The Arab Spring seen from the Gulf
While in North Africa the Arab Spring seems to be experiencing a “post-revolutionary” phase of maturity with citizens demanding results following the uprisings, in the Persian Gulf countries the “Arab Spring” is still in an embryonic form with uncertain prospects and results. The absence of democracy in the Gulf assumes various forms of government, ranging from sultanates to emirates and kingdoms, however, in different ways all the citizens in this region have challenged their governments. In Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, those in power have felt the need to protect themselves and to do so have often resorted to force.
In Oman dozens of protesters were arrested for having demanded higher wages and jobs. In Qatar a net-citizen started a Facebook group called “Freedom Revolution March 16 Qatar” to ask the Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani to resign, summoning a protest for March 16th 2011. Almost 2,000 people joined his group but the initiative came to nothing following his arrest.
In Dubai the most recent arrest of activists charged with having criticised the United Arab Emirates happened last month. The government keeps all dissent under control, but in spite of this there are periodical individual protests without there being a real uprising.
In Kuwait protesters broke into parliament and a few days later Prime Minister Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah resigned. Bahrain is the only Gulf country in which protests continue in an organised, cognisant and constant manner, with the most recent held on June 22nd 2012. It has been reported that more than 80 people have died since February 2011 and Amnesty International’s report on Bahrain denounces an excessive use of violence by security forces as well as arbitrary arrests, torture, unfair trials and the violation of other fundamental rights.
Bahrainis seem to be the only ones who have no intention of giving up in spite of an international lack of interest, little reporting by the media and the presence of a foreign army on its territory. For over a year the Peninsula Shield, the Gulf Cooperation Council’s army, has been in Bahrain and the opposition, led by al Wefaq, says these soldiers are seen as offensive and not as being there to protect the people. The GCC’s objective was in fact to try and quell what appeared to be an embryonic Arab Spring and avoid it spreading across the Gulf.
Among all the GCC’s member countries the government that seem to be the most afraid at the moment appears to be the Saudis’. The 2012 Human Rights Watch report states, “Saudi Arabia responded with unflinching repression to demands by citizens for greater democracy in the wake of the pro-democracy Arab Spring movements. King Abdullah bin Abd al-‘Aziz Al Saud announced economic benefits worth over US$130 billion, but authorities continued to jail Saudis for peaceful dissent. New laws introduced or proposed in 2011 criminalize the exercise of basic human rights such as freedom of expression, assembly, and association”.
Saudi Arabia is not the only Gulf country to have attempted to use economic persuasion to resolve internal issues, and Qatar also increased the salaries of all state employees by 60% while defence employee were given a 120% raise.
This was not a merit-based policy but one with a very successful preventive effect. The Arab Spring was spreading like a virus through the Arab world and the priority was to acquire the goodwill of citizens at any price. For Qatar the price to pay was serious inflation, a private sector on its knees since it could not match the generosity shown by the state, and enraged foreign workers, the economy’s driving force and 90% of the population, increasingly alienated from Qatari colleagues earning double the amount for doing the same job.
In Saudi Arabia $130 billion in economic benefits and the creation of thousands of jobs were not the only antidotes for protests. The kingdom is well aware it does not wish to embark upon any form of democratic change and therefore the only solution possible is to avoid nearby Bahrain setting a bad example.
The Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal is using his gigantic media group Rotana to open a 24/7 news channel called Alarab in Bahrain’s capital Manama, in cooperation with Bloomberg.
The Qatari Al Jazeera network based in Doha has given everyone a lesson on how the media can achieve the same results as weapons, but without killing anyone. Many believe that Al Jazeera played an important role in the Arab Spring, presenting itself as a projection of Qatar’s foreign policy in the Arab world. This involved constant media coverage and an unlimited budget for Libya, where Qatar was the first Arab country to join the 2011 military intervention, and slightly more discreet in Bahrain, which is ruled by the Al Khalifa family. If the Peninsula Shield Force does not manage to calm the uprisings in Manama, the Saudis’ alternative solution seems to be that of persuading the population with bombardment by the media directly from within thanks to the new Alarab channel.
Many consider this Saudi initiative a form of colonialism, especially following Saudi Arabia’s proposal to create a union with Bahrain, with shared foreign and defence policies and a common financial system. This proposal was extended to all GCC countries, but only Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have shown any enthusiasm. Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates have clumsily postponed the matter trying to hide any feelings of contempt and leaving external observers under the impression that, unable to contain uprisings, the Saudi colossus wishes to annex the small island of Bahrain.
Translated by Francesca Simmons
Image: creative commons