Foreign Policy, October 8, 2013
I first visited the Eastern Province in 2008 while on a fieldwork trip. Traveling on a railroad built by the Americans for King Abdulaziz al Saud, the founder of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as a favor in return for the right to explore Saudi oil reserves, I left the shiny skyscrapers and crowded streets of the capital Riyadh and arrived in Hofuf in the al-Ahsa oasis, which together with Qatif is the main center of Shiite settlement in Saudi Arabia. In these towns and surrounding villages, some side streets have no pavement, old city centers are decaying, and youth unemployment is high. For decades, Shiites have also complained of sectarian discrimination in religious practices, government employment, and the judicial system, all of which contributes to the feeling that they are being treated like second-class citizens.
When faced with rising political challenges in early 2011, the Gulf states — Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in particular — mobilized sectarianism in order to suppress domestic calls for reform, a strategy that I analyze in my recent book Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring that Wasn’t. I saw first-hand how the invention of a “Shiite threat” narrative unfolded, standing on the now demolished Pearl Roundabout in the Bahraini capital Manama in mid-February 2011. Initially, tens of thousands, mainly Shiite (but also some Sunni), protesters poured into the streets to demand political reform. After the first protesters were shot, a part of the protest movement became radicalized, and started calling for the removal of the ruling family. Bahrain has a Shiite majority population (between 60 and 70 percent) and the ruling family is Sunni, so the ruling family used official and semi-official media to try to portray this as a “sectarian” uprising of one sect against the other.
Just as President Bashar al-Assad is doing in Syria, this strategy of sectarian polarization was aimed at delegitimizing the opposition, and scaring the minority Sunnis of a possible alternative political system and into total allegiance with the ruling family. A month after the protests started, on March 14, 2011, Saudi troops rolled over the causeway that links the Saudi Eastern Province with Bahrain. The king of Bahrain imposed a state of emergency, and a campaign of arrests, torture, mass dismissals and extrajudicial killings started, mainly directed against members of the Shiite sect.
At the same time, the Saudi media empire, which controls much of the pan-Arab media, started taking up the Bahraini narrative and accused all the Shiites in the Gulf states of planning an uprising at the behest of Iran. This narrative was as much directed against the Bahraini Shiites, as against the Saudi Shiites, of whom there are between two and three million mainly concentrated in the oil-rich Eastern Province. Galvanized by the Bahrain uprising, they started a protest movement of their own, and were the only Saudis to go out into the streets when social media sites called for a Saudi chapter of the region-wide Arab Spring in March 2011. Other Saudis have since taken to the streets to demand the release of political prisoners but by and large the protest movement in the Eastern Province failed to spill over to the rest of the country.
Rather than addressing the real grievances of their Shiite citizens or instituting some political reform, as the Bahraini protesters were demanding, the Gulf states reacted with an “iron fist,” as the Saudi Ministry of Interior put it. They spearheaded the regional counter-revolution and spread a vicious sectarian hate speech that would shape the discourse and actions of the rebels in Syria, while preventing Shiites and Sunnis at home from uniting in calls for reform. The Gulf countries’ demonization of the Shiites has led to a virtual “sectarian Gulf.” Local Shiites (and foreign Shiites such as Lebanese or South-East Asians) are collectively marginalized and brandished as a fifth column. This has led to a breakdown of the cross-sectarian social fabric in the Gulf and beyond, with many Sunni Islamists from the Gulf funding the rebels in Syria, while the loyalties of many Gulf Shiites lie with the Assad regime and Hezbollah. Syria has then become a locus for yet another proxy-conflict, one that sets a dangerous precedent for Sunni-Shiite relations in the Gulf and beyond.
If the Gulf states are really concerned about the loyalty of their Shiite subjects, they should accept them as full and equal citizens. The current policy of stigmatization and collective punishment is alienating many Gulf Shiites and is driving small groups of opposition activists back into the Iranian nexus, a connection that had existed after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 but had been largely capped since most Gulf Shiite oppositionists returned from exile throughout the 1990s. While Iran does not have the kind of influence over Gulf Shiite political movements it had in the 1980s, and the Shiites in the Gulf do not protest because of affinity with Iran, there are signs that Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah are again trying to reach out to Bahraini and Saudi Shiite opposition activists. A realignment of some Gulf Shiite opposition groups with Iran or Shiite militias across the region would come as a response to the Gulf states’ sectarian counter-revolution and their vicious crackdown on any form of dissent. This would be a self-fulfilling prophecy that should be avoided.
The Gulf states’ sectarian strategy also puts a new light on the Gulf’s shifting relationship with political Islam and its support for the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. While popular wisdom usually sees the Gulf states as promoters of political Islam, they have a very ambiguous relationship with Islamist movements across the Middle East, and apart from Qatar, no Gulf state is backing the main Arab Sunni Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, unconditionally. Some Gulf states were the main supporters of the recent military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait immediately pledged $12 billion of aid to the new government. This was, in part, because the Brotherhood and its Qatari backers did not fit comfortably into the anti-democratic and sectarian agenda that these regimes view as essential to their own survival. The rise of an alternative Sunni Islamic model of politics was to be avoided at all costs and the hate speech directed against supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood both in Egypt and in the Gulf, denouncing them as the enemy within, is similar to the hate speech directed against the Shiites.
But if the Gulf states are serious about long-term stability in the region, they should enable the inclusion of pro-democracy Islamic movements in the political process both at home and in the wider region. The West should not again pick sides in these intra-Islamic feuds (the intervention in Iraq in 2003 was one of the key events that paved the way for the current sectarian polarization). Rather than backing Sunni Islamist rebels in Syria and buying into the “Shiite threat” narrative emanating from Gulf capitals, the West should urge its allies in the Gulf to tame down sectarian rhetoric and negotiate a new social contract. Barring that, the sectarian civil war that is now effectively stretching from Beirut to Basra may come back to haunt the Gulf states and their Western supporters.
Toby Matthiesen is a Research Fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge. He is the author of Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t.