At first glance the Gulf monarchies look stable, at least compared to the broader region. In reality, however, the political and economic structures that underpin these highly autocratic states are coming under increasing pressure, and broad swathes of citizens are making hitherto unimaginable challenges to the ruling elites.
These six monarchies -- Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman -- have faced down a number of different opposition movements over the years. However, for the most part, these movements have not been broad-based and have tended to represent only narrow sections of the indigenous populations. Moreover, given their various internal and external survival strategies -- including distributive economic systems and overseas soft power accumulation -- the incumbent regimes have generally been in strong, confident positions, and have usually been able to placate or sideline any opposition before it could gain too much traction. In most cases the Gulf monarchies have also been very effective at demonizing opponents, either branding them as foreign-backed fifth columns, as religious fundamentalists, or even as terrorists. In turn this has allowed rulers and their governments to portray themselves to the majority of citizens and most international observers as safe, reliable upholders of the status quo, and thus far preferable to any dangerous and unpredictable alternatives. Significantly, when modernizing forces have begun to impact their populations -- often improving communications between citizens or their access to education -- the Gulf monarchies have been effective at co-option, often bringing such forces under the umbrella of the state or members of ruling families, and thus managing to apply a mosaic model of traditional loyalties alongside modernization even in the first few years of the 21st century.
More recently, however, powerful opposition movements have emerged that have proved less easy to contain.
As a combined result of mounting internal pressures faced by the Gulf monarchies (including declining resources, rising unemployment, and embattled subsidies) and the emergence of new modernizing forces which have proved harder for their governments to co-opt (including social media, satellite television, and smart phones), an increasing number of Gulf nationals have become emboldened enough to protest against and openly criticize their rulers. Since 2011, clearly spurred on by developments elsewhere in the region, these opponents have been able to present the most serious challenges yet to the various ruling families. In something of a perfect storm for the incumbent regimes, the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria have not only given hope for those Gulf nationals and Gulf-based movements committed to serious political reform and unseating the current autocracies, but they have also made it harder for the Gulf monarchies to depict their new enemies as anything other than pro-democracy activists or disillusioned citizens who have recognized the inevitable collapse of the political and economic structures underpinning their rulers. That's not to say that the regimes do not still apply old strategies, it's just that the resulting claims are now a little less believable: Iran-backed Shiites in Bahrain, Egypt-backed Muslim Brotherhood in Kuwait, a British coup underway in the UAE with local allies, etc.
Furthermore, the Arab Spring revolutions -- or at least the first few waves of protest in Tunisia and Egypt -- have also helped expose the Gulf monarchies' strong preference for supporting other authoritarian states in the region and their fear of having democratic, representative governments take shape in neighboring states. Certainly the initial responses of most of the Gulf monarchies were markedly anti-Arab Spring. This has had a massive delegitimizing effect on the ruling families and governments involved, as in the eyes of many citizens they have positioned themselves as a distinct and anachronistic counter-revolutionary bloc.
Unsurprisingly the new, post-2011 opposition in the Gulf monarchies has manifested in different ways depending on the individual circumstances and pressures in each state. This has ranged from full-blown street riots complete with killings and martyrs in the poorer Gulf monarchies to more subtle intellectual and even Internet-led "cyber opposition" in the wealthier Gulf monarchies. But in all cases the regimes have had to respond with more repression than ever before, thus further delegitimizing the ruling families. In some instances the monarchies have instituted brutal police crackdowns or have deployed foreign mercenaries while in others they have taken political prisoners, manipulated judicial systems, and further stymied civil society. They have invoked the Koran to justify bans on protests and underpin instructions to citizens to obey their masters. Thus far only Qatar has really managed to avoid such heavy-handedness, mostly due to its more favorable circumstances and its rather different stance on the Arab Spring. Nevertheless even its ruling family is not without critics, and there are already indications of significant internal discord.
As the situation continues to escalate, the Gulf monarchies seem firmly set to push ahead with repression and censorship. They have put in place sophisticated police states and censorship systems; brought in foreign soldiers -- in Abu Dhabi's case from as far afield as Columbia and South Africa; and closed down almost all genuine civil society organizations. Banking on international silence or indifference from superpower protectors in the face of human rights abuses in return for guaranteeing regional stability, the rulers are preparing to tackle the Arab Spring head-on, with probably no stones left unturned.
All three of the core assumptions about monarchical stability in the region are thus now firmly and permanently exposed as being untrue: that there are enough resources for governments to keep distributing wealth to their citizens in exchange for political acquiescence; that the bulk of Gulf citizens are apolitical or view the tribal system as the only authentic system of governance; and that the rulers themselves are pious, peaceful, and generally well meaning. The reality, of course, is that there are now large numbers of involuntarily unemployed Gulf nationals, large pockets of poverty, and declining resources in economies that have largely failed to diversify away from hydrocarbon exports. Moreover, there is now clearly a modern, well-connected, and increasingly well-educated population of younger citizens who are no longer willing to live by the old rules, are openly expressing their contempt with the status quo, and -- in many cases -- express solidarity with Arab Spring movements elsewhere in the region. Finally, and most importantly, the vicious crackdowns and arbitrary detentions that have been taking place as regimes have sought to silence these voices are tragic, but are nonetheless helping to dispel the illusion that these unelected, unaccountable rulers have anything in common with the tribal, benevolent rulers of the pre-oil era.
Christopher M. Davidson is a reader in Middle East politics in the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University and author of After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies. This piece is a contribution to a three part MEC symposium on the resilience of Arab monarchy.