Embracing Crisis in the Gulf | Middle East Research and Information Project
Gulf regimes have responded harshly to the fresh challenges from below, turning quickly from efforts at cooptation to coercion. At first, when revolts broke out in Tunisia and Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait hiked public-sector salaries, subsidies and other forms of patronage, literally trying to spend their way out of potential trouble. But there has been a surge in state violence as well, with thousands detained, disappeared and killed. Authorities in the Gulf are not known for their soft touch, but the present repression is both measurably greater and noticeably more out in the open. Typically concerned to hide unrest from view, out of fear of seeming weak or unpopular, the Gulf monarchies now seem disinterested in masking their violent response. In part, the states have lost control; activists can broadcast details of riot police assaults over social media. But the brutality on display is also intentional. The authorities wish to send the message that they can and will crush dissent with impunity.
The repressive turn is collective. Save in Bahrain, where Saudi Arabia and the UAE dispatched troops in March 2011, there has been no obvious collaboration between Gulf militaries. There is, however, a regional pattern. Oman has arrested hundreds and sentenced dozens to jail, including prominent human rights activists, for participating in protests. The UAE has arrested pro-reform demonstrators and stripped them of their citizenship. Saudi Arabia has arrested thousands and killed a significant number of Shi‘i protesters in the Eastern Province. Kuwaiti authorities have deployed force against members of the opposition, as well as the bidun, native-born residents who do not enjoy the rights of citizenship. The Bahraini state has struck hardest of all, killing dozens, torturing hundreds and terrorizing the majority of the population with tear gas and birdshot. Major opposition and human rights figures, including ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja, Ibrahim Sharif and Nabeel Rajab, have been imprisoned.
It is not just the vigor of local and wider Arab protest movements that accounts for the alacrity of the Gulf regimes’ campaign of violence and oppression. The effort is partly driven as well by anxiety, mixed with a sense of opportunity, related to the balance of power with Iran.
Arab Gulf monarchs have summoned the specter of an Iranian threat ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Today, however, anti-Iranian hysteria is at an all-time high, whipped up by Iran’s perceived strategic benefit from the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the rise of Shi‘i Islamist parties to power in post-Saddam Iraq, Iran’s posture of “resistance” during Israel’s wars on Lebanon and Gaza, and now the Arab revolts. Riyadh and Manama have been particularly provocative, deliberately poking their rival across the Gulf. Theirs is a conscious effort to discredit Shi‘i empowerment — Bahrain’s population is majority-Shi‘i and Saudi Arabia’s some 15 percent Shi‘i — and to undermine popular support for domestic protest. For Saudi Arabia, in particular, stoking fear of Iran is one way to keep protests from spreading from the Eastern Province, where most of the Shi‘a live, to the rest of the country. No doubt the Saudis, Bahrainis and others also believe that heightened tensions with Iran help to secure the backing of their benefactors, chiefly the United States.