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Political Backlash in the Gulf

A new report by Chatham House argues that if the United States seeks long-term stability in the Middle East, it must begin empowering opposition voices in the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf.

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If the United States seeks long-term stability in the Middle East, it must begin empowering opposition voices in the Gulf countries. A report published by Chatham House and presented at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace last week underscores the urgency of such reform. It depicts the current bargain between the state and the populace in the Gulf as unsustainable over the long run as the citizens in the region become more interested in the right to civic participation, through either elections or free speech.

Unfortunately for Gulf civil society, the states have increasingly used authoritarian tactics to smother opposition politics. Worse, they appear to stand united in their opposition to political progress. The incursion of a joint force into Bahrain to quell its largely non-violent protest movement provides a telling example. In 2011, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent a contingent of 2,000 troops and heavy armor to the kingdom, cowing the country’s disenfranchised Shia majority into submission. The Saudis’ bullish behavior elicited scant reproach from the US, whereas similar actions by Russia have brought Congress to the brink of war.

Throughout the Gulf, governments have reacted with a heavy hand to civic discontent expressed through either high-profile demonstrations or online murmurings. This response, according to the authors, will fail to deliver a long-term solution. Throughout the last half-century, Gulf leaders have provided economic well-being in return for the acceptance of monarchical governance, the abridgment of free speech, and the denial of meaningful voting rights. The report argues that this political contract is unsustainable and that the reactionary responses to political opposition have widened the gap between what the people want and what rights the government is willing to give.

Zero Tolerance of Criticism

Since 2011, Gulf governments have distributed more oil revenue largesse into the hands of their citizens. At the same time, they have consolidated power by putting activists behind bars and narrowing the space for critical debate. One of the panelists, Kristin Smith Diwan, described a new strategy the states have collectively employed to embed their repressive policies in new legal measures against terrorism. “We can see this through an amended terrorism law in Bahrain,” she noted, and “through new terrorism legislation that was undertaken in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.” The governments have invoked broad national security concerns when disrupting if not ruining the lives of their most ardent political opponents. The strategy is one of exhaustion, designed to “keep the political and human rights activists either in jail or tied up in the courts,” Smith Diwan added. The governments have even gone so far as to revoke the citizenship of peaceful activists.

This trend toward martial control has arrived, she pointed out, at a time when Gulf governments are conducting much more assertive foreign policies. The same tactics used to retard domestic political change have been “applied to any comment or criticism of foreign policy, so that now the Kuwait emir himself has announced a zero tolerance policy toward any sort of criticism toward fellow Gulf governments and allies.” As evidence, she cited leaked copies of a 2012 GCC security agreement allegedly allowing for the extradition of citizens wanted by fellow Gulf States, in addition to “a new GCC police force and more coordination in tracking or denying the free travel of activists between these activists.”

The fallout from these trends could be grave. Jamil De Dominicis summed up the serious risks of resisting meaningful change: “In a way, this consolidates the current relationship that exists between states and citizens in the Gulf at a time when a lot of people in the Gulf are trying to redefine the relationship. And so that has the potential to create a lot of friction.” The report presents these policies as incompatible with a fundamentally changed political consciousness in the Gulf. The authors deduce this from events like the Arab Spring, the advent of information-sharing technology, and personal contacts with individuals in the Gulf. Still, it’s possible that those who are speaking their minds—and suffering for it—represent not a silent majority but rather a loud minority.

U.S. Interests

The US has taken a passive interest in seeing its Gulf allies adopt more open, inclusive political systems and promote Western values. By pursuing this path, Gulf States could hypothetically reduce the number of disaffected youth marching off to Syria. But Gulf rulers may view such extremists as a necessary price to pay for maintaining their grip on power. And, after all, the US and Iran will bear the primary burden of confronting extremists of Gulf origin for the foreseeable future. The Gulf States also have an incentive to permit instability in their near abroad. The uptick in disorder not only justifies their repressive terrorism laws but also burnishes their role as security provider.

The panelists rebutted this counterargument by noting that Gulf States cannot achieve their economic objectives while limiting political rights. The Gulf States are acutely aware “that they need to move their economies beyond oil,” Senior Chatham House fellow Jane Kinninmont said, adding, “they all have extensive, impressive strategic visions for moving their economies to what most of them would aspire to call a ‘knowledge economy,’” which entails “rolling back the role of the state” and “making the private sector the employer of choice.”

The Arab Spring, however, hampered progress in this direction. “What we’ve seen since the unrest in 2011 is a reversion to short-term policies,” she continued. There’s been “a focus on new fiscal spending, pay rises, the creation of new public sector jobs, etc. One hundred and fifty billion dollars of new public spending was announced across the Gulf in 2011 alone, or around 13% of GDP. And we’ve seen the new Saudi king cement his succession to the throne by offering new handouts and spending estimated to total around $32 billion.”

Kinninmont’s analysis suggests that the governments can more or less “buy” complacency, but at the cost of postponing structural changes such as privatization. Nonetheless, in choosing to backtrack on economic reform thus far, the Gulf States have revealed where their priorities lie—in preserving power. These states may also manage to reform their economies without compromising the political supremacy of royal families. China’s success in combining economic transformation with political stasis is an attractive example. However, if these analysts have correctly assessed the political mood on the streets of Riyadh, Doha, and elsewhere, then the royal houses may well come crashing down, precipitating a new magnitude of disorder in the Middle East.

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