So far, it seems that republics in the Middle East were far more affected by uprisings than their monarchical counterparts. While the presidents of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen were ousted and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad severely challenged, the eight monarchs of the region have proven rather resilient, with Bahrain as a special case. Part 4 of Wrapping up the Arab Spring (2011-2013) thus aims at providing an overview of what has happened to the monarchies, attempting to explain their relative tenacity. This piece will first shed light on the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) -Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates- before then turning to Jordan and Morocco. The role of the GCC as an institution will also be discussed.
The Gulf Monarchies
Sparks from Tunisia and Egypt soon reached the Gulf. Most prominently, Bahrain’s ruling family was facing widespread protests demanding reform and equal rights. At the Pearl Roundabout in Manama, thousands gathered beginning mid-February 2011 soon resulting in crackdown and repression. The government crushed the protests and sent an unequivocal message with mass arrests, even detaining doctors who helped wounded protesters. After a month of unrest and challenegs to the regime, troops from other GCC states entered Bahrain in mid-March 2011 in order to aid in the “restoration of order”.
Those rallying on the streets around Pearl Roundabout did so primarily in pursuit of political and economic reforms, representing the marginalized Shi’a majority of island’s population. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa initiated a national dialogue bringing together about 300 organizations in July 2011, yet this step was seen as deceptive. Other GCC states soon denounced it as an Iran-backed attempt to overthrow the monarchy. Bahrain is ruled by the Sunni Al Khalifa family yet has a majority Shiite population; exact numbers in this highly politicized field are not available, estimates range from 60-40 to 70-30. Moreover, only about 46% of the 1,2m inhabitants are Bahraini citizens. Still, the protests in Bahrain were reformist and centred on socio-economic demands. The fact that there were more Shi’a in the streets is a result of this group’s economic marginalization. A sectarian reading of the crisis is thus a ‘deliberate regime strategy’ and it was further emphasized by, on the one side, GCC countries and their rhetorics as well as their extensions such as Al-Jazeera Arabic. The latter, likely influenced by its Qatari state funding, neglected the Bahraini uprising while focusing on Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria. Well-known Shi’a political figures, such as Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah and Iraq’s Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani framed the issue as sectarian as well. Eventually, those rallying around Pearl Roundabout for reform and a better life were drowned out yet the protests continue.
In Kuwait, the dynamics were significantly different. The first wave of protests mainly drove the Bedoun (short for the Arabic bedoun jinsiyya ‘without nationality’, people living in Kuwait without citizenship, more than 100,000 in number) to the streets from January 2011 onwards, caused by the Emir Sabah Al Sabah’s gift of 1000 dinar to Kuwaiti citizens while ignoring non-citizens. These protests resulted in numerous clashes with security forces. Apart from these Bedoun rallies, the demonstrations soon attracted a wider audience and regular Kuwaitis began to demand political reforms, arguing that the government and the National Assembly were corrupt. In November 2011 this development peaked when protesters stormed the parliament. National Assembly elections were held in February 2012, yet the Constitutional Court declared them illegal in June 2012; oppositional politicians had won many seats in this ballot but the former pro-government parliament was reinstated after this decision. New elections were held in December 2012 with large parts of the opposition boycotting it. As a result, pro-regime members were re-elected and formed the majority. This sparked new protests which then, however, ran dry by 2013. Now, the Kuwaiti case has some differences from other GCC countries for it has an influential parliament in its political system, which allows political pressure to be vented via elections. However, Kuwait also features aspects of its fellow GCC states because the main issues remained unaddressed – and protests could very well erupt again.
Protests also erupted in Oman, yet their scale and duration was considerably smaller compared to other states in the region and they were localized in the capital Muscat and the industrial southern city Sohar. Asking for higher salaries and lower living costs on the economic side and demanding for cabinet members to have a maximum of four years in office, Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said responded after not yet three months by increasing the minimum wage in the private sector (which has been overlooked in previous years), augmenting pensions and several reshuffles of his cabinet. Moreover, the Council of Oman gained more legislative power. These reforms and policies appear to have calmed the situation successfully.
Qatar seems to be least affected domestically. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani announced in late 2011 to hold elections for the Shura Council in the second half of 2013 – despite there were barely any demands for such a decision. Qatar has nevertheless played an active role in the Arab Spring because its foreign policy was one of the most proactive ones throughout the region. Over the past decade, Doha has pursued a foreign policy that seeks to establish the small state as an indispensable actor on the global stage. Qatar began to mediate regional conflicts, hosted international conferences and maintained good relations with both Iran and the West. Al-Jazeera has proved to be a powerful tool within the Arab world in particular.
With the Arab Spring erupting, the country soon began supporting protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt before supporting the latter’s Muslim Brotherhood. Doha also interfered in more violent cases, backing a NATO intervention in Libya and providing weapons to rebels in Syria. Qatar did not only follow the basic means of foreign policy: the Doha-based station Al-Jazeera propagated the official course of the country throughout the Arab world. Intensive coverage of the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria was facing very little if at all coverage of Bahraini protests and the GCC crackdown of it. The deliberate way in which Al-Jazeera was used becomes even more obvious if one compares Al-Jazeera Arabic and Al-Jazeera English, the former reaching millions of people in the Middle East and the latter designed for an international audience. In sum, Qatar follows a very proactive approach to the Arab Spring, seeking to become an important regional player.
Saudi Arabia, by far the largest state of the GCC, responded to protests with a carrot-and-stick approach. Dissidents were persecuted and imprisoned while the King put together a package of increased welfare costing US$ 35bn, invested another US$ 15bn in national development and raised civil servants’ wages by 15%. Money, however, seems to be a rather short-term approach for two reasons: first, it fails to tackle the underlying problems of lacking reforms which drove people in the streets, making it only a temporary anaesthetic. Second, even a country as rich as Saudi Arabia will not be able to spend such sums every other year. Most protests, however, took place in the Eastern Province (al-Hasa), mainly around the city al-Qatif. This part of the country has a large Shi’a population, a marginalized minority in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, much like Bahrain, framed these protests as fundamentally sectarian, arguing that the Shi’a are the fifth column for Iran rather than a marginalized community seeking socio-economic equality. Apart from domestic challenges, Riyadh was the driving force behind the counterrevolution efforts amongst GCC members, but also actively intervened in other countries such as Syria.
Much like Qatar, the United Arab Emirates have also seen very little domestic repercussions of the Arab Spring. While the number of those publicly criticizing the emirs were few in number, five (called the UAE Five) of them received international attention. They became, according to Amnesty International, “prisoners of conscience” in mid-2011 after they demanded democratic reforms. While the state responded with repression, it also granted economic incentives to nationals in order to calm possible demands down. Since the UAE Five’s arrest, acts of protest became even rarer than they were before. Regarding its foreign policy, the UAE followed the line of the GCC, crushing protests in Bahrain and transforming the organization, as we will see later.
Jordan and Morocco
The impact of the Arab Spring in Jordan was limited as well. The kingdom faced protests in early 2011 demanding economic improvement and political reform; protesters numbered several thousand at the movement’s peak. This number is somewhat misleading though: while it seems rather small compared to other countries in the region, it was almost unprecedented in Jordan. Moreover, several protests sprouted in the southern city of Ma’an rather than Amman. They failed, however, to reach a critical mass. King Abdullah II did not meet the demands of the protesters but only implemented cosmetic reforms; reforms that did not limit his power. He rather drew on scapegoating the position of the Prime Minister, replacing those holding this office already five times since March 2011.
However, the escalating crisis in Jordan’s northern neighbor Syria soon drowned out the domestic reform discourse. Security concerns grew dominant in the kingdom; the number of refugees has already passed half a million and Za’atari refugee camp near Irbid in northern Jordan is by now the fourth largest city in the country. Nevertheless Jordan seeks a political solution for Syria and it is particularly concerned with the growing influx of jihadist fighters into Syria. Moreover, a possible strengthening of Sunni Islamist groups in a post-al-Assad state is viewed very skeptically in Amman, where the domestic Islamic Action Front, a Brotherhood-linked organization, has long been subject to state repression and discrimination, especially since its strong performance in the 1989 parliamentary elections.
In Morocco, on the other hand, King Mohamed VI picked a slightly different strategy. Facing the criticism of his substantial power in the political system, he moved to undermine protests. As early as 9 March 2011, he proposed a new constitution that formally limits his powers while preserving much of his influence, followed by a referendum held on 1 July 2011 adopting the changes. Additionally, the king announced parliamentary elections, in accordance with the new constitution, that were held (after being postponed) on 25 November 2011. When the ballot was won by the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party, Mohamed VI made their candidate Prime Minister. By acting in an accommodating fashion, the Moroccan king managed to take the wind out of the protesters’ sails, thus potentially avoiding more substantive changes to the political system, still dominated by the palace.
The GCC: a new type of cooperation
Over the Arab Spring and its respective repercussions in the monarchies, another development seems interesting. The evolution of the Gulf Cooperation Council from an coalition aiming at economic coordination in the oil-rich region to the ‘club of monarchs’. There are two aspects that highlight this trend for a new quality of cooperation. First, the GCC Shield Force entered Bahrain in 2011 to help the regime crush protests, as has been illustrated above. This shows that the GCC is willing to use military force in order to thwart regime change in any member-state to prevent the spread of Iranian influence in the Persian Gulf. Second, the GCC invited both Jordan and Morocco in May 2011 to join. Thus the GCC evolved from an organization with a geographic definition to one where the political agenda and regime type becomes dominant.
This is not to say that the monarchy factor was not important beforehand. On the contrary, founding the GCC in 1981 deliberately did not include Yemen or Iraq, republican Gulf states. The founding GCC countries are quite similar in regime structure as well as their economies, which rely almost entirely on oil revenues. Now, while Jordan still borders Saudi Arabia, Morocco is on the other side of the Middle East. The driving idea of their inclusion, however, was that of factoring the two into the GCC, gathering all Middle Eastern monarchies. The goal of the GCC is, keeping the Bahraini example in mind, to prevent any monarchy from breakdown and thus averting an example for the others.