Sunnis Versus Shiites: Why The Arab Spring Isn’t Happening (Yet) In The Gulf Countries

Saudi Shias protest in Qatif in 2012 for the release of the cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. (Reuters)

Saudi Shias protest in Qatif in 2012 for the release of the cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. (Reuters)

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

In the two years since the Arab Spring began, the ruling families of the Gulf monarchies have looked on in horror as several of their long-term allies have been toppled by popular uprisings that have grown increasingly unpredictable. After the overthrow of former president Hosni Mubarak, a military coup earlier this year ousted Egypt’s democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi. Meanwhile, two leftist politicians were assassinated in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began.

The uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya have captivated and inspired restive populations in the Arab Gulf states, especially in Bahrain and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, pushing them into the streets to protest for more rights. Scared for their lives, the monarchies have responded to the protests with violence and tried to exploit perceived sectarian divides between Sunnis and Shiites to diffuse the opposition and divert attention from their demands for political, economic and social reforms.

It’s a calculated risk that builds upon a long-standing divide, writes Toby Matthiesen in “Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, And The Arab Spring That Wasn’t,” which was published by Stanford University Press in July.

“In response to the Arab Spring protests, the Gulf ruling families, above all the Bahraini and Saudi ruling families, have played on and strengthened sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shia to prevent a cross-sectarian opposition front,” argues Matthiesen, a research fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Pembroke College of Cambridge University in England. “But while sectarianism in the Gulf owes much to regime-sponsored or approved sectarian rhetoric, and a political campaign indiscriminately targeting the Gulf Shia, other factors are at play too.

“Ultimately, Matthiesen writes, “sectarianism was not just a government invention but the result of an amalgam of political, religious, social, and economic elites who all used sectarianism to further their personal aims.

“Gulf monarchs, he contends, want the world to view the sectarian divide in their countries as a wider battle between the majority Sunnis of the Arab world and the Shiites of Iran. Case in point: The civil war in Syria has killed more than 100,000 civilians during the past two years and is further complicated because President Bashar al-Assad is a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot religion of Shiite Islam, in a majority-Sunni country. The rebels trying to topple him are receiving military and political support from majority-Sunni Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In Bahrain, another Gulf state backing the rebels, the split is between the majority Shiite versus the Sunni ruling family, the Al-Khalifas.

Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Council states have long wanted to break the alliance between Iran and its two friends in the region, Syria and the Hezbollah in Lebanon. To complicate things further, Hezbollah troops are now intervening in Syria in support of the Assad regime.

It’s tempting to view the conflicts as the monarchs do and frame the Arab Spring and the changes it has spawned as a reflection of this divide. But many observers feel the sectarian chasm is too often used to deflect attention from the real struggle, pitting entrenched monarchies in the Gulf against large segments of their populations that want more accountability, democratically elected parliaments and limits on the power of the monarchs, civil and political rights enshrined in law, and defendable in judicial systems that are independent from executive and religious powers.

The Gulf states are immensely rich nations, and in exchange for cushy government-created jobs and the lack of personal income taxes, their citizens have tacitly agreed not to challenge the ruling families — until now.

With rapidly growing populations that are increasingly college-educated and well-traveled, the unwritten agreement has begun to unravel, pressured by a growing demand for more rights and a say in how national and local decisions are made. With the exception of Kuwait, which has had the most vibrant parliament in the region since 1962 as well as regular elections and the right to publicly question government ministers, the Gulf states have made minimal concessions to the political aspirations of their citizens. After 40 years, Saudi Arabia reinstated municipal elections in 2005, and Bahrain resurrected its National Assembly in 2002 after the previous one stopped functioning in 1975. Yet, only half of the members of Saudi municipal councils are elected; the other half are appointed by the government.

Similarly, only half the members of the Bahraini parliament are elected, with the other half government-appointed. In the United Arab Emirates, only half of the 40-member Federal National Council is elected, by a college of 6,689 members appointed by the seven emirates that make up the UAE.

Given such uneven representation, the struggle of Shiites in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain can be viewed as symbolic of the wider struggle between the bloated and often corrupt Gulf monarchies, which have arguably lost their original legitimacy, and populations that want more political, economic and social rights.

Protesters in the Gulf states face a fundamental dilemma. Should they call for the (perhaps violent) overthrow of their ruling families or try to bring change by working within the system? The threat of violence and government concessions both have served a purpose. Both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in the 1980s forced Shiite activists into exile who pushed for more rights, yet both subsequently made concessions. In the 1990s, the exiled activists were pardoned by their respective rulers and allowed to return, and the Saudi and Bahraini governments promised greater rights and space to practice their form of Islam peacefully and safely. To some extent, the governments followed through. Shiites in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, who make up about 10 percent of the kingdom’s population, are now allowed to openly hold Ashura processions through the streets of Qatif, and have hussainiyas, or Shiite houses of religious studies and mourning. In Bahrain, Shiites have suffered a setback in religious terms since the start of the 2011 protests, with some old Shiite mosques being razed by the government, ostensibly because they lacked the necessary original building permits.

Bahraini human rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja, who’s in jail until 2014 for protesting against the government, told me in a 2011 interview that she wanted to see the top members of the royal family on trial. “Some Bahrainis are saying: ‘We do not want the Al-Khalifa regime,’ and others are saying — mostly the political societies — that we need a constitutional monarchy first. So there is a difference in opinion. If you ask me personally, I want to see all the top members of the royal family on trial. I don’t want a constitutional monarchy where the same people who are responsible for killing our children, for torturing our fathers, for beating our sisters, remain on their thrones and live peacefully and happily ever after. It’s not the way that this is supposed to happen.”

Tawfiq Alsaif, a leader of the Shiite community in Qatif, who went into exile in 1979 but returned after King Fahd pardoned him and others in 1993, says the younger Saudis in general, both Sunni and Shiite, are more critical and less worried about not upsetting the status quo. “My observations during recent years show that the new Saudi generation, both Shia and Sunni, are less considerate of the old norms and traditions, including those used to defuse social unrest,” Alsaif said in an interview. “I see various factors behind this, local and regional, thus I can say that our nation is heading towards worrisome times.”

Alsaif said there have been no talks between the Shiite community and Saudi government for some time now, which he blames on a high level of mistrust on both sides. Indeed, since 2011, 20 Shiite protesters have been shot dead in clashes with Saudi security forces, and last year the popular Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was arrested after delivering sermons calling for Shiites to resist the Al-Saud royal family. He remains in jail and is on trial. The prosecution has called for the death penalty.

Toby Jones, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University in New Jersey, believes that the outcome of Al-Nimr’s trial will set the tone for Saudi-Shiite relations for some time. “Saudi Arabia’s Shia community is politicized and mobilized, but hardly radical,” Jones said. “Al-Nimr is a lightning-rod figure, of course, and is certainly less accommodating than the mainstream Shirazi clerics/activists in the Eastern Province. The outcome of his trial will set the tone of Saudi-Shia relations for the medium term, but can hardly get much worse. Saudi security forces have handled the situation roughly. What is often lost in making sense of the state’s relations with its largest minority is that the country’s Shia community (most of it, anyway), has long sought inclusion and basic human rights. They are hardly a radical element or fifth column. Over the last two years, Shiites in Qatif and surrounding areas have supported more revolutionary politics, but the vocal ones are still in the minority.”

The intervention of Saudi troops in Bahrain in March 2011 to prop up the Sunni regime of the Al-Khalifas allowed the main demands of Shiite protesters to remain unanswered. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights estimates that there were 84 confirmed deaths in the uprising and that there are more than 700 Bahraini prisoners of conscience. There has been widespread use of torture against detainees in Bahrain, and the center says that about 100 arbitrarily sacked workers still haven’t received their jobs back.

Why has this been allowed to happen? Why has the U.S. remained largely silent about the crackdowns in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia? Many say it’s due to America’s use of the Gulf states as a bulwark against the perceived threat of Iran across the Gulf. The ongoing standoff between the U.S., the European Union and Iran over its nuclear program has only aggravated regional tensions. Some Gulf states don’t believe that being within the U.S. nuclear umbrella is enough to protect them from an Iran equipped with nuclear bombs a few years from now. Gulf governments have long accused Iran of providing covert aid to their Shiite populations in the form of money and weapons to stir dissent. No proof has publicly surfaced to bolster these claims, and in the meantime, it’s the local Bahraini and Saudi Shiite populations that suffer from the fallout of the ideological fight between their governments and Iran’s.

Ultimately, at least in Bahrain, it’s a desperate fight for survival of the Al-Khalifa family that has pushed the comparative hard-liners within them to push for the imprisonment of protesting Bahrainis, the majority of whom are Shiites. In Saudi Arabia, the situation is different in that its Shiite population is a minority. The majority of Saudis remain loyal to the ruling family, which is still able for now to provide jobs and services thanks to oil revenue; however, critics argue that Gulf rulers must recognize that overplaying the Shiite-scare card is detrimental to the stability and unity of their countries. According to their line of thinking, Shiite populations who’re given their full rights and are fully integrated into these societies, will ultimately be an invaluable asset to these nations. Matthiesen makes this point in his chapter on Kuwait, where he notes that wealthy Shiite business families have become crucial political allies of the ruling Al-Sabah family in the Kuwaiti Parliament.

Matthiesen writes that the Arab Spring demonstrations in the Gulf have succeeded in lifting one significant taboo: Criticizing or even attacking the royal families and rulers. Young demonstrators in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have carried signs calling for the downfall of the Al-Khalifa and Al-Saud families. Matthiesen notes that violent repression combined with economic handouts to the rest of their populations has allowed Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to weather the first two years of the Arab Spring. But with booming populations and diminishing oil and gas production, Matthiesen predicts that all the Gulf states will face enormous economic challenges in the coming decades. “Sectarianism was a short-term ‘answer’ to the Arab Spring in the Gulf,” he writes. “But the Gulf states will have to find new answers to the looming challenges of lack of economic diversification, increasing energy consumption, youth unemployment, and demands for political reform in an era and neighborhood in which autocratic regimes have lost the power to regulate what people say and demand in public.”

Is this the end of political Islam in Egypt?

Pro-Mursi supporters protest in Cairo, calling for the deposed president to be reinstated. (AP photo)

Pro-Mursi supporters protest in Cairo, calling for the deposed president to be reinstated. (AP photo)

This is a translation of my column that appeared in O Globo of 12/07/2013 in Portuguese:

The danger is if the military, despite promising to hold elections, never leave power. If a Brotherhood candidate wins, will he be allowed to govern?


Last week I watched with alarm and sadness on television the events unfolding in Egypt’s military coup against the democratically elected government of Mohamed Mursi. And I was even more amazed at the scenes of liberal and leftist opposition Egyptians in Tahrir Square, celebrating with shouts of joy the return of the military, which they themselves had fought so energetically against in the same square only two years earlier.

Undoubtedly, Mursi proved unable to govern Egypt well, rejecting any accommodation with the opposition, intensifying the sectarian tone of his government, and appointing members of the Muslim Brotherhood to most ministries and provinces. The country’s economy has gone from bad to worse, with the ailing Egyptian pound suffering devaluations, the foreign currency deposits reaching very low levels and power outages becoming a normal thing. Politically, Mursi was also obstinate, derogating to himself constitutional powers and trying to push a new constitution onto the public that didn’t have the support of liberals and leftists.

Despite all these differences, we cannot forget that Mursi was elected with 52% of the popular vote, more than U.S. President Barack Obama got in his last election. With this popular mandate, how could he surrender to the military’s ultimatum? “Over my dead body,” Mursi allegedly told the military officers sent to demand his resignation. And the immediate result of the forced removal of Mursi power was violence, with 51 Brotherhood supporters being killed by soldiers in Cairo this week. This massacre led the group to urge a revolt against the military.

The military quickly appointed civilians to head an interim government with Adli Mansur as interim president, Hazem al-Beblawi as prime minister, and Mohamed el-Baradei as vice president. Mansur has issued a constitutional declaration calling for a constituent assembly in two weeks, a referendum on a new constitution in four months, parliamentary elections in February and presidential elections six months later. Al-Beblawi already said ministerial posts will be offered to members of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Brotherhood, and the Islamist Nour party. But it is unlikely that members of the Brotherhood will accept positions in the interim government responsible for toppling Mursi.

Right now Egypt is a powder keg ready to explode at any provocation. The despair and anguish that millions of Egyptians are feeling upon seeing their leader deposed by the military is understandable, and that is why politicians on both sides will have to work hard to calm people down and try to find an acceptable solution for everyone. Former senator Egyptian Mona Makramebeid said this week to Christiane Amanpour of CNN that a political accommodation would take a while. “It will take time. We have to send out positive messages. The opposition has to stop with the demonization of the Muslim Brotherhood and strive to work together. After all, they worked together in the past to overthrow the Mubarak regime,” she said.

But will the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt mark the end of political Islam? Many would say yes, but I doubt it. The French scholar Olivier Roy, who published the book “The failure of political Islam” in 1992, said in this week’s “Economist” that the Brotherhood government imploded because they did not know how to run a modern state. He said the government was trying to Islamize a society that was already very religious, and that Islam does not have the detailed prescriptions necessary to run a modern state. At this point I agree in part. Mursi was not able to build political alliances with other Islamist parties, and much less with the opposition parties, something that would be essential to the success of his government. In Turkey and Morocco, Islamist parties have had to share power with other political parties in order to stay in power.

The West has to realize that the Egyptian progressives and liberals are a minority in the country, and that most are religious and conservative. The U.S. ambassador in Cairo, Anne Patterson, knows this and built an American policy of trying to get closer to the Brotherhood after decades of neglect. “Anne has since her earliest days in Egypt noted that the liberal Egyptians are the favorite contacts of Washington think tanks, the U.S. Congress and the State Department. Maybe they are talented and creative, but they are not necessarily representative of the 80 million Egyptians,” said an American official to the Daily Beast website.

The danger now in Egypt is that the military, despite promising elections, may never leave power. They have not said whether they will allow Brotherhood candidates to participate in the parliamentary and presidential elections. And if a Brotherhood candidate is elected president, will the military allow him to take office? We’ve seen what happened in Algeria in 1992, when the military stopped the Islamists from coming to power despite winning democratic elections. We will have to wait at least another six months to see if the Egyptian military will honor their word or not. But I’m not betting a lot on them.

Link to original column in Portuguese:

How Bahrain has become a Saudi-Iranian battleground

Men in Bahrain protest against the government

By Rasheed Abualsamh

THE SIGHT of smiling Saudi soldiers flashing the V-sign of peace as they rolled into Bahrain in light-armored vehicles on March 14 must have surprised many Saudis and Bahrainis who probably had never dreamed they would witness such a scene in their lives.

But King Hamad bin Issa Al-Khalifa, the minority Sunni-ruler of Bahrain, who along with his family have been in power for the past 200 years, had called upon fellow member states of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council for help in quelling the weeks-long often violent protests of the majority Shiites, which had now moved from Pearl Square to blocking the entrances to the financial district.

Bahrain has always been proud of its relative openness and ease of doing business. Having mobs of its own dissatisfied citizens turning the tiny island-state into something decidedly less than business-friendly was too much for some in the royal family. For behind the scenes a struggle was emerging between the more reform-minded Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa and the hardline Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa. The arrival of GCC troops (the United Arab Emirates contributed 500 soldiers, as well as reinforcements from Qatar and Kuwait) and the subsequent violent removal of the protesters from the financial district left no doubt that the hardliners were winning.

“Bahrain is seen as Saudi Arabia’s backyard, and an overthrow of the Al-Khalifa would open the door more widely than before for Iranian influence,” said Christopher Davidson, reader in Middle East politics at Durham University in the UK, and the author of several books on the UAE. “More importantly, it’s a red line for autocratic Gulf regimes as much as a geopolitical red line: if the Al-Khalifa fall, it will break the ‘bubble of invincibility’ of Gulf sheikhs.”

The televised scenes of Shiite Bahraini protesters being shot at close range and in some cases being denied access to prompt medical care cast the conflict in a horrific way: The wealthy, Sunni elite versus the poorer and discriminated against Shiites who were asking for better jobs, a constitutional monarchy and a fully-elected parliament. At first the king made a few concessions by reshuffling his cabinet, promising new elections down the road and giving cash handouts to the people. But the Shiite opposition parties rejected these as not enough, and soon hardliners on both sides had dug in their heels. Even the Shiite opposition seemed split between the Wefaq party and Hassan Mushaima, who recently having been pardoned and let back into the country by the king, was calling for the monarchy to be abolished and a republic to be formed.

This radicalization of Shiite demands must have sent shock waves through Riyadh, Doha, Kuwait City, Abu Dhabi and Muscat, the capitals of Gulf countries with hereditary rulers that have never had to share much power with anyone.  Mushaima and five other opposition leaders were promptly arrested and jailed.

These sad events caused Shiites in Iraq and Lebanon to hold rallies to show their solidarity with their brethren in Bahrain, and to call for Saudi troops to be withdrawn. In Iran, 700 protesters threw stones at the Saudi Consulate in Mashhad on March 18, and in Tehran last week a radical cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, called on Bahraini Shiites to “resist against the enemy until you die or win.” Iran later withdrew its ambassador from Bahrain, and the island-state then expelled Iran’s charge d’affaires.  Finally on March 20, the king of Bahrain, clearly alluding to Iran, announced that his country had foiled a three-decades long plot by an unnamed foreign nation to destabilize his country when his army clamped down on the pro-democracy protesters.

Many observers have therefore cast the showdown in Bahrain as a proxy battle between Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and Shiite-majority Iran for influence in the region. With Shiites having come to power recently in Iraq and Lebanon, Bahrain has become a red-line in the sand for Iran’s expanding influence in the region that none of the Sunni-ruled Gulf states will allow to be crossed.

“Bahrain is seen as Saudi Arabia’s backyard, and an overthrow of the Al-Khalifa would open the door more widely than before for Iranian influence,” said Christopher Davidson, reader in Middle East politics at Durham University in the UK, and the author of several books on the UAE. “More importantly, it’s a red line for autocratic Gulf regimes as much as a geopolitical red line: if the Al-Khalifa fall, it will break the ‘bubble of invincibility’ of Gulf sheikhs.”

Toby Jones, an assistant professor of Middle East history at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and a specialist in Saudi affairs, stressed in an interview that it was the Gulf governments that were turning the Bahrain protests into a sectarian issue and not the protesters themselves.

“None of the Arab states in the Gulf want to see a close neighbor fall, particularly with the various sectarian elements at play. I want to be clear here, though, that I think it is the Arab Gulf Sunni governments and not the protesters in Bahrain or elsewhere that are playing the sectarian card. My sense, and I know many of them, is that the protesters are serious about democracy,” Jones said.

Of the six GCC states, Bahrain is the only one with a Shiite-majority population.

Yet despite the inflammatory rhetoric coming out of Tehran, several analysts believe that Iran is being cautious in how it gets involved in the Bahrain conflict, aware that it has many domestic problems to deal with, and also because it is wary of getting into a direct conflict with Saudi Arabia or the United States.

“Despite what the Bahraini king has said, there is no conclusive evidence that Iran is arming, or is even the main factor behind the opposition. Iran’s anti-Khalifa rhetoric has, however, intensified and that is to be expected. In a moment when the Shiites in the Middle East are visibly angered by the Saudi intervention against their brethren, it is hardly an option for Tehran – the self-declared protector of the Shiites in the world – to remain silent. That said, I still see no evidence that Iran is logistically the critical force behind this unrest in Bahrain,” said Alex Vatanka, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington and an expert on Iranian politics.

“One major reason why Iran would not do so is because such a move would bring it closer to a conflict with the US than has ever been the case in recent years. The US will not sit idle with its 5th Fleet in Bahrain and let Iran run a pro-Tehran armed campaign. As with Iraq, Iran might help local Shiite forces in the future but we have not reached that stage yet,” added Vatanka.

Saudi authorities have been alarmed at the possible spread of unrest from Bahrain to its minority Shiite population, which is just 22 kilometers away over the causeway that links the two countries, in the oil-producing Eastern province. Shiites have already held protests calling for the recall of Saudi troops in Bahrain, but the message coming from prominent Shiite Saudis so far has been one of restraint and dialogue.

The Saudi Shiite religious leader Sheikh Hassan Al-Saffar released a statement on his website denouncing the violence in Bahrain and calling for a political solution and national reconciliation.

Nevertheless, the ironic fact remains that the arrival of Saudi and other GCC troops in Bahrain has led both sides to dig in their heels and has left much less room for compromise. How long will these foreign troops remain in Bahrain is also not sure, with some analysts predicting their stay could be open-ended, as the opposition could claim victory if they went home early.

“Saudi Arabia’s and the GCC’s exit strategy is not clear. Nor is it clear how Bahrain will define victory. It is likely that the departure in the next few weeks or even months would be perceived as an opening by Bahrain’s opposition. The Saudis and the Bahrainis know this, so my intuition is that the GCC forces will remain for some time,” said Jones.

“The Al-Khalifa are not interested in dialogue, as any concession to the protesters will be viewed as a sign of weakness. Moreover, the Al-Saud and other Gulf sheikhs will also be reluctant for the Al-Khalifa to reduce themselves to dialogue,” said Davidson.

Jones, the Rutgers professor, agrees, saying that the violence unleashed on the protesters in Bahrain changed the whole equation.

“Neither side has shown a willingness to budge. The opposition’s intransigence is a direct result of how the Bahrain regime managed the uprising and especially its resort to violence. There was a time when there was more room for compromise. Al-Wefaq seems prepared to concede some ground on this point, but whether Mushaima, Haqq and others will do the same is an important question,” said Jones.

The Obama administration has been caught in a juggling act, publicly supporting the popular uprising in Libya, and leading the Allied military attacks on the Qaddafi regime, while remaining solidly committed to supporting the Al-Khalifa and Al-Saud families.

“The US has given private assurances to the Bahrainis that they want the Al-Khalifa to remain in power, making very clear that while they would not publicly support a crackdown (and have denounced its ferocity), they also would not walk away from the Al-Khalifa in the short term,” explained Jones.  “But the US has also demonstrated a double standard in how it is defining ‘just’ outcomes—by cracking down on Libya’s Qaddafi but turning a blind eye to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the US continues to project a muddled set of values to the rest of the region and the world.”

The ball is now firmly in the court of the Al-Khalifa. Do they really want to share more power with their citizens? In the past they have said they do, but more often than not that has turned out to be empty rhetoric.

“In the first two weeks of the demonstrations, the major demand of the protesters was the restoration of the 1973 Constitution which allows for a semi-constitutional monarchy. I think the feeling of betrayal on the part of the people was the major motive behind the protests. A decade ago, the king had promised a gradual transition to democracy. In reality he has grabbed all the powers and stripped the elected council from having any meaningful powers.,” said Tawfiq Alsaif, a leading Saudi Shiite intellectual in Dammam, Saudi Arabia.

What began as an Arab winter of discontent in Tunisia and Egypt, now seems to be turning into a spring of discontent in Libya and Bahrain, which may well extend into the summer.




















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