While Tunisians and Egyptians are enjoying their newfound freedoms, forming political parties and holding passionate debates on their countries' futures, across the six Arab states along the Persian Gulf, a counterrevolutionary pushback against the Arab Spring is steadily gaining steam. Autocratic rulers are clamping down hard at home, closing down political space in an attempt to isolate their citizens from the transformative pressures at work elsewhere in the Middle East. It's safe to say that -- at least for now -- the Gulf region is becoming more repressive, not less, with potentially dangerous long-term consequences not only for these oil-rich monarchies but also for their Western allies.
Saudi Arabia's announcement on April 29 of sweeping new media restrictions is just the latest effort to narrow the parameters of legitimate political debate. Saudi King Abdullah's decree, which amended the 2000 Press and Publications Law, prohibited the media from reporting anything that contradicts Islamic sharia law or serves "foreign interests and undermines national security."
Such a vague -- yet potentially all-encompassing -- definition considerably tightens the noose of self-censorship in Saudi Arabia. It also includes provisions for closing publishers and banning writers who violate the decree from contributing to any media organization for life. With Saudi forces engaged in a highly sensitive crackdown in neighboring Bahrain, the creation of these new "red lines" sends a powerful signal that critical reporting or dissenting viewpoints will not be tolerated.
Back in March, Saudi Arabia also suppressed an effort by a group of intellectuals to establish what would have been the first political party in the kingdom: the Umma Islamic Party. Their call for peaceful political reform obviously unnerved the authorities, as five of the founders were arrested a week later. However, a spate of petitions -- including a Declaration of National Reform calling for constitutional monarchy, as well as a "counter-reform petition" warning of creeping liberalisation -- suggest that Saudi officials have not been successful in squelching domestic debate.
It's not only Saudi Arabia that's cracking down on dissent. Beleaguered Gulf monarchies in Bahrain and Oman have violently suppressed demonstrations, while the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait also stepped up repressive measures. But it's not just a backlash against events in Tunisia and Egypt -- the roots of the authoritarian inward turn were visible well before the outbreak of the Arab Spring.
In the final months of 2010, simmering discontent in Kuwait and Bahrain was met by unusually blunt displays of force. In Bahrain, security forces detained more than 20 prominent opposition and human rights activists ahead of the October parliamentary elections. Meanwhile in Kuwait, a string of confrontations between the ruling family and the political opposition culminated in December with the use of force by security forces to break up a demonstration, during which four MPs were beaten and injured, and the death of a Kuwaiti citizen, who was allegedly tortured in police custody, in January.
The political temperature in the Gulf was therefore rising even before the start of widespread demonstrations in the Middle East. And the case of Bahrain, the first Gulf country to experience widespread protest, shows just how deep-seated some popular grievances are. The rapid swelling of the initial pro-democracy protests into a cross-sectarian movement for substantive political reform panicked the ruling al-Khalifa regime, which "invited" Saudi and Emirati forces to restore order in March, under the guise of the region-wide Peninsula Shield Force.