Counterrevolution in the Gulf

How the monarchies are striking back against the Arab Spring.

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.

The foreign intervention has been accompanied by an escalation of repression as security forces ruthlessly eliminate all forms of dissent to the Khalifa's continuing rule.  Doctors who treat injured protesters have been rounded up and lawyers representing them have been arrested. Opposition and human rights activists have been detained and allegedly tortured, and mysterious deaths in police custody have included one of the founders of Bahrain's leading independent newspaper, Al-Wasat, which then announced its impending closure on May 2.

The apparent vulnerability of the Bahraini ruling family frightened other Gulf rulers, leading them to crack down on their own dissidents. Action was most concerted in the UAE, where prominent pro-democracy activists such as  Nasser bin Ghaith, professor of economics at the Abu Dhabi branch of the prestigious Sorbonne University, and Ahmed Mansoor, who founded the UAE Hewar online forum for political discussion, were both arrested. Gaith and Mansoor were among 133 Emirati intellectuals who signed a petition in March calling for the direct election of all members of UAE's Federal National Council, and the passage of constitutional amendments to vest it with legislative and regulatory powers.

These arrests have been followed by an assault on civil society organisations. The UAE Ministry of Social Affairs dissolved the elected boards of the Jurist Association and the Teachers' Association, replacing them with state appointees. An early sign of the chilling effect that these measures had came on May 2, when more than 200 lawyers issued a pledge of allegiance to the UAE rulers, denouncing "false statements" by "misled and deceived persons."

Gulf rulers have complemented their repressive tactics with a series of economic blandishments, such as announcing additional public sector jobs, pay increases, and benefits. Together, these steps have provided the royal families with a temporary breathing space. Few analysts expect anything like an Egypt or a Tunisia scenario to develop. But by ignoring the crucial social dimensions of the Arab spring and refusing to modify political structures that seem ever more anachronistic by the day, the Gulf states are trying to swim against the tide in the Middle East.

Pushback in the Gulf also raises awkward questions for the monarchs' Western partners. Bahrain's status as a Major Non-NATO Ally and the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet has caused the United States to remain silent about the ongoing crackdown there, a fact that sits uneasily with the United States' rhetorical support for pro-democracy movements and the right to protest elsewhere.

But it's not just policymakers that have been placed in a delicate situation by the crackdown in the Gulf: Universities such as the NYU and the Sorbonne, and other Western institutions such as the Guggenheim, have invested heavily in branch projects located in the UAE in recent years. Thus far, they have largely chosen to maintain a studious silence about the worsening human rights situation, leaving them open to charges of naivety or even complicity. NYU now faces an escalating backlash from staff and students over whether the kinds of rights, freedoms, and methods of political engagement they expect of an American university even apply in the authoritarian Gulf.

Don't expect this tension to resolve itself anytime soon. As long as the Gulf states remain authoritarian bulwarks in a radically changing regional environment, Western governments and institutions will continue to find themselves caught between their values and their interests. And unless the ruling families acknowledge take measures to resolve their citizens' simmering social, economic and political grievances, the next explosion in the Gulf could be greater still.



Arab Spring, Turkish Fall

Turkey's leaders are looking less like the new Ottomans they've imagined themselves to be and more like stumbling politicians afraid of a new regional order.

The Arab uprisings seemed tailor-made for the "new Turkey" to exert its much-vaunted influence in the Middle East. Since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power almost nine years ago, Ankara has actively courted the region, cultivating warm relations with certain Arab countries, winning plaudits from Rabat to Ramadi for its principled stand on Gaza, and using its prestige to solve problems in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. A central focus of Turkey's so-called "zero problems" foreign policy has been a concerted effort to improve and expand relations with the countries to its south and east. Now, with millions of Arabs standing up and demanding their freedom, Turks are not the only ones to have held up the "Turkish model" -- the democratic development of a predominantly Muslim society in an officially secular political system -- as a possible way forward for the rest of the Middle East.

Yet five months into the turmoil buffeting the Arab world, it is hard to discern exactly if Turkey has a policy to deal with the change going on around it. Indeed, rather than a regional leader with a clear sense of purpose, Ankara has been downright clumsy in dealing with the Arab upheavals.  

It didn't have to be this way. The Arab revolutions actually started out pretty well for Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was way ahead of other world leaders in demanding that Egypt's Hosni Mubarak heed the desires of his people and resign. Whether or not Ankara saw the writing on the wall quicker than most, the position was entirely in keeping with the Justice and Development Party's worldview -- and the role Erdogan and other principle party figures fashioned for themselves -- as promoters of democratic change at home and abroad. Of course, the difficult personal relationship between Erdogan and Mubarak made it easier for the Turkish leader to dump his counterpart in favor of the multitudes camped out in Tahrir Square. And there was a regional rivalry at play here, too: Ankara sensed that Cairo's influence was waning and wanted to fashion itself as a new Middle East powerbroker. It seemed that once again Erdogan and his team had insights into the politics of the region that seemed beyond the grasp of others -- most notably the Obama administration, which, hamstrung by Washington's strategic relationship with Mubarak, was far more cautious and circumspect than Ankara.

Then came Libya. Despite the brutality and chaos instigated by Muammar al-Qaddafi, Erdogan found it difficult to decisively cut ties with the Libyan leader: Not only was the Turkish prime minister a personal recipient of the al-Qaddafi International Prize for Human Rights, but with 30,000 Turks working on $1.5 billion worth of construction projects for the Libyan government, there was a clear economic imperative to maintaining good relations. Indeed, when NATO members began discussing in late February the prospect of a no-fly zone, Turkey -- an early member of the alliance -- objected. On Feb. 28, Erdogan pointedly told the Turkish-German Chamber of Commerce and Industry, "NATO's intervention in Libya is out of the question. We are against such a thing." A few days later, the Turkish Foreign Ministry declared that foreign intervention on behalf of the Libyan opposition would rob the rebels of the satisfaction of bringing Qaddafi down on their own -- this at a time when the Interim Libyan National Council was practically begging for foreign support.

Once the Arab League approved a no-fly zone, the Turkish position became truly strange. Erdogan expressed "heartfelt support" for prohibiting Qaddafi's use of airpower while simultaneously rejecting the "foreign intervention in friend and brother Libya." Even as NATO airstrikes took out loyalist air defenses, Ankara remained ambivalent toward Qaddafi's use of force against his own people, curiously committed to the Libyan leader. And though the Turks positioned themselves as the leading provider of humanitarian aid to Libya, they consistently rejected the use of force to protect rebel fighters, arguing instead for a Turkish-brokered cease-fire after which Qaddafi could begin the process of political reform. To the Benghazi rebel leadership, the Turks were, in fact, the culprits behind the noticeable downshift in the NATO air campaign in the previous few weeks. In time, as Turkish diplomatic efforts -- primarily through direct communication between the two leaders -- to persuade Qaddafi to stand down bore little in the way of positive results, Ankara ultimately came to the conclusion that almost everyone but Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and a group of motley African countries arrived at months ago: Qaddafi must go. On May 3, Erdogan declared to a gathering of journalists in Istanbul, "We wish to see Libya's leader step down immediately and leave Libya immediately for his own sake and for the sake of his country's future."

Turkey seems to be engaged in a similar diplomatic dance with regard to Syria. At one time, Ankara and Damascus were hostile neighbors in conflict over the downstream flow of the Euphrates river and Syrian support for the terrorists of the Kurdistan Workers Party, which targeted the Turkish state in a quixotic campaign of Kurdish independence. During AKP's tenure, however, relations between the two countries warmed considerably. Syrians and Turks no longer require visas for travel between each country and Turkey has become Syria's largest trading partner. Although there has been precious little talk of foreign intervention in Syria, just to be sure, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned that "internationalization" of the unrest there could lead to "undesired outcomes." Chief among them, from the Turkish perspective, would be the downfall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime. The Turks have much to be worried about when it comes to a destabilized Syria -- in particular a restive Kurdish region just to Turkey's south. It would also be a setback for Ankara's Middle East strategy, of which warm relations with Damascus have been central. Given those interests, it is unlikely that the Turks will break with Assad in the way they have now abandoned Qaddafi.

Instead, the Turks have indulged in cynical posturing. As Assad deploys troops and tanks against peaceful protestors, the Turkish foreign ministry  counseled the Syrian leader to "implement [reforms] without further delay" and subsequently expressed satisfaction with Assad's efforts. To which the only reasonable reply is, "What democratic reforms?" The Turkish position on Syria has not yet placed Ankara at odds with Washington or Brussels. But should the United States or Europe shift on Assad -- a distinct possibility -- then Turkey would find itself supporting a dictator against the will of its two most important allies, as well as the will of the Syrian people.

Among the many myths that the Arab spring has shattered is the legend of Turkish foreign policy in the era of the AKP. If officials in Ankara are to be believed, Turkey's diplomacy has, over the course of the last decade -- and very often over the objections of Washington -- had a decisively positive effect on conflicts and problems from the Balkans and the Caucuses to Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. But Turkey's prideful rhetoric only masked the contradictions and weaknesses at the heart of its foreign policy. Erdogan, Davutoglu, and their advisors have to come to grips with how hard it is to master the Middle East.

There was always a lot less to Ankara's influence in the Arab world than met the eye. Turkish leaders love the anecdotes about Arabs watching Turkish soap operas, the posters of Erdogan in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, and the comparison between the Turkish prime minister and Gamal Abdel Nasser -- but the new Ottomans have found it as difficult to manage the politics of the region as the Sultans before them. At base, the Turks managed a measure of influence during a period of Arab decay.

It was easy to be influential when the Arab world was politically dead and devoid of authentic leadership. Like it or not, Ankara's interests are wrapped up in the old regional order. As a result, at a moment of unprecedented regional change, when people power and democracy is sweeping the Middle East, the Turks look timorous, maladroit, and diminished -- not at all the regional leader to which Ankara has aspired.