Detailed, substantiated criticism of governments has become commonplace, with exposés of ruling family corruption and public insults directed at hitherto unchallengeable elites being digested by millions each day. Such disparagement of rulers was almost unimaginable prior to 2011, but now it is almost fashionable for young Gulf nationals to question their autocrats.
In Bahrain -- still the vanguard of the region's revolt -- the past few months have witnessed only further tragedy and despair. Despite fresh promises of dialogue and some minor political concessions, including promotions for supposed moderates, the ruling family and its allies in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have firmly held the line. The island nation's elites have refused any significant reforms and kept hundreds of activists behind bars, thus distancing themselves more than ever from the majority of the population.
Bahrain's extensive public relations campaign to depict the long-running uprising as primarily a sectarian conflict, or part of an Iran-Arab struggle, has continued unabated -- albeit with declining plausibility. With a resurgence in mass protests in February 2013, resulting in further deaths and clashes, it seems increasingly unlikely that the Bahraini monarchy can regain its legitimacy. As such, the ruling Al-Khalifa family will effectively become the first of the Gulf dynasties to have been publicly rejected by the majority of its subjects.
Across the causeway in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, the protests have also continued to gather pace. While modest in size for much of 2012, not least due to announcements from senior clerics and government officials that protests are "un-Islamic" and illegal, they had become much larger by the end of the year. Following the death of a young man at the hands of security services in December 2012 -- thought to be the 12th such killing of the year -- an estimated tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets, many chanting slogans opposing the ruling family.
The nascent protests in predominantly Sunni provinces of the kingdom are in some ways even more problematic for the House of Saud. These demonstrations are much harder to frame as a sectarian clash, and have mainly been campaigns for the release of political prisoners. In the northern Al-Qassim Province, for instance, large numbers of women and children have taken to the streets. In some cases, demonstrators have burned pictures of key ruling family members and resisted arrest.
Several other "trigger incidents" have taken place in Saudi Arabia, underlining how brittle the state is becoming despite its enormous public spending spree. These include the jailing of leading human rights activists, public outrage over the apparent unaccountability of various ministers, the disappearance of activists from other Arab monarchies in Saudi territory, and the arrest of numerous social media users. Last year also witnessed the highest rate of executions in the kingdom yet -- many of which were widely debated and criticized, as they included beheadings and crucifixions for crimes such as blasphemy and "sorcery."
In Kuwait, authorities have grown alarmed at the seemingly uncontrollable discussion of their government's shortcomings, and have been arresting online activists with alacrity over the past few months. The crackdown has continued offline too, with key critics -- including leading former parliamentarians and members of powerful tribes -- having been imprisoned after what have been described as "show trials." As with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia's elites, the ruling Al-Sabah family's increasingly repressive tactics seem to be losing them support from significant constituencies: Parliamentary elections in December 2012 were largely boycotted, thus denting the Kuwaiti elite's ability to keep employing ‘liberal autocracy' strategies.
Perhaps most worryingly for the monarchy, the previously fragmented opposition groups -- ranging from youth movements, to Islamists, to disaffected tribes -- seem to be slowly coalescing. A broad-based opposition coalition was formed in March 2013, and it is pushing for a multi-party system with a "democratic rotation of power." The coalition seems poised to become the first properly organized Gulf group to press successfully for significant political reform, with constitutional monarchy as its minimum demand.