gained the upper hand for now. In 2006, powerful Kuwaiti youth movements emerged that employed tools that would later be identified with the Arab Uprisings, including “text messaging, internet blogging, and online social networks to coordinate and plan their activities and articulate their demands for reform.”
The growing stridency of the political scene was reflected in Kuwait’s opposition politics. In 2009, the Parliament for the first time ordered an interpellation of a sitting prime minister, Sheikh Nasser Mohammed Al-Sabah. After surviving a couple of no-confidence votes, Sheikh Nasser was finally forced to resign in 2011 following a bribery scandal: although the Emir said Sheikh Nasser wouldn’t be replaced, his hand was seemingly forced after protesters stormed the National Assembly building, an unusually contentious move for Kuwaiti politics. At times the wrangling between the Emir verged on the absurd, as when the constitutional court dissolved an opposition-led Parliament because it found the Emir hadn’t validly dissolved the previous Parliament.
Though the contentious relationship between Kuwait’s Parliament and Emir has significantly harmed the country’s ability to execute policy—including forcing the cancellation of a planned oil refinery—a combination of policies designed to appease and suppress the opposition seem to have diminished it. These policies include the “Kuwait listens” campaign targeting youth and the widespread criminalisation of dissent. But these policies are unlikely to have met with a similar degree of success were it not for the region’s increasingly dark view of opposition politics.
Even Qatar, once an enthusiastic backer of revolutionary movements and Islamist political parties, is reconsidering its once-aggressive foreign policies. So many bets that used to appear smart—backing Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, playing a hyperactive role in Libya, supporting Syria’s rebel factions—now seem likely to end up losing gambles. Though Qatar’s flag was the first one hoisted when rebels captured Qaddafi’s Tripoli palace, by this summer protesters were actually burning Qatar’s flag in Benghazi.
While some observers debate whether there is something unique about the Gulf monarchies that make them less likely to fall in revolutions, the simplest answer seems to be that the monarchies stick together: they do not want other monarchs to fall. When this level of wealth and resources can be brought to bear in a regime’s defence, that makes survival far easier.
This stability is likely to eventually give way. Countries in the region like Oman will encounter unprecedented challenges as they are forced to move to a post-petroleum phase. Even Saudi Arabia will be challenged by natural demographic trends, as a growing population finds that the country’s oil wealth provides them fewer and fewer benefits.
And so the Gulf monarchies appear to have survived the immediate challenge of the Arab Uprisings through a combination of appeasement, suppression, and waiting out the region’s enthusiasm for change. But the fire will likely burn hotter and longer the next time around.