Securitization in the Gulf, narrowed Freedoms not only in Saudi Arabia
Eleonora Ardemagni 6 November 2018

The 2010–11 Arab uprisings largely passed the Gulf by, the major exception being Yemen. Bahrain and Oman did experience differing degrees of popular protest but managed to address these (Manama received extensive military support from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to quell the internal Shia dissent there), thus preserving regime security.

While a tentative stability has been maintained, on both sides of the Gulf—in the Sunni monarchies and in Iran—securitization has been the concluding theme of state reactions to the post-2011 disorder across the Middle East. These policies have sought to bolster state capacity to control and coerce citizens, resulting in even less space for civil freedom, political association and popular mobilization.

Moreover, two political dynamics have contributed to a worsening of an already bleak situation.

The first is the deep polarization between Riyadh and Tehran (the so-called Saudi–Iranian “Cold War” in the Middle East), which has seen both countries instrumentalize confessional divides to boost their own power, with an eye to securing hegemony in the region.

Secondly, the Sunni rift has triggered new enmities and alignments. The Saudi and Emirati-led boycott against Qatar has widened the space on all sides for control and mistrust of internal opponents, often labelled as “Qatari agents” in Saudi Arabia and the UAE (and vice versa in Qatar).

In Saudi Arabia, securitization policies have become more widespread since the implementation of economic and social reforms (“The National Transformation Plan” and “Vision 2030”) under the direction of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman Al-Saud (MBS). While seemingly contradictory developments, the paradox is resolved when we examine close MBS’s top-down strategy of modernization. Indeed, the arrest of several Saudi women rights activists, just before the announced end to the driving ban for Saudi females in June 2018, is instructive, revealing just how much MBS requires changes to be royal concessions granted from “on high” instead of ground-up collective achievements.

Open Saudi–Iranian rivalry reverberates in domestic politics, further narrowing the space for critical voices or local activists. In 2011, the Saudi crackdown against Shia demonstrations in the oil-rich Eastern Province of the kingdom, as well as the repression of the Shia-led protest in Bahrain, were presented by authorities in the Gulf monarchies as necessary police operations against Iranian-inspired uprisings.

In western Iran, and especially in the Arab-speaking, oil-rich region of Khuzestan (Ahvaz), repressive policies towards the Arab minority have continued apace, even under Hassan Rouhani’s supposedly moderate presidency. Moreover, Tehran has frequently denounced what it calls Saudi interference in the Islamic Republic. In October 2018, five Iranian environmentalists were charged with national security crimes, which are punishable by death, following allegations of spying.

As in third countries in the region, both Riyadh and Tehran are trying to capitalize on confessional and/or ethnic minorities in the others’ territory with “divide et impera” tactics, in order to weaken domestic cohesion. On the other hand, economic marginalization and social exclusion in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province and in the Iranian Khuzestan are long-time grievances that can’t be exclusively read through sectarian lenses. The risk is to trigger further radicalization and foreign meddling, as in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So far, securitization policies have succeeded in quelling protest in Bahrain. Yet the Al-Khalifa monarchy grows increasingly dependent on its bigger neighbours. Not by chance is Manama’s approach to regional politics overtly aligned with the leading Saudi–Emirati diarchy. As legislative elections, scheduled for November 24, fast approach the Bahraini domestic political scene is nothing like it was the last time major elections were held in 2011.

Back then, Al-Wefaq, the main Shia political society, and the secular National Democratic Action Society (Waad) were disbanded for alleged terrorism offences and King Hamad issued a royal decree prohibiting their members from running in elections.

Now, given the ruler’s strong position, it is not surprisingly that Bahraini justice has acquitted Ali Salman, the leader of Wefaq, blamed for plotting with Qatari officials against Manama, or that Ayatollah Issa Qassem, the spiritual guide of Wefaq and a top Bahraini cleric (whose citizenship was revoked in 2016) was allowed to travel to London for medical treatment.

In conflict-torn Yemen, “rebels” and “legitimate” forces often adopt similar coercive strategies in areas far from the frontlines, adding to the dark picture of the seemingly interminable Yemeni civil war. The United Nations’ Panel of Experts on Yemen has conducted extensive investigations in the country.

Its report notes that the Huthi movement and militia, the Iranian-backed Yemeni Shia group controlling large parts of Northern Yemen (including the capital Sana’a), is responsible for arbitrary arrests and deprivation of liberty, torture, prolonged enforced disappearances, lack of due process and deaths in custody.1

On October 6, protests against rising inflation and the cost of living in Huthi-occupied Sana’a turned violent—Huthi forces arrested a number of people, included female students, and then released them after they signed a pledge not to take part in demonstrations again.

On the other hand, the Emirati-backed Yemeni militias (such as the Security Belt Forces of Aden and the Hadhrami and Shabwani Elite Forces in the Hadhramaut and Shabwa regions, respectively) have not escaped UN criticism. Now institutionalized and part of the regular security sector, as well as the internationally recognized Yemeni government, these militias “have all engaged in arbitrary arrests and detentions, carried out enforced disappearances and committed torture”, according to the United Nations.2

Eight years after the eruption of the Arab uprisings, the Gulf is stillremains stable, on the surface, although different layers of rivalry (Saudi Arabia vs Iran; Saudi Arabia-–UAE-–Bahrain vs Qatar) have triggered deep tension and mistrust among neighbouring states, thus hampering stability in the long-term.

Regional polarization, coupled with domestic problems and/or daring economic processes resulted into a more securitized Gulf, where citizens have higher expectations vis-à-vis states’ duties and their own prerogatives, but civil freedom remain a top-down matter: when regime security juxtaposes with national security, human security always loses.

Differently from Thomas Hobbes, who believed that less freedom paves the way for more safeness, John Locke believed in a positive trade-off between freedom and security: we are safe firstly because we are free. But in both the shores of the Gulf, the Hobbesian perspective is still the most applied, even after the Arab uprisings.


1 United Nations Security Council, “Panel of Experts on Yemen”, 26 January 2018, S/2018/68, pp.49-50. “The Houthis have summarily executed individuals, detained individuals solely for political or economic reasons and systematically destroyed the homes of their perceived enemies. The Houthis also routinely obstruct humanitarian access and the distribution of aid” (quotation from p. 2).

2 Ibid., p. 2.


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