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Assessing the Causes and Impact of the Arab Spring on the Gulf Region as a Whole

Bewar LateefBewar Lateef

 

Introduction

Arab spring was a wave of political change in the Middle East, it took ever most of Arab countries within the region. There are a number of underlying reasons behind the occurrence of the Arab Spring. Number one is the long decades of authoritarian regime,  many of the Middle Eastern countries are authoritarian, kingdoms, and adopted other forms of repressive political system. Inequality, economic crises, political stagnation, and ethnic oppression were among the main reasons that led to Arab Spring as well (Bradley, 2012.)

Arab Spring had varied impact on the different countries, depending on their geography and political culture. Some of the uprisings ended quickly while others took years, such as the case of Syria. This paper does not intend to outline Arab Spring and its consequences over Middle Eastern as a whole, but rather it focuses on Gulf states, and addresses the extend of impact Arab Spring had on those states and explains the causes.

Were Gulf States immune to Arab Spring? To what extend did Arab Spring affect the rulers and the society? What were the reasons contributing to Arab Spring in this region? What kind of impact did it exert on those states? Which areas were most affected?This essay tries ti answer these questions with reference to Gulf countries.

The Causes of Arab Spring in Gulf States

There are a number of explanations contributing to the causes of the revolution in the third world countries such as poverty, ethnic tensions, political tension. The most relevant concept that explains the cause of Arab Spring in the gulf region are; 1) sectarian tension and 2) economic and social problems (Huntington, 1968.) Arab Spring in Gulf was more visible in Bahrain and Oman and less visible in Qatar and UAE (Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, 2013.)

Economic growth in the gulf region marginalized the merchants who had a prominent position prior to oil exploration, after oil was found those merchants found themselves left behind, this lead to several political dissents.Those dissents were soon suppressed through several strategies (Crystal, 1994) for example, the state provided them with various services and bought off opposition’s loyalty, this political dissent came back again in different forms. This time workers, labour unions, groups with ideologies and citizens who are considered as “stateless Arabs” who are not considered as original citizens of the country were angry at the system, this contributed to more political tension (Pollack, 2011.) Some groups in the gulf attempted to repeat the same pattern as happened in Egypt and Tunisia. One can rightfully claim the economic development in the gulf region made some interest groups seek an upheaval “Rapid economic growth produces social groups that find themselves left behind in the progress being made. Their skills, occupations and economic activities become less important than they were. When a society is modernizing and transforming its economy from subsistence or small-scale production via industrialization or the commercialization of agriculture, and introducing new technology, formerly important groups find themselves excluded from the new economic opportunities” (Smith, 2006: 226.)

Further, another underlying factor increases the tendency for revolution is ethnic conflict (Smith, 2006) such as the case of Iraq. The cases of monarchy, parliamentary or authoritarian systems differ to a great extent when it comes to the causes of Arab Spring; the reason behind demonstrations in Iraq was mainly because of ethnicity. Sunni’s in Iraq were the ruling class during Saddam Hussain’s regime for three concrete decades. After 2003 they found themselves being the secondary citizens. The slogans of the protest in Iraq were not only to have more political representation but citizen’s were calling the government to provide ‘basic services’. Constant civil war in Iraq brought too many issues and the government at some points was not able to provide basic needs as water and electricity (Pollack, 2011.) Bahrain was most affected by the dissents, the opposition voices were of Shi’as as the  majority, they called for more political representation, amid the demonstrations various slogans were raised “that threatened national unity and call for the overthrow of the regime and the ending of the rule of the Khalifa dynasty and the establishment of an Islamic Republic” (Abdullah, 2012.) Those voices were brutally suppressed by the police, as Bahrain sought aid from the Gulf Cooperation Council led by Saudi Arabia and as a result 30 civilian and 4 policemen were killed (Doran &Shaikh, 2011.)

Previously known to be internally quite stable, Oman witnessed a degree of unrest as well, the unrest was mainly due to economic issues. Given its limited oil reserves the country has a high rate of unemployment (Maloney, 2011.) In February 2011, demonstrations started, by a 1000 unemployed protesters who demanded to be employed, later Oman Air Staff threw a strike demanding better salaries, “a month later, Omanis seeking employment in Jalan Bani Bu Ali rioted and looted government offices to protest a recruitment event that they considered inadequate.The protests became routinized and spread to smaller cities, typically manifesting after Friday prayers” (Maloney, 2011:181.)

Impact of Arab Spring on the Gulf Region

The impact of Arab Spring varies through the Gulf region, given the different political system each country has adopted, be it monarchy, presidency or republican. The impact had three dimensions; political, economic and social dimensions. The effect of the upheaval was more visible in some states and partially endless in others (Abdullah, 2012.) For example, according to Abdullah, among the Gulf monarchies Qatar and UAE were least affected by the Arab Spring. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were partially affected, while Bahrain and Oman were most affected (Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, 2013.) Further, Iraq and Yemen with different political systems were affected differently than the rest of Gulf States, due to the long instability and civil war in Iraq, Arab Spring had taken a different turn. I will outline the impacts of Arab Spring from the least affected states to the most affected ones, and later turn to the countries who are not monarchies.

Qatar and United Arab Emirates

“For better and for worse, Qatar has established itself as the most energetic actor in the Gulf over the course of the past decade.” (Maloney, 2011:178.) Qatar, is a small country and has little features of political representation within its system, which is absolute monarchy. The country held an election in 1999, it was the very first national election, and elected 29 members for Central Municipal Council. In the elections, females along with male candidates stood and participated in the poll, this was an opportunity for the Qatari people to take part of elections, with this Qatar opened a fresh page in its politics (Ehteshami, 1999.) In addition, Qatar internally is a stable country were “internal politics have been almost entirely non-existent, which has been convenient given the restrictions on organizing and mobilizing” (Maloney, 2011: 180.)  Arab Spring had more of positive impact than negative. Since Al-Jazeera is based in Qatar, it was the first public satellite channel that openly discussed political issues facing Arab world (Lynch, 2005.) Al Jazeera took the leading role in covering the demonstrations that took over the Arab world, even though not equally to all the affected states, for example it did little coverage for Bahrain’s demonstrations. Abdullah claims that Qatar is the biggest winner from the Arab Spring, because there is power vacuum due to the instability in the region. The main powers are lagging behind because of the challenges they face and therefore now, what used to be considered as a small and minor state is filling up the vacuum “if major powers are losing inches or meters of power the small states are gaining inches an meters of power in the region (Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, 2013.)

UAE similarly was immune to the revolts compared to other states, this is because of the massive economic expenditure of the state on the population, and good schooling has helped the state to remain peaceful (Campante & Chor, 2012.) Not to forget, there was an occasion where political dissent “came in the form of a polite letter signed by 133 national figures, addressing the president of the Union, beseeching him to expand the authorities of the appointed National Federal Council, which has modest consultative attributions, and which does not befit the Emirates, which heads other Arab state in a large number of social, developmental and technological domains” (Abdullah, 2012:18.) Even though it was a light sort of protest, yet it bothered the leader of the state and feared that it might be from the Islamist extremes who call for revolution. Later the situation was easily calmed down, again by buying off the opposition through economic benefits.

Saudi Arabia and Kuwait

The main challenges to Saudi Arabia come from the Shiite minority, and oppressed women (Quan, 2013). When the ‘tsunami’ of Arab spring took over the countries, Saudi Arabia faced challenges, there were calls for reform. Saudi women have been suppressed for long and the Shiite’s see themselves as second class citizens. However, all the efforts  of revolution were soon suppressed when huge military troop shows took over the city to stop demonstrations (Riedel, 2011.) Nonetheless, the demonstration did have impact on the Saudi leaders, even though to a little extended. Despite being unresponsive to the main political demands Saudi Arabia to ease the tension started giving economic benefit to the people by bonus and paid double salary to employers and raised employment rate (Abdullah, 2012.) Saudi Arabian sultan supplied tremendous support to other gulf monarchies to suppress protests. For example, in the case of Bahrain, Saudi sent huge military troops to silence the opposition voices by Shi’a majority in Bahrain. That is because Saudi Arabia also sees the Shi’as as pro-Iranians (Riedel, 2011.) This way the ruling caliphate could turn down the demonstrations, this was because Saudi was not satisfied to have a neighboring country ruled by pro Iranians which would strengthened the Shi’a minority at home (Miller, 2011.) Saudi Arabia was not much affected by the wave, as “Plentiful of oil money to buy off discontent, the public’s respect for the king, the conservative nature of the society, and a weak tradition of street opposition seemed to make the Saudis different and almost unassailable- at least for the moment” (Miller, 2011:39.)In addition, the women were the first to protest, even though they were suppressed quickly, but their calls reached the king and he decided to give women the right to vote for the coming years(Riedel, 2011.)

Saudi Arabia has long strove to prove itself as a ‘regional coordinator’ for the Arab World, Arab Spring was the opportunity to exercise this desire. Because, with the wind of change vital changes occurred within the GCC states, one of them was the “reassertion Saudi leadership within the GCC when up starts Qatar and the UAE have consistently challenged Saudi pre-eminence within the Arabian Peninsula” (Kamrava, 2011: 98) this reassertion has given Saudi Arabia a fresh sense diplomatic involvement, driven mainly from two insights “one related to U.S. foreign policy and the other to domestic Saudi politics”(Kamrava, 2011: 98.)

In the case of Kuwait, the wind of change did move the opposition to an extended, since Kuwait is proud to have a constitution and an assembly, which do not function properly (Maloney, 2011) yet the Arab Spring affected the people whom have long fought to have a say in the political arena. Especially Islamists and those who are considered as non-citizens, The response of Kuwaiti leader was calming the voices by giving economic advantages, “In Kuwait, at around the same time, the state increased civil servant salaries by 115 percent at a cost of more than $1 billion, and at an additional cost of $5 billion, gave a cash hand-out of Kuwaiti Dinar (KD) 1000 to its citizens and promised free distribution of foodstuffs for fourteen months” (Kamrava, 2011: 98.)

The disputes continued between Islamists and liberalists during the wind of change, and the youth in particular. The Kafi group, were a generation more aware and determined to bring change in the political system (Maloney, 2011.) This led to the rise of tribal, sectarian and parliamentary entrenchments that have led to the stagnation of governmental and political function, as a response in November 2011, Kuwait held parliamentary election with a great number of opposition candidates (Abdullah, 2012.) This proved “Kuwait was not affected as deeply as Bahrain and Oman, and Kuwait was not as advantaged by the developments of 2011 as much as Qatar and the United Arad Emirates. It could be said that Kuwait did not emerge with important gains or noticeable losses due to the Arab Spring” (Abdullah, 2012: 21.)This shows Kuwait could buy off the people’s demands through economic benefits but in Kuwait this did not eliminate street protests at once, even after the large distribution of wealth, still there were calls for change (Schiller&Bauer, 2012.)

Oman and Bahrain

Oman is considered the second weak state within the GCC, but unlike Bahrain the protest in Oman ended sooner (Abdullah, 2012.) In February 2011 protests broke out, the government used various tactics to suppress the voices. The calls were for increasing Salary and employment, with its small oil reserves Oman faced high rate of unemployment and paid low salaries, the protest focused on “economic grievances” as much as political ones “In April 2011, more than 1,000 job-seekers gathered at Muscat’s Bait al-Barka round about demanding employment, while the Oman Air staff launched a strike for higher salaries. In Salalah, similar numbers marched through the city demanding better wages, more employment opportunities, and an end to corruption” (Maloney, 2011:181.) Eventually, the leadership of Oman like Kuwait fired a number of cabinet ministers, promised to open a university and released some political prisoners. These attempts proved insufficient to the protesters, then as response the government used violent means to crackdown the protests by kidnapping some activists and bloggers and tortured them.The police arrested a great number of protesters and detained them for threatening state security (Maloney, 2011.)

Turning to Bahrain, Doran and Shaikh describe Bahrain as the Island of Troubles, given its type of leadership with the majority of Shi’a population and having a Sunni based ruling family. The country faced problems. In 2011 protests erupted, protesters called for better political engagement, “like the people of Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Arab world, they took to the streets to demand greater equality, justice, and political representation” (Doran & Shaikh, 2011.) The protesters were backed by Iran, while the GCC states aided the ruling family to crackdown the demonstration, led by the Saud Arabia, military troops reached Bahrain and violent opposition from both sides was the result. 30 protesters were killed and a great number of protesters were imprisoned “more than 600 were arrested, including political leaders, journalists, civil society activists, and nearly fifty medical staff” (Doran &Shaikh, 2011.) The government started mass employee firing from various firms in the country, alleged for taking part in the demonstrations, and closed down about thirty Shi’a mosques, accusing them to be built on illegal bases (Doran & Shaikh, 2011.)

Even though Bahrain witnessed internal unrest since 1980, with Arab Spring the tension increased and the major impact is on rising tensions between GCC and Iran (Doran & Shaikh, 2011.)

Further, on the social level, the Shi’a majority and youth in particular mistrust from the government has deepened, and the gap between ruling family and the opposition increased which makes matters more complicated for the countries internal stability (Doran &Shaikh, 2011.)

Bahrain economically was damaged by the recent unrest,the effect of the upheaval is visible in Bahrain’s economic sector. The unrest cost the loss of “F1 prestige and tourism, and economic growth was only 1.3% by the end of 2011” (Gundersen, 2013.) Many other projects were abandoned due to short of investment, another contributing effect was on the banks, as they went on bankruptcy (Gundersen, 2013.) In addition “the events of the protests have directly cost Bahrain up to 2 billion USD, including up to 200 million USD worth of damages to small and medium-size businesses. Such effects of the Arab Spring will no doubt further make potential external investors wary of establishing businesses within Bahrain or investing in its institutions and portfolios” (Gundersen, 2013.)

Yemen and Iraq

In Yemen similar to the rest of Arab Countries protesters filled the streets demanding, justice, freedom, dignity and rule of law in their country. While the instability between the various groups in Yemen dates back to 1960’s, until 2011 opposition proved to be ineffective in bringing changes. Therefore, the young people held peaceful demonstrations, and since that time the Yemen once known is no longer the same, “change has happened” (Sharqieh, 2011.) Sharqieh claims there are risks and opportunities of the Arab Spring for Yemen, the opportunities are the prospects of changing a paralyzed political system, while the risks are the possibilities the country might end up being a war torn country and turn to a failed state (Sharqieh, 2011.) The regional concern desires a stable Yemen, especially Saudi Arabia. Even though at first GCC supported President Ali Abdullah Saleh but when the fact was obvious that protesters are not giving up, then they wanted Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down and transfer power peacefully. This was primarily to maintain the stability of the country (Sharqieh, 2011.)

The most visible impact of the wind of change was in the realm of the tribesmen’s approach to resolve long held hatred against other tribes. With the massive protests they also claimed to stop taking revenge through killing and violence but rather adopt a peaceful method to resolve their grievances (Sharqieh, 2011.)For example, “Sheikh Sanan al-Iraqi, one of the al-Jawf tribal leaders, announced that his tribe and its traditional enemies, the al-Otmi, have ended the revenge killings that have been on-going for 30 years. Their common opposition to President Saleh was what allowed mediation to occur between the two tribes”(Sharqieh, 2011:223.) Another effect is seen in the realm of women’s political participation, most notably the activist Tawakul Karman had a leading role in the protests and could mobilize women in Yemen to have a say in the occurring events and the future of the country, this was an aspect of Yemeni women which previously was unknown to the world (Coleman, 2011.)

Iraq was not far from waves of change, since Iraq was one or the first that was democratized among Arab countries, the Arab Spring had a different impact. Young people from Baghdad were mobilized and set a date for “Day of Rage”, (Pollack, 2011) the calls were not to overthrow the government but rather called to provide basic services. Te protests were ran by Sunni’s, since they have been marginalized from government by the Maliki front. Prime Minister Maliki promised to bring prominent changes within 100 day, he claimed ‘if those promises are not fulfilled then all the related ministries and officials will be facing the consequences’ however after the 100 day nothing happened and no one was held accountable for the misery of the state. In all dimensions political, social and economical. Maliki enjoys enormous support from Iranian government this is why it was more relaxed with the events (Sharqieh, 2011.)

One can argue that Arab Spring had various impacts on the Gulf Region as whole. “In some cases, protests turned violent and disruptive, resulting in deaths and imprisonment of some of the protesters as well as other forms of punishment, such as the revocation of citizenship” (Colombo, 2012.) The impact was more visible in terms of security, with the gap that was left by the unrest in the region, smaller states attempted to take over and be the main force in the region, such as in Qatar (Abdullah, 2012.) Saudi Arabia proved more assertive and concerned regarding what directions the Gulf States will take, and feared that Iran’s influence might take over the region, especially in Shi’a majority Arab states, such as the case of Bahrain. For this reason, Saudi Arabia leadership led GCC and aided the states that were swung by the wind of change, and allocated huge amount of money to the leaders and provided military assistance.

Economically, most of the people’s condition improved when the leaders increased their salary and added bonus to employees. Furthermore, socially the population of the gulf country became more aware than before, due to technological advancement and easy access to information via social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, activists used them as a leading force to mobilize protests and exchange information with their fellow activists and the rest of the world (Pollack, 2011.)

Another major change occurred within the mindset of Arab people. They became more aware in terms of politics (Pollack, 2011.) Due to the rise of social media and easy ways of communication with the wider world, a change happened in the perception of the Arab people in terms of what politics is (Colombo, 2012.) Here a question rises, until when can gulf elites silence opposition voices through buying off loyalties?

Conclusion

To conclude, Arab Spring or Arab Awakening was a wave of mass protest by Arab population to bring change to the political system of the countries. Gulf states were not immune to the upheavals. For the monarchies the challenges were not as big as the rest of Arab countries such as Egypt, Tunisia or Yemen, that is because the monarchies have access to huge oil reserves, they are dominating oil companies and can always buy off loyalty. Qatar and UAE were the least affected countries; however other monarchies faced serious challenges from their population, especially in Oman and Bahrain. The protesters were determined to bring some social and political changes, but their efforts were violently suppressed, the ruling families were supported economically and politically by other fellow monarchies.

The causes of Arab Spring in this region was for more political openness and representation, women participation, and in some other places such as Oman it  was a more economic focused demonstration. While in Yemen it was due to lack of rule of law, ethnic grievances and unemployment. Further, in Iraq it was even narrower, the people asked for basic services rather than to topple down the government.

The impact varied across the region, in some instances there were visible impact and in some areas less. The upheaval mostly affected security in the gulf region; Saudi Arabia and Iran were supporting different fronts. Therefore, it had a feature of Shi’a versus Sunni conflict. The impact was significant for women in the region, for long women were marginalized from participating in political decisions. They seized the opportunity and attempted to be heard, especially in Saudi Arabia, and in Yemen they were more successful. In addition, economically, people in the region generally were successful to influence  leaders to increase employment rate, increase  salary and be a little more open in terms of politics.

 

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* This essay written in early Februyary 2013 as part of term paper assignments at the University of Kurdistan Hewler.

 

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