Yes, the Gulf monarchs are in trouble

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.

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The Middle East Channel

Radical Islamist cleric Abu Qatada has been released in Britain

The radical Islamist cleric Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman, popularly known as Abu Qatada, has won an appeal in Britain against his deportation to Jordan. Abu Qatada has been detained in Britain for seven years, and is wanted in Jordan on terrorism charges. He received asylum in Britain in 1993 after claiming he had been tortured in Jordon. On Monday, Britain's Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) ruled that he would not receive a fair trail in Jordan. British authorities reported he has been released Tuesday from a high security prison under conditions of an electronic tag, a 16-hour curfew, a ban on internet use, and heavy restrictions on who he can meet. British politicians have united against the ruling and the government has said they are "absolutely determined" to deport Abu Qatada. British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said, "He should not be in this country, he is a dangerous person." British security officials described Abu Qatada as one of al Qaeda's top operatives in Europe, and a Spanish judge referred to him as Osama bin Laden's right hand man in Europe.


As a new negotiated Syrian opposition coalition garners international support, Syrian forces continued an attack on the town of Ras al-Ain on the border with Turkey. The Arab League welcomed the National coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces established on Sunday, and Qatar's prime minister called for "political and material support" of the group. Six Gulf states have recognized the coalition as the country's "legitimate representative." Yet other Arab League members such as Iraq and Lebanon have not supported the Syrian revolt and are not yet willing to delegitimize Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. British and U.S. officials were optimistic about the efforts at unification and Turkey said the international community had "no excuse any more" not to support the opposition. Meanwhile, Syrian forces have bombarded the border town of Ras al-Ain for the second day. According to witness accounts Syrian warplanes destroyed at least 15 buildings and killed at least 20 people on Monday. No casualties have been reported in the adjacent Turkish town of Ceylanpinar, but it has sustained considerable destruction and the attacks are creating panic among residents. Additionally, the bombings have sparked some of the highest refugee movements into Turkey since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu reportedly sent a diplomatic note to Syria protesting the bombing of Ras al-Ain. Fierce clashes broke out in other locations across Syria as well, including in Damascus and Daraa. Additionally, Syrian forces have provoked Israeli army commanders in the disputed Israeli held territory of the Golan Heights.


  • Israel continued targeted strikes into Gaza on Monday as Palestinian militants decreased rocket fire and indicated they are ready for a truce.
  • Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said it will present a bid to the United Nations on November 29 for U.N. non-member observer state status.
  • Turkey's ruling AKP submitted a bill to authorize the Kurdish language in courts, but it is not clear when it will be discussed in parliament.

Arguments and Analysis

Saudis' Proxy War Against Iran (Joseph Braude, Tablet Magazine)

"On the evening of Oct. 23, part of a gas pipeline facility in the western Iranian city of Shush exploded-one of several recent attacks on Iranian infrastructure near the country's borders. In contrast to the clandestine campaign of sabotage against Iran's nuclear facilities, whose perpetrators do not openly claim responsibility-though most suspect it is the work of the United States or Israel-the Shush hit was promptly followed by a press release put out by a group called the "Battalions of the Martyr Mohiuddin Al Nasser." The group is comprised of Ahwazi Arabs, one of several non-Persian ethnic groups inside Iran who together number at least 40 percent of the Iranian population. Some of these minority communities, which live mostly in the outlying provinces of the country, are restive and have been for years: The regime in Tehran represses their languages and cultures, chokes the local economy, and limits their movement. Increasingly, these groups have been organizing themselves politically and militarily-and some in Washington and Israel could not be more thrilled with the development."

Unified Syrian opposition only path to peace (The National)

"The survival of the coalition will hinge on its ability to achieve where the SNC failed. Securing financial and military support for fighters on the ground will help the coalition gain legitimacy. Yet such support will only come if the new body can convince outside powers it can be a viable alternative to the Assad regime. The SNC acted as a council of leaders without a mandate from the people they claimed to represent. The SNC members were also based outside Syria, complicating unity efforts.

The new coalition's leaders say several countries had pledged financial and military support if the opposition unified. This will take time. What cannot wait, however, is a better coordinated relief effort between those Syrians inside and outside the country. A failure to use its financial resources to aid Syrians displaced was one of the SNC's principle failings. Building on past mistakes without alienating others is the only way to push the Assads aside."

Mali's Looming War: Will Military Intervention Drive Out the Islamists? (Alan Boswell, Time Magazine)

"Even as Mali split apart this spring in the single largest advance for Islamist extremism in years, only briefly did the world's latest front line in the war on terrorism show signs of its newfound significance. Refugees poured into the sleepy river town of Mopti, where Mali's oversize north butts against the country's more populous south. Residents fled, hotels went dark, banks pulled out their cash reserves, and training camps spawned on the edge of town. But then, nothing happened. The Islamist rebels halted just to the north, and the waiting began. As far as locals are concerned, the world never noticed. "We are ready to go fight for our land," says Abdoulaye Diallo, a leader in Ganda Iso, or Sons of the Land, a Mopti-based community militia that claims to have over a thousand men ready to fight, albeit with no guns. "But we need help.""

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey