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Sectarian Gulf book discusses long-term problems for region

Gulf autocrats weathered the Arab uprisings. But in spreading sectarianism to do so they created longer-term problems for the oil world’s most important region, Toby Matthiesen argues in his new book

For a few heady months in 2011 it seemed that the popular uprisings in the Middle East and north Africa would demolish not just the regimes of Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, but also uproot Bahrain’s ruling Khalifa family and even threaten the reign of the region’s most powerful rulers, the Sauds.

Then came the autocrats’ counter-revolution. In March 2011, Gulf Cooperation Council troops, led by Saudi Arabia, rolled down the King Fahd causeway linking Khobar with Manama, a show of strength designed to frighten Bahrain’s protestors and quell their rebellion.

The Saudi tanks marked “the end of the first, very optimistic stage of the Arab Spring,” writes Toby Matthiesen, in Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Spring That Wasn't . “From now on, the counter-revolutionary forces would fight back, and no dictator was to fall or step down without months or years of bloodshed.”

Above all, the show of force – and, across in the Gulf, the willingness of regimes to repress, imprison or kill people taking to the streets – helped contain protests that were building from Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province to Qatar and Oman.

Stability

The short-term benefits to energy consumers outside the region were obvious.

A third of the world’s seaborne crude passes out through the Gulf. Stable Saudi oil production and the kingdom’s willingness to lift output to keep consumers well-supplied despite outages in Libya and elsewhere since 2011 have prevented a damaging spike in crude prices. For all the West’s talk of supporting freedom and human rights in the Middle East, its strategic interests – and China’s – depend on political continuity in the Gulf. The Sauds could not go the way of Qadhafi.

Matthiesen’s new book, however, will leave many readers even gloomier about the prospects for continued stability in the Gulf.

A main plank of the autocrats’ counter-revolutionary strategy has been to exacerbate the divisions between Sunni and Shia in the region “to prevent a cross-sectarian opposition front”. Religion is being “used and manipulated by ruling families and regimes to ensure their political survival”.

This has created a “sectarian Gulf”, unleashing forces that are already playing out in Syria and will make the whole region more dangerous. Tensions between Sunni and Shia in the Gulf haven’t been this high since the Iranian revolution of 1979, says Matthiesen.

Sectarian Gulf book

The book is rife with examples of manipulated sectarianism since the uprisings began. After tearing down the Pearl Monument in Manama, the roundabout where protestors had gathered, the government renamed it after a historical Sunni military leader – replacing a symbol of Gulf unity and hope with a symbol of sectarianism.

The strategy has allowed Gulf rulers to dismiss genuine grievances and demands for reform, for example in impoverished (predominantly Shia) areas of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, as sedition and interference from foreign agents – Iran.

“Sectarian identity entrepreneurs” and regime-friendly media have helped spread this propaganda. Even Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the popular Egyptian Sunni cleric who uses Doha as a base and Al Jazeera Arabic as a platform to champion the revolutions in North Africa, labelled the protests in the Gulf as “sectarian”.

Matthiesen’s book shows that, at least in the early stages of those protests, they had cross-sectarian support.

The tactic has affected regional relations, too. Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s support for Sunni rebels in Syria serves both domestic and foreign policy needs.

Gulf states hope a post-Assad Sunni regime in Damascus will be more sympathetic to Gulf interests and break the link between Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and Iran, writes Matthiesen. But at the same time, support for the Syrian rebels “is thought to keep the Sunni and Shia Gulf citizens from uniting in calls for political reform in Gulf states”.

Meanwhile, Western policy towards the region largely ignores these developments, still determining strategy in terms of the US’ two main enemies: Al Qaeda and Iran. On the ground in the Gulf, however, the increasing sectarianism threatens “to tear apart the social fabric in the Gulf states and the wider Middle East, pitting neighbour against neighbour, dividing streets according to sect, ethnicity or tribe, as has previously happened in Lebanon and Iraq”.

Divisions

To say the least, this doesn’t leave long-term stability in the Gulf in good shape. The quelling of Bahrain’s rebellion, in Matthiesen’s view, was far more symbolic of the region’s direction than the West – with key military and strategic interests at stake on the island – seemed to realise.

It was the beginning of a counter-revolution that has helped secure the short-term survival of the regimes in the Gulf but at the cost of exacerbating its sectarian tensions while doing nothing to address the demands of protestors. Since 2011, for example, the sectarian narrative in Saudi Arabia has superseded the reform-minded agenda put in place by King Abdullah after he took the throne in 2005.

The book’s description of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait since 2011 is more detailed than its discussion of Qatar, the UAE and the other states around the Gulf. But Matthiesen’s short thesis is compelling, if pessimistic.

Processes set in motion by the Arab Spring will be played out in the coming years, writes Matthiesen. The region’s rulers have failed to meet the demands of their people. “Sectarianism was the short-term answer to the threat. But the mounting problems – soaring energy consumption, lack of economic diversification, youth unemployment and political demands for reform – means that for many young Gulf Arabs, change has to come be it through reform or, eventually, revolutionary outburst.”

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