GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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The Arab Spring, Contagion, and Sectarian Identity: The Cases of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait
Paper Proposal Text :

The contagion effect of the Arab Spring in the Gulf was, initially, non-sectarian in nature. That said, the Arab Spring protests in the Gulf—particularly in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia—quickly acquired a sectarian gloss. This paper will explore why and how this happened, drawing from extensive interviews in the region with prominent Shi’a and Sunni actors. It will argue that the emergence of a sectarian narrative in the Gulf was the result of regimes pursuing the time-worn tactic of portraying the protests as a bid for Shi’a supremacy, organized by Iran. For their part, radical voices in the opposition found it useful to play up Shi’a identity and, at times, threaten to solicit Iran’s support. A key finding of the paper, therefore, is that sectarianism in the Gulf is ultimately grounded more in the local context—the flawed political institutions of each state, their use of media, and alarmism by prominent Sunni actors, such as the clerical establishment in Saudi Arabia—rather than in the strategies pursued by the Shi’a themselves or the contagion effect of regional events.

The Bahraini case is especially instructive for understanding these dynamics. As the revolt unfolded, the regime skillfully played up sectarian tensions and the bogeyman of Iran. Despite their best efforts at trying to convey solidarity with Tahrir Square, Benghazi and Tunis, the protestors were increasingly tarred as proxies of Iran and the Lebanese Hizballah. The tipping point, however, was the March 17 Saudi-led intervention in Bahrain, which undermined the mainstream Shi’a opposition, polarized Bahraini society along sectarian lines, and effectively “regionalized” the popular protests—all of which played into the hands of hardliners within the Bahraini royal court.

Similarly, in Saudi Arabia a stalled National Dialogue produced rising cynicism and encouraged the rise of a new, more radical leadership in the Shi’a movement. Yet the planned “Day of Rage” did not materialize as planned. Scattered, isolated demonstrations in Qatif were quickly and quietly dispersed. In part because of a concerted regime strategy to “sectarianize” the Day of Rage, Sunni protestors in the Najd and Hijaz—and the uncommitted who were still testing the political winds—never showed up.

Kuwait, alone among the three cases, did not experience significant unrest. While its Shi’a were certainly subject to increased accusations of disloyalty to the state and fealty to Iran, their participation in the parliament ensured that they did not adopt the tactics of civil disobedience seen in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. That said, by late 2010 Kuwait’s parliament had become increasing rife with tension and its much-heralded civic and media freedoms greatly curtailed. When the Arab Spring broke, these fissures widened as Kuwaiti citizens took increasingly partisan positions toward the unfolding crisis in Bahrain. A key source of sectarian friction—one which nearly paralyzed the Kuwaiti parliament—was the deployment of the GCC’s Peninsula Shield Force into Bahrain and the question of Kuwaiti support to the operation.